A small Portsmouth company, A2B Tracking Solutions, is engaged in a daunting task: they’re marking every piece of equipment owned by the U.S. military – more than 100 million items – with a unique identification code that can be scanned and stored in a computer database.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” said Peter Collins, company founder and president. “We’re tracking everything that’s vital for security. We’re providing a real-world perspective on the equipment the Department of Defense has at [its] disposal.”
The rewards are also significant. The privately held corporation is growing at a phenomenal pace – by 145 percent last year and an estimated 148 percent for this year.
For that innovation and performance, the 2011 award for Business Excellence at a Small Company goes to A2B Tracking Solutions. “It’s a company award,” said Collins, “recognition of all the people at A2B who work hard to make the company so successful, and all the vendors and providers that support us every day.”
Launched in 1994, A2B is now the leading provider of bar code-based, turnkey tracking solutions. It’s the company’s one and only business. To date, the company has completed over 3,000 tracking installations around the world. In addition to the Department of Defense, the client roster includes leading companies and institutions in such fields as education, financial services, government, health care, hospitality, manufacturing and telecommunications.
The roots for A2B’s success were planted back in the 1960s by engineer David Collins, the company president’s father. During his student years he was sometimes employed by railroads. While on the job, he saw the need for a system for tracking freight cars. After graduating from MIT, he went to work developing the first bar code system for the Boston & Maine line. He later went on to spearhead decades of innovation in the field. Today he’s a part-owner of A2B, and serves on the company’s board of directors and team of advisers.
David Collins’ first goal when he established the company was to develop bar code technology for retail chains. “My role was directing it into the right marketplaces, retailers like Wal-Mart and Kmart,” he said. “We actually worked with the whole supply chain that fed Wal-Mart and Kmart.”
Success with retailers led to contracts with United Parcel Service, the package-delivery company. A2B developed a mobile-tracking system that generates a unique ID label for every package UPS delivers.
Today the company’s principal market is the U.S. Department of Defense and the 43,000 contractors around the world who supply the American military. A2B has won contracts in excess of $100 million within the past three years.
In order to facilitate item accountability, every item belonging to the U.S. military is now marked, tracked, and registered in a computer database. In addition to equipment owned by the military services, property held in custody by defense contractors must also be marked and registered before delivery and contract fulfillment.
The purpose of that investment is to ensure that each piece of equipment owned by the U.S. military is accounted for until the day it lands in a scrap yard. The payoff is more efficient and reliable delivery of equipment and weaponry to soldiers and sailors, and enormous savings in defense spending.
At A2B, company leaders work together on strategic planning to ensure stability and growth. The board of directors meets quarterly to review current activity and to plan strategy and objectives for the upcoming year. In addition, a seasoned board of advisers, consisting of experts in enterprise software and US military contracts, including a retired Army general, meets quarterly.
Senior management develops an annual analysis of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities to assess lessons learned throughout the year. Goals are set and threats are identified to mitigate risk and support the development of market strategy.
The company’s transformation into a major defense contractor is testimony to that effort. In the early years of this century, company executives became aware that Congress was calling for strict property audits to control military spending. They’d also been monitoring reports coming out of the Pentagon, as well as participating in the policy work groups, so they knew the Department of Defense was investigating bar code technology as a way to meet those demands.
Early in 2003, company leaders made the decision to invest and begin development of software that would support the requirements of the Department of Defense. By the time the military formally announced the mandate in 2004, A2B was well along the path of creating software to meet the demand.
As a result, the company is now the world’s largest provider of ID-compliance software and services, in a still-maturing market.
Along the way, A2B has faced some huge challenges. In August 2010, the company won a contract to mark 2.1 million items at all 230 U.S. Air Force bases around the globe. The company immediately developed a multilayered approach that involved worldwide coordination, intensive training, a precise process for project management, field support and no small amount of diplomacy and creative problem-solving.
Fielding teams around the world is no easy task. Early in the process, A2B utilized a large amount of feedback from existing teams involved in pilot efforts to make plans regarding team compositions and leadership-to-subordinate ratios. Since A2B was being bound by a time-frame for execution, schedule management was critical. Categories of equipment from gas masks to Humvees compounded the challenge.
A2B outperforms competitors by providing services in three different areas:
• The company manufactures durable ID labels and plates at its Portsmouth headquarters. “With our state-of-the-art facilities, we can create a code as unique as a fingerprint, that can never be duplicated anywhere in the world,” said Collins. “The numbers and letters we encode make it a globally unique license plate.”
• Working with subcontractors, the company can field professional services teams around the work to mark and register items in the field. They’ve worked at military bases in such far-flung locales as Turkey, South Korea, Bahrain, Oman, Japan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
• The company develops the software to make it all work. “That’s the glue that holds all the marking and information and the items together,” says Collins.
A2B’s growth has also helped brighten employment prospects in Rhode Island. The company, which now employees about 38 people, has plans to boost its staff. They’re looking for software engineers and people with experience in project management and marketing positions. •