Certified for success: Building a better system integration business

Jose Rivera, CEO of CSIA, interviewed Dave Patterson, CEO of Grantek, a certified SI member of CSIA, about the company's challenges and successes as an integrator and how they've become a better business.

By Jose M. Rivera December 12, 2019

Over its 25 years, the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) has helped system integrators (SIs) build better businesses one company at a time. During a session at the 2019 Ignition Community Conference, hosted by Inductive Automation in Folsom, Calif., Jose Rivera, CEO of CSIA, interviewed Dave Patterson, CEO of Grantek, a certified SI member of CSIA.

Grantek is a consulting company that delivers business solutions to the manufacturing community through its large systems integration department. The company is focused primarily on food and beverage, life sciences and consumer packaged goods. Grantek has multiple offices in the U.S. and Canada, as well as one in India.

The following is based on their conversation.

Jose Rivera: When and where did you learn about CSIA, and what was your first reaction?

Dave Patterson: We first heard about CSIA online or by some of our partner integrators at various other conferences. We joined back in 2008, but after almost 12 years, my memory is a little foggy. Grantek’s initial reaction to the whole CSIA offering was one of reservation. We were slightly pessimistic about the idea that companies like Grantek would want to help, teach and share with us their “secret sauce,” if you will, and in many cases, these were our direct competitors. So, we did not attend the early conferences; we simply snooped the online material seeing if we did miss anything.

And lo and behold we were missing a lot. We then endeavored to take the first step and attended our first conference. The sessions were meaningful, directly related to our business and we were interacting with likeminded folks who were working through the same business challenges we were. For us, it was a complete reversal in our thinking. The benefits we derived from these sessions and the business interactions had meaningful direct impact to our company’s sustainable growth.

Rivera: After attending your first conference, what did you do next?

Patterson: To start with, I felt like I was back in school again; my hand hurt from writing as I had created pages and pages of notes. From this initial conference, we had a new network of folks to reach out to. We had relevant material to reference, and we had erased our previous reservations completely. With a new mindshare of giving and receiving with every interaction with CSIA-affiliated companies, we wanted to learn more, become a stronger company and advance our entire team’s skills.

I think we had really focused our attention on the traditional automation solutions side of our business, while the benefits we were gathering were mostly the nontechnical facets of our business, whether it was the economy update, HR strategies and the like. All these new ideas and areas for growth really helped Grantek move forward as a company.

Rivera: What else did you do?

Patterson: The next step for us was taking a deeper dive into the reference material, preventive maintenance (PM) guidelines, marketing collateral and the certification criteria. This material alone was tremendous, as a business owner, the certification criteria was an amazing baseline to check how each department (IT, finance, sales, marketing and engineering) fared against the certification criteria.

I personally found the exercise of going through the certification information in detail with each business unit was a great pulse check on our team, our processes and control of our overall business. You really think you have things well covered, but until we challenge ourselves to show the artifacts and processes, you never really know. It kind of resembles your family coming to visit for a holiday, and you take a look at the spare bedroom you have, and thought was fine, and then remember it has not been touched for a few years and really needs a polish and update.

Rivera: I get the comment from SIs that the CSIA Best Practices (BP) are very comprehensive. Some members seem to get overwhelmed by them. Do you remember how you decided to implement? How long did it take you? Did you seek external help? (Editor’s note: The CSIA Best Practices and Benchmarks manual serves as the handbook for the CSIA certification process, which requires an audit, though it is used as a standalone document as well.)

Patterson: The notion of certification is, in fact, daunting. Any time you are going to be audited, challenged on how you run your business and asked to provide artifacts can be nerve racking. Grantek regularly gets audited by the large pharma companies, and even though we have numerous systems and processes in place, you still are on pins and needles. It’s just natural to feel nervous about someone going through your stuff and challenging you. The majority of the CSIA community are scientists, engineers, and so on, and this group does not like to be without all the facts, information and data, so this can be a little scary.

In terms of how we decided to implement and the time it took: Prior to one of our quarterly business reviews with our leadership group, we internally scored ourselves on the various certification areas. We made an excel spreadsheet and had each business unit score themselves on each question, and, if required, post a gap analysis and remediation plan for each underperforming area. Based on this self-evaluation, we all agreed that this would be one of our corporate goals to prepare and go through the certification pre-audit. (A pre-audit is when an auditor comes to your office and evaluates your material, processes and people in all disciplines of the business.) We talked about our approach, how other companies have handled a certain item, we identified where we were strong and where we had gaps. We highlighted and received some coaching by the auditor on some ways to use the BP or other reference material to shore up our weaker areas. We now also had a group of other CSIA folks that we have met at different events and felt comfortable reaching out to them to see how they managed a certain aspect of the business.

From the pre-qualification, it turned out we had already had a high enough score for certification, so we did not have to conduct a follow-up certification meeting that first year. From an external help perspective, Grantek has received a lot of coaching from external professionals over the years, and I know that this had helped us in setting up our business processes successfully prior to our audit. 

Rivera: At CSIA, we view the BPs as our core and the certification as the natural next step for those SI companies that have implemented them. The certification is valid for three years, and SIs need to recertify. How many times has Grantek obtained its certification?

Patterson: We have completed three certifications, and each time, we have advanced our systems and tools. It also is a great time to recheck our growth and compliance. The nice part about the certification program is that it is tailored to the size of your company. Grantek is fortunate that with our size of company, we have many individuals who have specific job tasks like leading HR, finance, quality and so on.

For smaller Sis, the criteria for success is scaled down appropriately. As an emerging company, the number of things that need to be attended to outside the core delivery of automation projects are vast, and typically, emerging companies do not have dedicated staff yet to handle all facets of their business. Thus, many tasks are in the hands of few people, and many of these same folks are the core sales team and even may be part of the delivery team. It is hard to carve out time to make sure your recruiting process is complete, or your internal cybersecurity program is effective. The certification program, at least, provides you with a foundation of what a first-class organization should be thinking about and putting in place.

Rivera: Occasionally, I hear SIs deciding to wait until they are “forced” to get the certification either by an end user client, prospect or by a vendor. It seems that you decided to pursue the certification without having this external pressure. Can you elaborate?

Patterson: After I read through the detailed requirements and BP guidelines, I knew it was going to be the right thing for our business. Typically, SI companies are very technical in nature, and we focus most of our attention on our customers and the solutions they require. But you quickly learn as you start to grow, that cracks can start to form in your organization if you do not tend to the nontechnical aspects of your business. It was never about being forced to do anything. It was about creating a solid company, and the BP and certification program really help you mitigate future holes in our organization that needed attention. The best part of the BP is that we did not have to reinvent the wheel, others had already laid out the groundwork, we just needed to execute. Unless you have run another business or been part of a larger organization and have been exposed to all facets of a business, there is a lot of stuff to be tended to and having a roadmap really helps. The certification program has been one of the biggest influencers in our growth and stability.

Rivera: What other benefits have you received from your CSIA membership?

Patterson: Our engagement with the CSIA Legal Program has, in my opinion, provided our business with stronger contractual positions with our clients and the confidence to understand that we are negotiating using the de-facto legal program for our industry. We have engaged them on a yearly basis to review all our contracts, and it has been a really great experience.

Through the CSIA we also used the Insurance Program and have continued with this organization for several years. The benefit being they truly understand our industry and any specific nuisances.

At the last conference, we got connected with a company that help SIs claim R&D tax credits, and we have recently moved our business over to this organization as well. We are really happy with this engagement. 

Rivera: If you had to name the single biggest benefit from your relationship with CSIA, what would it be?

Patterson: Probably the biggest single benefit from the CSIA relationship has been our peer group engagement.

We have been part of a CEO peer group with nine other companies for several years. These quarterly meetings are held at one of the peer groups’ offices, and we spend two days together with a facilitator talking about business strategies, our industries’ landscapes and business challenges in general. In addition, we have shared and learned innovative approaches to business problems and learned from the collective wisdom of nine other companies as we have continued to grow and build our business.

Outside of these cadence meetings, this group of CEOs corresponds regularly to tackle day-to-day opportunities and share best practices with each other.

Rivera: What about leveraging this approach for other groups within your companies?

Patterson: From this CEO peer group initiation, we have formed a variety of sub-peer groups that include our finance, IT, marketing, quality, HR and operations departments. These groups meet independent of each other on a regular basis and tackle department-focused business challenges and share experiences and best practices.

These regular interactions have created a very strong trust among the partner companies, and we often share resources with each other in times of short-term needs or speciality roles.

Rivera: I see a rapidly changing environment for SIs with great opportunities as well as serious threats for those who don’t adjust. The theme for the 2019 CSIA Executive Conference is “Claiming the Role of the SI in the Digital Transformation” and a dedicated task force is meeting on a monthly basis to address this topic. What else could CSIA do to allow SIs to materialize this developing opportunity?

Patterson: First and foremost, I think it is great that you are focusing the next executive conference around digital transformation. When I look at what the CSIA provides and your mission of advancing the industry of control system integration, I think the biggest thing you can do is create dialogue and awareness of what is going on in our industry.

I think everyone can feel that this is the most disruptive time in the last 30 years of our industry. The number of new emerging companies focusing their efforts in manufacturing and digital transformation is overwhelming. These are not small companies; these are billion-dollar organizations that have new technology, new ways of conducting business. They have C-level relationships with our clients and are tightly integrated with the Big 5 consulting houses. We need to be aware that our industry vertical has the attention of very large organizations, and the new management coming up in our clients do not have the same alliances to the traditional automation solutions that we have grown up with.

So back to your question around what else should the CSIA do to support the SI community?

Continue to provide awareness and concrete examples of what is changing in our clients that may affect our businesses and our current business models. Look at the other business areas that these companies have already spent time updating, understand how they work, how they partner or who they partner with and see how we need to morph to stay relevant in our traditional space.

Maybe offer up ideas around different business models, cloud offerings, subscription-based offerings and the like. We certainly do not want to have a Kodak moment in our industry, where we never see digital cameras taking off, and the advent of online companies that we can send our files to and have our photos printed. Or simply print our photos at home. We must understand these threats, and how we need to adapt to ensure we provide exceptional value to our customers. 

Jose M. Rivera has been CEO of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) since March 2015. He works to help independent system integrators build better companies through the adoption of the association’s best practices guidelines. His global career in the automation industry, including Emerson Electric, Schneider Electric and Siemens, has spanned six countries, most often with regional or global leadership roles. CSIA is a global, nonprofit professional association with a mission to advance the practice of control system integration to benefit members and their clients. CSIA has more than 400 system integration company members and 100 vendor partners in 27 countries. CSIA is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Jose M. Rivera has been CEO of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) since March 2015. He works to help independent system integrators build better companies through the adoption of the association’s best practices guidelines. His global career in the automation industry, including Emerson Electric, Schneider Electric and Siemens, has spanned six countries, most often with regional or global leadership roles. Jose has an MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and MS and BS degrees in Electrical Engineering from the University of Costa Rica.