Growing IT with downsizing in mind

How a real estate developer is building its staff and infrastructure while preparing for an inevitable downturn

Jeff Ton has survived the booms and busts of the IT industry during his 28-year career as a programmer, consultant and manager. A year ago, Ton left ailing Thomson Consumer Electronics for a chance to lead the IT department at Lauth Property Group, a fast-growing U.S. commercial real estate developer that doubled its revenue last year to US$592 million. The company has 22 permanent locations, plus dozens of temporary sites, that are networked via everything from DSL to satellite technologies. Ton spoke with Carolyn Duffy Marsan about how he is building Lauth's IT staff and infrastructure while preparing for the inevitable downturn. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

How fast is Lauth growing?

Two years ago, Lauth was a $200 million company. Last year, it was nearly $600 million. The partners have laid out a plan to get to $1 billion by 2010. We did an employee survey, and out of 400 employees, 325 had been with the company for less than three years. So it's a huge shift in culture to bring in that many new people in such a short period of time.

How does the company's growth affect the IT department?

When I first arrived, there were 225 desktops. We are closing in on 450 desktops. We have around 40 servers that are in our data centre at Intech Park. What we've done on the server side is to look to consolidation. It's the whole idea of growth with downsizing in mind. If we bring in a new application, we don't automatically bring in a new server. We try to consolidate, use virtual servers, that sort of thing.

Negotiating volume discounts and better service levels is getting easier. Now we are big enough to carry some weight with our vendors, and we have the Lauth name that is becoming nationwide. We signed an enterprise agreement with Microsoft that's providing a lot of benefit to us as we continue to grow.

What are your staffing plans for IT?

At the time I joined, we had 15. Now we have 20. We've got some other positions that we plan on filling in 2007, which would take us to a total of 23 or 24. I don't believe we will grow much beyond that. What we are trying to do is to put controls in place so we're not growing linearly with the company. We're putting technology in place so we can support more with fewer people. I went through five years of downsizing at Thomson, so I'm trying to bring those lessons learned to a growing company. We are growing with downsizing in mind.

What are the top challenges you face in managing the company's growth?

One is the speed at which we need to react. We're trying to be more proactive as we go forward. We spend a lot of time managing new associates when they come on and providing the training that's associated with the technology. Another part of managing growth is continually looking at our application portfolio. We have outgrown some of our packages, and we need to look for products that are a little more robust. We're also trying to rationalize our software portfolio as we've grown. With the influx of new associates that we've had in the past few years, everybody comes in with their favourite package that they want to use.

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