It’s no longer an idle boast to say that the 21st century will belong to China and Asia and companies in the West are eager to embrace that truth.
UK-based construction software market leader COINS, this year’s winner of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade, is building on its Asian business and will shortly announce the acquisition of a software business with staff in Hong Kong as a step on its expansion into the continent.
For the last 10 years the company has had a small number of staff based in offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, where some of its customers such as Bachy Soletanche, Kier Construction, and Laing O’Rourke have been using COINS since the late 1990s.
Sembcorp, a leading utilities and marine group in Asia, went live with COINS in two stages from 2006 to 2008.
It’s MD at the time said: “The prime reason for selecting COINS as our solution was due to the fact that they are totally focused on the construction industry and that it is a proven product, having been implemented in numerous construction and property development companies worldwide over many years.
“As a result, the COINS team has an excellent understanding of the construction industry which we found to be extremely useful and helpful in enhancing some of our business processes.”
COINS is a leading globally recognised construction software market leader that provides commercial and engineering contractors with a single, fully integrated platform that manages the entire lifecycle of a project or multiple projects.
It is built around a Central Repository designed to share the data required to support core processes, as well as other important business processes such as asset, procurement, commercial, project, human resource and plant management.
COINS software is designed from first principles over 30 years ago and its global team has accumulated over 5,000 man-years of incremental knowledge to date.
The company was founded by Larry Sullivan, COINS Chairman, and Nigel Cope, CEO Emerging Markets, who were colleagues at Burroughs (now Unisys) in the mid-80s.
At that time, the rise of Unix and “Open Systems” were starting to make the mid-range systems uncompetitive, and the customers and small-medium sized businesses that Burroughs had been focusing on were looking for better value and a more personal service. To meet this need, Sullivan and Cope set up their own company, Computer Systems for Business Limited, (CSB) in 1987.
Within two years of setting up, several of their customers started to ask for help in replacing their legacy systems. The company had already developed a number of custom solutions for specific clients, but were also supporting several construction companies. “Larry suggested it would be better to find a good product and re-sell it, rather than develop something ourselves,” says Cope.
This idea took them to Albany in New York, to meet Dick Werner and Al Diedrich at a company called Shaker Computer & Management Services. “They had developed a product called COINS, using a Fourth Generation Language and Relational Database that we rated highly,” Cope explains.
CSB bought the source code and acquired the rights to sell COINS anywhere outside North America and started the process of anglicising and putting it into practice.
“We implemented that version of COINS at about 20 contractors and house builders around the UK – one of which, Martin Grant Homes, is still a customer today – before the recession of the early 1990s started to take its toll on the industry, and several of those early customers went bust,” says Cope.
In 1992, CSB decided to completely re-write the system to appeal more to larger companies that in theory would be better equipped to survive another recession. An early recruit, graduate Tim Armitage, who is now COINS Technical Director and sits on the company’s Governance Board, led the re-development. The company currently has a team of 75 developers based in various locations in Australia, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, UK and US.
Technology: Evolution not Revolution
The product continued to evolve as technology evolved, going from a black and white or green-screen dumb terminal application, to a mouse-driven Windows “look-and-feel”, to the current COINS Open Architecture, web-browser based application that will run on almost any device, anywhere in the world, provided there is an internet connection.
COINS has evolved into a multi-company, multi-currency, multi-lingual, and IFRS compliant finance system.
Over the next 10 years, COINS became the most widely used business system in the construction industry in the UK and Ireland. Major names including Amec, NG Bailey, Balfour Beatty, Barratt Developments, Bovis Lend Lease, Kier Group, Lagan Group, Laing O’Rourke, Lorne Stewart, Morgan Sindall, Persimmon, Sisk Group, Taylor Wimpey and Vinci Construction all used the system.
In 2003, CSB changed its name to Construction Industry Solutions Limited (abbreviated to “COINS”) to underline the company’s exclusive focus on the construction sector.
Expanding outside the UK and Ireland followed. “Our first major customer in Australia was Barclay Mowlem Construction, who found us via our first UK website in 1995,” says Cope.
“As part of our commitment to that first customer we established a branch office in Brisbane in 1997, and since then have picked up a number of other major players in the market – companies like Downer EDI, Watpac and more recently, Civmec and Fredon.”
In 2006, Laing O’Rourke, one of COINS biggest global customers and using COINS in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the Middle East, Ireland and the UK, acquired Barclay Mowlem.
COINS established its first office in the US in Dallas in 2004. “This was part of an early initiative to develop CAD applications in anticipation that, one day, there would be a convergence of CAD and enterprise business systems like COINS,” Cope explains.
“In partnership with Autodesk, we have developed a number of what are now termed ‘Building Information Modelling’ (BIM) solutions. The office in Dallas has become a centre of excellence of all things BIM for COINS, and we can now link data help within BIM models to data held within COINS.
“For example, we can use a BIM model for data visualisation, highlighting for example purchasing data from within our Procurement system or issues data and snags from within our Project Management module, so that viewers can understand what and where.”
In 2007 COINS had the opportunity to buy Shaker Computer & Management Services – the company that it originally purchased the COINS source-code from in 1988 – acquiring 55 US-based staff and around 250 US-based customers for $8m.
Since then, headcount in the US has grown by 50% and COINS recently established a global software-testing unit there.
Between 2011 and 2013 COINS direct overseas turnover increased by 65 per cent and group net profit grew by 144 per cent.
There are few, if any, COINS imitators. “Most of our competitors’ products were originally designed as accounting systems, or maybe accounting and costing systems,” Cope explains.
“From that starting position, our competitors have tried to graft on some of the functionality required by construction companies, like plant or equipment management, or procurement. Other products started their lives as manufacturing systems (MRP or MRP II).
“None of them, as far as we know, were designed from the bootstraps up as an enterprise-wide system to support the core processes of a construction company.”
And COINS is showing no signs of easing up with its sights set firmly on expansion into Asia. “Why invest in Asia?” Cope says. “The answer is simple – that’s where the opportunity is.
“Asia is the world’s largest and most populated continent, it is home to 4 billion people (60% of the world) and is growing at a healthy 7% a year. It comprises 48 countries that have collectively changed the course of the world, and will continue so to do.
“It’s where the sun rises first each day and it’s the region on which the world’s future relies.”
Written by Martine Beale