ABM Industries: Cleaning Up

In technology for corporations, there is IBM. In window washing, there is ABM.

In an office building, the company established 90 years ago as American Building Maintenance can function almost like an operating system. Need janitors? Got ’em. Engineers? Got ’em. A parking garage operator? Coming up. Someone to manage your heating and air conditioning? On the way. Lighting? Security? Facilities management? Check. Check. Check.

But getting a landlord to buy all those services from a single sales rep remains a tall order for ABM Industries, the San Francisco company that brings in $2.4 billion a year and aspires to be the “blue chip company of a non-blue-chip world,” in the words of its Danish-born chief executive, Henrik Slipsager.

But 16 years after creating its Facilities Services division to sell multiple services in single contracts, the company’s still trying to figure out how best to support a sales force seeking to sign up one-stop shoppers for everything from trash pickup to mechanical engineering.

“It’s easier for an engineer to sell janitorial services than for a janitor to sell engineering services,” says Slipsager from his company’s offices in midtown Manhattan, near Grand Central Terminal.

Making it easier for anyone in the company to cross-sell ABM’s palette of services was supposed to be a benefit of radically simplifying the company’s information infrastructure, a task begun six years ago under current chief technology officer Anthony Lackey and project leads Sean Finley and Bill Huff.

In November 1998, the company operated 35 different sets of billing, payroll and general ledger applications, including eight systems in janitorial services, which constituted half its business; 16 in its elevator business, since sold off; five in its parking business; and one each in lighting, mechanical services, security, engineering, facility services and corporate headquarters.

Lackey’s goal was obvious: Streamline to one set of applications every ABM business would use. Make it easy to share data. At the least, the company would be able to consolidate financial results easily. At best, it would be able to improve those results with a unified set of reporting systems, making it easier to cross-sell services. Any business would be able to sell any other business’ services to its customers.

But the one-system goal presented challenges. ABM used four different systems to keep track of its operations. Its four enterprise resource planning systems included an in-house application developed in the out-of-favor Cobol programming language; a system based on the Santa Cruz Operation version of Unix, employed by its elevator business; a system based on Infinium products from a company once known as Software 2000, used in the lighting business; and the OneWorld software of J.D. Edwards, later absorbed by PeopleSoft.

All this “spaghetti” had reached the end of its useful life, Lackey believed. The master file for the company’s payroll, for instance, was stretched to its limit. Each record could store only 512 letters or numbers about an employee. That meant workarounds, if the record involved much beyond the person’s name, pay rate, Social Security number, gender and other basic information.