CEO Celebrates 30 Years with DMSi

CEO Celebrates 30 Years with DMSi

Cal German, president and CEO of DMSi Software, just celebrated his 30th anniversary with the company. In a business environment of mergers and hostile takeovers, it’s unusual to find a software executive with such long tenure. But it’s German’s steady presence and personal involvement that has made DMSi a leading provider of inventory and business management software to the building materials industry.

DMSi started out in 1976 creating custom-made inventory management systems. Their clients represented multiple industries, including water supply companies, camera equipment providers, wine sellers, and building material distributors.

German joined DMSi on April 1, 1983, to “handle the business side of the company.” (When his wife learned he had left his promising CPA job at a Big 8 accounting firm to work with a little start up, “she thought it was an April Fools joke,” laughs Cal.)

When the original owner wanted to sell the business in 1986, Cal became a 50-50 owner with Jim Hassenstab. Even though they “didn’t know how to write a line of code,” Cal and Jim recognized how to grow this little company: specialization.  Narrowing the business’s focus would allow them to build a better product for customers. And so began DMSi’s transformation into an expert in one particular industry: building material supply.

German and Hassenstab visited their existing building material supply clients, learning the ins and outs of the industry, the unmet needs and frustrations of these customers. Then they started altering the design of their software to address those needs, and the modern concept of DMSi was formed.

Senior software engineer Terri McQuistan has been a programmer at DMSi since 1982. She describes the pre-Cal and Jim version of the company as “basically contractors for hire.”  The wide variety in their customers’ industries meant each job was an isolated project. It was about fulfilling individual requests rather than developing long-term strategy. Once German and Hassenstab decided to focus on one industry, the entire atmosphere at the company changed.

The emphasis on a total solution persists in current projects. DMSi’s Agility ERP system has functions specifically designed for each segment of the building material supply chain, from wholesale to retail, and lumber to roofing and siding. “For the last 30 years it’s totally about customer service,” says McQuistan. “We’re about finding the best solutions that can benefit all of our customers.”

Today, DMSi has grown into a company of 90+ employees. It serves over 360 customer accounts, supporting thousands of physical locations with 12,000 active users. Typically, once a business has achieved that kind of growth, owners will retire to a more remote role and leave customer care to their managers and employees. But German continues to take a personal interest in DMSi’s relationship with clients. He still attends trade shows and will add an extra day to a trip in order to visit a branch manager. Many customers still call him directly. His approach permeates DMSi’s culture.

Company-wide procedures are designed to give all DMSi employees, from marketing to development, direct contact with customers. Even programmers visit sites to talk with users and get a better understanding of how daily business “flows.” With an average career tenure of 10 years, DMSi employees develop personal relationships with customers, watch those businesses grow, and celebrate their successes.

This emphasis on personal interaction sets DMSi apart from other businesses. Senior product consultant Cindy Carlson worked at a Fortune 500 company before coming to DMSi. She observes that at her previous employer, “they [said] every level of the company had customer contact, but I don’t see how that’s possible…it was so big. I was so far removed from the customer, I had no idea… Here, we are all connected to the customer.” Making user interaction a company-wide practice eliminates “the telephone game” that can allow requests to get distorted as they pass from one department to the next.

Another example of German’s influence is the recently founded user adoption initiative: a push to help existing customers get more value from their software investment. The user adoption team focuses on features that have proven highly effective for a group of users, but haven’t been widely adopted by similar clients. Carlson, who heads the user adoption team, says, “we ask that ‘why’ question. We want to make sure we truly understand why this is a problem, and what we can do to help you, so if there’s something better we can do, let’s do that.” This initiative is completely focused on helping existing customers get more value from Agility.

Not many companies (let alone software companies) started in the ’70s are still around today. When asked what has allowed DMSi to go the distance, German credits the decision he and Hassenstab made in 1986 to dedicate the company to one industry: “We decided to put the blinders on, to focus and figure this stuff out to do a good job for our customers. That mentality, that culture, that business model is what we’ve stuck with to this day.”

This piece originally appeared in Building Products Digest in October, 2013.