September 2017

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EMAIL INTERVIEW –  Scott CochraneScott Cochrane and Joe Napieralski

Scott Cochrane is President and CEO of Cochrane Supply & Engineering, a leading industrial IoT and building controls supplier with locations throughout Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky, as well as one in Canada. In 2000, Scott took over the business from his father, Donald Cochrane, Sr., who founded the company 50 years ago. He is proud to be an advisory council member for multiple industry manufacturers such as Honeywell, Johnson Controls, and Tridium, and to be named a 2016 IBcon Digital Impact Award Winner for his innovative contributions to the industry.

Joe Napieralski Joe Napieralski is the Co-Founder and Director of Development of Smart Building Services LLC, a turnkey provider of technology systems and services focused on constructing, operating and maintaining buildings in the most effective and cost efficient manner.  Joe and his business partner founded Smart Building Services (SBS) in 2013 after a combined 35 years in the industry with a major automation company.  Recognizing the need for truly independent owner representation in the building technology world and the opportunity to improve how that technology was designed, delivered, integrated and serviced has led to explosive growth.  SBS designs, delivers, and services open and integrated systems across the entire building technology spectrum including building automation, HVAC controls, security access control and video, lighting controls, audio-visual systems, voice/data networks and cloud-based building analytics. The SBS team prides itself on the ability to help clients simplify and utilize open and integrated technology to improve their building operations.

Master Systems Integrators (MSI)

They make sure all systems communicate properly, coordinate all project participants, collaborate with building owners to ensure systems information will be accessible and usable, and they develop software layers responsible for integration, aggregation, and communication of the building systems.

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Scott Cochrane of Cochrane Supply & Engineering has the unique benefit of working with 300+ of the best systems integrators in the country. Cochrane recognizes the critical role they have within the building automation industry and is speaking with a different highly-regarded MSI each month with the goal of providing examples of industry trends, best business practices, and the growing value of an MSI. This month, he interviews Joe Napieralski of Smart Building Services LLC.

August Interview with Scott Cochrane
July Interview with Scott Cochrane

Cochrane:  How did you become a MSI?

Napieralski:  Despite having an automation contracting background, Smart Building Services started as more of a technology consulting company.  Our focus was on understanding our clients’ operations and building challenges and helping them utilize all the available technology to simplify their operations.  As several of our consulting projects entered the implementation phase, we encountered significant resistance from traditional systems contractors on implementing what we had designed.  Not because it couldn’t be done, but because many of them looked at it as additional risk and more labor intensive than a typical project.    We disagreed and took that resistance, coupled with several clients who valued the relationship with our team, and dove into the MSI role.  We now almost exclusively work in a design-build MSI services model where our focus on understanding our customers’ operational challenges is critical and where our final product truly makes an impact and delivers on the design promises.  It is a highly-satisfying role that keeps us working with customers who value our services as a partner and not just a transactional relationship.

Cochrane:  What are the characteristics of a good MSI?

Napieralski:  It all starts with having the right people on our team.  First and foremost, having people who are customer-focused and truly care about helping solve clients’ problems.  They understand that we exist to serve our customers and help them be successful and they carry that attitude in all our customer engagements.  It sounds simple but it is something that really has to be ingrained in the company culture and reinforced with new team members as our organization grows.  Secondly, there is no substitute for experience.  Our core team of senior leaders are all 10 - 30 years in the industry with extensive mechanical, electrical, controls, IT, security, construction and buildings service experience.  You can’t be an expert in any one of those areas overnight let alone have enough experience in all of them to be able to proficiently solve customer issues.  So we focus on hiring seasoned experts who understand all these areas and can fully troubleshoot MEP systems issues, IT networking issues, door hardware issues, etc.  That experience solves customer problems whether they are technology related or not.  It also gives us the credibility and respect to serve as a qualified MSI.  When other technology providers know that we understand their technology and can work with them on making a successful integration, they become more willing to participate in the process.  Many of the contractors we are working with are not accustomed to our industry (BACnet, etc.) and it requires us to take a lead role to insure our customers get the results they are looking for.

I would also add that in our rapidly changing technology world, a good MSI needs to be willing to say push the envelope and say “yes” even when it is uncomfortable.  I have clients every week who ask me, “Can you integrate to xyz?”  I have learned that confidently letting them know we will look into it, find a solution, and weigh the cost benefits as a partner has led to great results for our clients and the growth of our team’s knowledge.  We always assume there is a way and manage expectations responsibly.  Internally, as the business development person, I sometimes get the “what did you sell? - look”, but our operations team has yet to let me down and they just keep getting better with each challenge.

Lastly, I would emphasize the need for a good MSI to have a culture of continuous learning and the ability to put that knowledge to effective use for clients.  While our senior leaders may have 10-30 years of experience each, a big part of their role is also to work with and develop our younger technical staff.  This mentorship is invaluable in the ramp-up time of our newer staff members but it also fuels the new learning for our senior team members as they get exposed to new technology, particularly in the web development and IT sectors.  Having a team that openly shares a broad range of knowledge and experience throughout the organization and leverages it to solve issues for all our customers is powerful.

Cochrane:  How do you sell Master Systems Integration services?

Napieralski:  We strongly believe that MSI Services are best sold as a professional service.  Customers are really buying the “gray” matter of our people and company’s experience.  So we focus on identifying customers who value our services as a partner and not just a transactional relationship.

Cochrane:  How do your customers procure MSI services? What’s the structure of the contracts you’re in?

Napieralski:  Our contract structures vary widely, primarily because our clients have many different contracting preferences.  Sometimes that means purely selling professional service hours and other times those services are part of project budget that includes installation labor and materials.  In either case, we prefer to work with clients who are comfortable working in a contractual relationship that is collaborative and “open-book” where we make a fair and consistent profit for superior service.

Structuring contracts in a design-build manner has worked well for several of our clients.  Many of our clients are small-medium sized, private entities who value partnerships but also need firm budgets (ie, not open-ended T&M or staffing contracts).  Design-build allows us to utilize our professional services to qualify the appropriate scope of work for our clients and develop preliminary designs that can be accurately costed.  The time spent in this design period is also invaluable in helping our team truly learn our customer’s organization and what it will take to deliver a successful project.

Cochrane:  As an MSI, what percent of your time is spent in the following categories? R&D, Consultations, Field Commissioning, and Software Programming.


This is primarily spent searching for and researching new applications and technologies as we identify customer challenges that need to be addressed.
Understanding our customer’s operation, work flow, and existing challenges is the most critical part of our job.  Taking the time to understand these conditions and jointly developing plans and strategies on how technology systems will address these issues is a key in the success of our projects.  While this customization takes time, it leads to systems that are more highly utilized and valued by our clients than if we were to just deploy standard systems.
We see major growth in the opportunities for our MSI role starting in a field / retro-commissioning role.  We are currently using cloud-based Building Analytics to help customers identify and correct issues in existing buildings.  With the advancement in machine learning software, this technology will continue to bring more value.  

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Cochrane:  Describe a few challenges that you’ve encountered as an MSI.

Napieralski:  The largest challenge we have seen by far is the resistance from other traditional building systems contractors to understand and embrace the MSI concept.  They want to focus on their single system and piece of the puzzle, whether it is access control, lighting control, audio-visual, etc.  Tactfully but assertively getting these organizations and individuals to understand that just because “it’s always been done that way” does not mean it is best for the client can be a challenging role.  That same understanding applies to several vendors we see who want to sell their software packages to our clients.  Many are so focused on their individual solution or “app” and they don’t understand how it is our role to make sure the Facilities Manager doesn’t need 16 different system “apps” to run their facilities.  That is a case of technology making a building more complicated to run, not easier. 

Cochrane:  Do you envision Master Systems Integration being a part of your business in the future? If so, how?

Napieralski:  Absolutely.  The MSI role is perfectly suited for our company’s core values of focusing on our customers’ success and building long-term relationships.  It allows our team to serve as value-added experts and continually grow in their technical knowledge. With the advancing pace of technology and the wave of IoT converging on our clients, our role in simplifying the “noise” and helping buildings perform better is only going to become more crucial.


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