CEMAR sticks to its NEC expertise

CEMAR is focused purely on contract management and its expertise in NEC contracts has helped it achieve leadership in this specialist cloud-based software market.

Gloucester, UK-based construction contract management software vendor CEMAR is single-minded in its focus on construction contracts and on the NEC suite in particular. This focus has seen the company enjoy year-on-year double-digit revenue growth – it generated around £3m in the 2016/17 year to 30 April 2017, and director and COO Nick Woodrow told me it expected revenues to grow 50% to around £4.5m in the current year.

Woodrow joined CEMAR as director and COO in October 2015, when the business had 15 staff. Its success since then has seen its headcount grow to 46 staff, and Woodrow expected it would be over 50 before the end of the financial year. Much of this personnel growth has been in software development, with Agile methodologies strongly favoured, judging from the many whiteboards on the upper floor of CEMAR’s modern office in Barnwood, to which the company moved two years ago.

The NEC battleground

Ben Walker, CEMAR CEOCEMAR was founded by NEC contract expert and civil engineer Ben Walker (now CEO, right) and his father Andy (now retired); Ben’s brother, Dan, is CEMAR’s CIO (Ben and Dan Walker and Nick Woodrow are the business’s shareholders). The business was incorporated in 2005 and initially developed traditional on-premise software (formerly CMToolkit, its CEMAR name is derived from Contract Event Management And Reporting) to track contract events (“it’s about event management, not document management”, Woodrow said – read Ben Walker’s post “Think event, not document”). However, by the end of the decade, the company had switched to a Software-as-a-Service model, competing against collaboration vendors 4Projects and Conject (both awarded NEC3 content provider status in December 2010), plus Asite (not similarly favoured by the NEC but nonetheless providing NEC3 contract support to clients such as Transport for London) and other UK-based NEC3 specialists including Sypro (December 2010 post)* and MPS, plus South Africa’s Contract Communicator.

By this stage, contract change/workflow management had become a fiercely contested battleground among the ‘extranet’ vendors. Sypro sought to differentiate itself by promoting its NEC process reporting tools, and in early 2012 established a partnership with Unit 4/Business Collaborator (the subject of an MBO in late 2014), after MPS had pursued a similar relationship with Denmark’s Docia (acquired by RIB, also in 2014).

While the NEC battleground has quietened in recent years (largely overtaken by the BIM push, of course), CEMAR’s growth suggests contract tools remains a lucrative market. Woodrow told me the business had made significant inroads in market sectors including water and other infrastructure, and in higher education (maps in the company’s business development office were peppered with multiple client locations).

And as international interest in the NEC suite accelerates, partly due to the new and expanding NEC4 suite (which includes a Design Build and Operate variant and is set to include an Alliancing version), Woodrow is optimistic about CEMAR’s future prospects. He highlighted UK prospects in the so-called 6 H’s (HS2, Hinkley, Heathrow, Highways, Housing and Heritage), and about new/revised NEC4 workflows (eg: contractor proposals, proposed instructions, task ordering). CEO Ben Walker is one of NEC’s drafting team, a consultant, tutor and ICE examiner, and CEMAR is acknowledged by name in all NEC4 contracts – something of a marketing coup, in my view (note: the CEMAR solution can also support FIDIC and other contract forms).

Woodrow talked about opportunities in southeast Asia and in New Zealand (coincidentally markets successfully targeted by Conject before its acquisition by Australia’s Aconex in March 2016), and an integration with GroupBC’s Business Collaborator platform, displacing Sypro and set to be presented to BC users at its user conference (28 September 2017). CEMAR’s preferred approach is integration rather than trying to add functionality to cover every need (read Dan Walker’s blog post “One size does not fit all”). We also talked about integrations with ERP solutions, taking advantage of CEMAR’s detailed handling of NEC-related payment application and certification processes – encroaching into the territory of Oracle’s Textura application, among others.

(And while we are on the subject of Oracle, tighter integration with Primavera P6 has to be a consideration – scheduling tools have for too long sat outside the collaboration environment – something that I discussed with Aconex’s Leigh Jasper in May 2017.)

CEMAR in action

Woodrow guided me through the main CEMAR capabilities, concentrating on its core contract management capabilities and on its reporting tools, CEMAR Analytics. Once logged in, authorised users are presented with a dashboard view of their current projects and can then drill down to particular contracts, with their access to information and functions tightly controlled by a highly granular user profile administration system (security provision options include two-factor authentication).

The company prides itself on what Woodrow described as its “obsession” with using the correct contractual terminology (even down to the use of italics or capitalisation of certain words). While CEMAR users might initially be looking to emulate the creation of notifications that resembe familar paper-based correspondence (which it does by way of .pdf letter versions of all communication), Woodrow says they quickly gravitate towards viewing processes as events rather than as series of documents (we talked about demographic changes shifting from paper-oriented user tendencies towards a preference for real-time online information visibility). He also underlined commercial managers’ wish to separate sharing of associated documents or drawings as contractually significant versus including these items for more general “knowledge sharing” purposes (nonetheless, he demonstrated the GroupBC Business Collaborator integration to show how it would be possible to connect recipients to relevant background documentation).

CEMAR Analytics presents powerful summaries of recent and ongoing processes, and can be used to help set the agendas for meetings, Woodrow said. He showed how search tools could be used across processes to, for example, show the aggregated impact of weather events in a set period of time. As well as a wealth of reporting tools, CEMAR includes ‘group reports’ allowing frequently required selections of reports to be combined into longer reports. The existing, already comprehensive presentation of bar and pie-charts and line graphs could improve still further – CEMAR is looking at potential integration of business reporting tools such as Microsoft’s PowerBI (also mentioned by Bentley in November 2017).

The application is peppered with contextual help buttons, helping explain how users can do things and ensuring compliance with the relevant NEC contract – “many of our help desk queries are not about how to use the software but how to manage things under the NEC,” Woodrow told me – and the Zendesk-driven support system also provides numerous video tutorials.

My view

Contracts, and by implication contract change management software, can seem a somewhat dry area of expertise, but compliance with contracts is often critical to the successful delivery of construction projects. While the CEMAR solution may lack the pizzazz of drawing and model sharing environments, it is a modern and user-friendly application in which colour-coded contractual information is logically presented, and the attention to detail (both in terms of contractual terminology as well as software presentation) is one of its major strengths.

The former 4Projects and Conject NEC toolsets no longer enjoy NEC licensed content provider status, and, it seems to me, neither of these (now rebranded) businesses today promote their contract process support quite so overtly – instead they seem happier to talk about BIM, solution ‘ecosystems’ and integration. Maybe the GroupBC relationship might set a precedent (assuming there’s no exclusivity agreement), with CEMAR becoming the standard contract change module for other collaboration/’common data environment’ (CDE) platforms? Meanwhile, CEMAR’s double-digit revenue growth is also impressive – matching, even surpassing, the figures trumpeted by CDE vendors, and suggesting that contract management is just as lucrative a construction SaaS market.

* Disclosure: Sypro is a past client of pwcom.co.uk Ltd, as are Conject (now part of Aconex) and 4Projects (now Viewpoint). I have also provided consultancy services to GroupBC.

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