Bringing User-Friendly To A New Level

January 20, 2015

As published in New Technology Magazine (November 2014)

Tailored solution allows companies to chart their way through mountains of disparate data.

Calgary-based REFINECO, Inc. is a high-tech company that uses sophisticated computer software common in the corporate sector to organize documents, staff, petroleum data and other information and packages it in an easily understood format.

If you have a problem getting your head around that, think about how a directory at a large shopping mall can help you pinpoint the store you want to go to.

In fact, some of the same people who were involved in the design of the on-site and online store directory of CrossIron Mills, a 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall located two kilometers north of Calgary that opened in 2010, have helped REFINECO become one of Canada’s fastest growing enterprise content management solution providers.

Eric Veenendaal, REFINECO chief executive officer who founded the company in 2011 with Greg Fleury, partner and chief technology officer, recalls how that came about—and how some of those same mall directory designers have helped make the company a success.

“I was a consultant, and I was working with a midsize oil and gas company, now with about $3.5 billion in revenue and 400 staffers;” he says. They were growing so quickly they were having problems coordinating staffing. They would hire too many engineers and not be able to find where they were seated within the building.”

He approached Fleury, and they developed a floor plan feature using similar technology to Google Maps.

That led to REFINECO having an exclusive arrangement with the oil and gas company to develop a set of software-based tools. The floor plan feature required 120 hours to develop, but the client was so impressed that it has worked with RefineCo ever since, and the experience became a launching pad for the company.

Veenendaal and Fleury—who are originally from Winnipeg and Edmonton respectively, where they each previously worked as consultants in the high-tech sector—both moved to Calgary because of the many business opportunities they saw in the oil and gas industry capital.

Veenendaal says REFINECO, which has grown to employ 20 people and now has sales of several million dollars per year (it remains privately held), isn’t reinventing any technological wheels.

“We’re not married to Microsoft, but the bulk of the software we use is based on Microsoft SharePoint,” which is commonly used in business for document management and staff organization. “It’s a familiar platform, and we’re innovating within that platform,” he says.

The company’s designers take tools like SharePoint and Microsoft’s FAST Search, along with petroleum data management databases, and package them into a simple and familiar format that can be used on multiple devices, ranging from desktops to laptops, tablets and smartphones.

“A lot of these companies have packaged software products, and it hasn’t worked;” he says. We develop custom-designed, collaborative solutions.”

He says REFINECO develops what he calls accelerators, which are pre-packaged software components that integrate with a company’s existing systems to create solutions that truly fit their needs. Instead of selling them a one-size-fits-all product, they deliver on top of the technology foundations that companies have already invested in.

That information can include organizational charts, documents and records management solutions, strategy, workflow design, searches and, given the industry it largely specializes in, well file information. All of that is accessible as a cloud-based service.

“We built a product which is like Facebook for well file data,” Veenendaal says. “It requires soft skills and technical skills” to develop the custom-designed packages, he says. “It’s difficult to do because the information keeps piling up.”

It can also develop custom-designed access to some of that data for users not employed by the firms, such as environmental and engineering consultants.

Although much of the software the company uses is Microsoft-based, he says the tech giant’s software is too often “clunky” and not as user-friendly as Apple software.

“Our focus is on the user,” he says.

In addition to the ease-of-access it strives to achieve in its products, the company provides staff training as a part of its service, offering webinars, film clips and custom training. It also provides a support desk clients can contact. This consists of a “Meet REFINECO” introduction, as well as instructions on how to maximize the use of SharePoint and the other software it uses.

While there are competitors who build custom-designed software, Veenendaal says REFINECO can achieve the same results using custom-designed configurations of software that is already widely used within their business. “We refer to ourselves as a hybrid,” he says.

As with many other Alberta-based companies, RefineCo is having difficulty recruiting enough employees to deal with its growth.

“We want people that like technology,” he says. “We like real techie types. Also, everyone who works for us has to have a consultant’s mentality [doing whatever is necessary to satisfy the client]”

It has just wrapped up filming a recruitment video, [soon-to-be] available on its website, which it will use when it goes to colleges to recruit employees.

“We’re looking at a second location,” he adds, although it hasn’t yet been decided if that will be in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver or Ontario, all areas in which the company has clients.

REFINECO has 24 clients now, and Veenendaal expects to double that number in the next couple of years.

However, he says the company “isn’t driven by the goal of moving into a big glass building” but by customer service. The company operates out of a 5,000 sqft office in downtown Calgary.

Veenendaal says the company has been working on a template that will include software architecture and project management practices that would allow its approach to be more easily repeated. As that product evolves, he says he expects the firm’s growth to accelerate.

REFINECO’s competence has been recognized by those in the technology sector, with it having recently received two awards. In April it announced its debut on the Branham300, which highlights Canada’s top 300 information and communications technology companies.

The company was also awarded silver at the 2014 CDN Channel Elite Awards for the best enterprise solution. Presented by Computer Dealer News, the Channel Elite Awards go to solution providers from across Canada in recognition of their innovation, leadership and commitment to business value for customers.

“Channel Elite Awards are the hardest award to win in the high-tech channel,” says Paolo Del Nibletto, editor of Computer Daily News. “Companies must show true innovation, while also outperforming the competition. They have to show a lot of heart, dedication and success in delivering creative solutions.”

REFINECO won the award for the development of its Electronic Well File solution, which allows its users to access well records and documents using a single intuitive interface.

“This award validates REFINECO’s commitment of delivering innovative and high value technology solutions through each customer engagement,” says Veenendaal.

In September REFINECO received even more recognition when it was listed as a finalist in the Breakout Business category of the Calgary Chamber’s Small Business Week Awards.

Jim Bentein