Building technology to make your business work

Building technology to make your business work

Dan McNary loves to start and grow new businesses. Back in the early 1990s he learned the business of construction project management as a senior engineer with Bechtel. But by 1998 he had found an outlet for his entrepreneurial passion by starting a new business within the giant Syska Hennessy Group. “I enjoy creating new businesses, and creating new divisions within existing businesses that can leverage the skills of the organization in a new way and create new revenue streams for that business,” he says. That is why he was the ideal person to build out and lead a new division for PlanNet in 2011, when founder Steve Miano decided it was time to move forward from technology consulting into data center general contracting.

Now CEO of all three PlanNet companies (PlanNet Consulting, PlanNet Design & Construction and PlanNet Works) McNary is in his element as head of a company that has evolution as its strategy. “When Steve Miano founded the company in 2001, the technology consulting industry was quite new and he worked with Fortune 500 companies to help them optimize low-voltage systems in a building, the structured computer cabling, the telecom, phone switch, the AV components and the security to all be designed consistent with their business needs.” The business of PlanNet at that time was design consulting around workplace technology, supporting architects and contractors in this specialized field.

Expanding with demand

It's still working effectively in that space, having recently completed a technology consulting project for Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Los Angeles; the new hospital required structured cabling to run its communications, security, nurse call and other systems. However, it morphed into other areas.

In 2004 PlanNet moved into the data consulting field, helping organizations like Mentor Graphics, Safeco Insurance and other similar corporations to develop strategies around their data portfolio. The company, it's worth noting, has never thought it a good idea to expand by acquisition. Its strategy has been to identify market needs and grow solutions organically. Data center consulting remains a valuable business for PlanNet, he says.

When McNary came in to add a new design and construction division for the business, the organization took a bold step into becoming a general contractor, construction manager and builder of data centers for large corporate clients, and colocation data centers (or 'colos' – independently run data center 'hotels' where any large or small business can rent space as a way of outsourcing their servers and connectivity into a secure and dependable facility). This service expanded last year to include PlanNet Works, a design and build integration service that leverages the company's consulting expertise to assess the needs of a client that is building or expanding a high technology space, providing them with a guaranteed price upfront and installing the equipment they need.

By never standing still, PlanNet has achieved quite remarkable growth. From a turnover of around $3 million in its first year, it had grown to $8 million by 2010 and this year expects to hit $24 million. Through its strategy of growing new organic businesses to meet demand in the marketplace it has tripled its revenues in five years. Today PlanNet employs around 100 people, equally divided between technology consultants, design engineers and construction and implementation specialists. McNary estimates that two thirds of the entire company's work is now in general contracting as opposed to technology consulting. The business is multi-faceted by design, bringing a construction component, a technology consulting component and a data center strategy component as the client wishes. “We build technology to make our customer's business work.”

Strategic partnerships

Large companies these days are constantly having to make vital investment decisions around IT. “Moving from on-premises servers to the cloud or a colo has created the opportunity for us. We help customers that have large data center and technology portfolios to evaluate their options and translate their business needs into a technology strategy that works for them.” PlanNet is trusted by the very largest IT companies in Silicon Valley and around the world, as well as telecoms giants like CenturyLink to implement their data center construction. “We are also the quality assurance and safety engineers for these sites. Our construction business is formulated to deliver the service the customer needs, whether it's general contacting, construction management of engineering assessments, or just staff augmentation in the construction management field.”

There's no standard way to approach a project. For one client which can't be named but is building leading-edge data centers throughout the United States, PlanNet is acting as construction manager for a new $300 million data center in southern Virginia, directing the complete build out of the data center site work, shell, and MEP systems. It's a large, long-term phased project, and the team leading the program planning, construction phasing and incremental commissioning is bringing lean construction and quality assurance skills to the job. “Clients either come to us either as a general contractor or to renovate live data center space.” It takes a very special background and skill set to work on electrical and mechanical systems within an operational data center without disrupting the systems on which its service level agreements (SLAs) depend.

About a third of the work is done in California, but clients expect PlanNet to look after them in other places, so it now has offices in Phoenix, Dallas, Chicago, Portland and Clarksville, Virginia, as well as doing a considerable amount of work over the border in Montreal where it has helped build four data centers. Contracts with major clients like Mentor Graphics have taken it to Ireland where it designed and oversaw the construction of a data center, a mirror facility to another in Hillsboro Oregon.

Addressing multiple markets

There are far too many completed and live projects to list; even too many different business areas. In every case though, the relationship has to be a partnership in which PlanNet and its customers work out the best system together. For example, it does a lot of work for Daimler Trucks North America (owned by Daimler AG who also owns Mercedes-Benz), which relies heavily on PlanNet to understand how to utilize colo services and the cloud: “On the corporate side we have a real opportunity to translate business needs and help clients understand financial impacts and opportunities from these options. They want us to be their advocate and help them as a business partner to negotiate the right space, with the right partner, over the right technology.”

A lot of the time it is about smart buildings in smart cities. One major partner is building hotels and mixed-use facilities in California. PlanNet, along with performing the technology program management for all aspects of the technology systems, provides low voltage systems planning and design and implementation oversight for these facilities. In the case of one hotel in Hollywood it is also acting as the procurement agent for its hospitality systems including property management, the point-of-sale system, Wi-Fi and the hotel service optimization systems. “We are helping them strategize around IT and how their hotel can create opportunities for their clients and we are installing that IT as an integrator,” says McNary.

As the landscape shifts, PlanNet will shift. The big movement in the industry right now is data center consolidation. “Over the coming five to seven years I wouldn't be surprised to see the number of data center players come down from 25 to maybe five. I think we will also see the large technology companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon Web Services, HPE and Microsoft leaning more on the colo space to build their data center capacity. For us, all that is an opportunity. Upgrading is a continuous process in the data center space, and that is just what we do really well. The facility infrastructure needs to change rapidly: a data center is a huge capital outlay, and we can ensure they upgrade effectively without impacting their SLA.”

Daniel McNary