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On the cutting edge.

Little Rock's Diverse Speas Technologies Inc. Finds Itself in Lucrative Home Automation Market

IMAGINE YOUR HOME SEcurity system, lighting, appliances and inside environment controlled by the touch of a finger or by voice instruction over the telephone.

Or, perhaps you park your car in a busy downtown and use a meter operated not by coins, but by a microchip "debit" card.

This sounds like life in the next decade, at the least.

But it's business as usual for Speas Technologies Inc.

The 15-year-old engineering/design firm in Little Rock, which specializes in computer-controlled systems, is in the middle of these two potentially lucrative endeavors.

That's not all.

Speas' computer-related work can be found in everything from Metropolitan Emergency Medical Service (MEMS) to the Pine Bluff Arsenal, from insurance firms to the Little Rock Airport Commission, from law firms to doctors' offices to food processing plants to submersible water pumps for Jacuzzi Bros. to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and so on.

The company has estimated annual revenues of more than $1 million.

"I like this because of the diversity," says Gary Speas, the company's president. "Every one of our products is unique for what it does."

Speas says the same design, engineering and computer programming disciplines can be applied to provide reliable and efficient solutions to each application, however diverse.

His pet project now, though, is selling and installing Honeywell Inc.'s Total-Home automation system.

Honeywell, maker of electronic control systems with 1991 sales of $6.2 billion, has packaged home control -- lights, appliances, heating and air conditioning along with security -- into one affordable unit. Unlike other systems in the burgeoning market, Honeywell's is targeted for existing homes and new ones, according to the company.

"I had been tracking the home automation industry for a couple of years," says Speas, who in his spare time designed his own six-level home. "I never really saw a package completely integrated -- in other words, allowed you to have the security portion, the lighting and appliance control or temperature and climate control all into one package. There are some systems that had been on the market that were real pricey, in the $15,000-$20,000 range."

Right Place, Right Time

Speas saw a one-page magazine article on Honeywell TotalHome, which was introduced in January.

"As soon as that article came out, I started tracking down the product, trying to find out who sold them, where I could get a hold of one, how they were going to market it," he says.

"I got in it so early, they didn't know how they were going to market it yet."

But Honeywell, the Golden Valley, Minn., company, decided quickly on its Arkansas distributor -- Speas.

Susan Gangsei, Honeywell's manager of distribution development, says the company chose Speas as Arkansas' sole dealer because of Speas' growth-oriented philosophy and wide range of technical expertise.

"Speas is a marketing and sales-oriented firm," Gangsei says. "They strive to stay one step ahead of the competition ... They have a lot of experience in not only the industrial process control and advanced application systems business, but in the security and the electronics trades as well."

For a base price of $4,000 (or about $2 per SF), according to Honeywell, TotalHome will control 10 lights or appliances, 10 points of security and home temperature. It also comes with two control panels and remote phone access so the owner can call the house to check its status or change any of the 16 available "modes."

The security monitoring is handled in Honeywell's Memphis, Tenn., headquarters.

Speas attended a training session in September at Honeywell, and the first TotalHome was sold, installed and programmed in Arkansas in a home in the Ridgefield subdivision of west Pulaski County in October.

"We weren't actively looking for security systems to sell, or home automation systems," says Speas, who is licensed by the Arkansas State Police to install security systems. "However, when this one came along and you have the name Honeywell behind it, a company with a track record behind it, it was a perfect opportunity for us to diversify and move into what I would call a captured market, a ground-floor market."

A Good Fit

Jim Venditte, vice president at Speas whose background is industrial design, says, "It fits, because we've installed computer systems like vax systems where we run cable and terminals and what not. This is basically doing the same thing where we're running the wire, doing the installation."

Speas, an Oak Ridge, Tenn., native, graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical and computer engineering from Clemson (S.C) University in 1975.

After two years at the National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, he helped start Engram Associates Inc. in 1977. When he bought out his partner in 1986, the company became Speas Technologies.

TotalHome is the first consumer-based product Speas has carried, he says. But the many projects in the company's portfolio are impressive, not to mention diverse.

"The bottom line is, no matter what process you're doing, it's got to be programmed, you've got to have hardware that it runs on," says Rita Speas, Gary's wife, a systems analyst and vice president of the company. "You're doing many different steps, but basically you're telling the computer precise steps to perform."

TotalHome "was almost like a logical step for us," Venditte says.

"Besides Gary's extreme personal interest in it, anyway," adds Rita.

"And we do see this as a buying market," Venditte says. "If you see the homes out in west Little Rock being built amazes me every time I go out there."

The Computerized Meter

Standing near Gary Speas' desk is a parking meter. This isn't one of those odd ornaments decorating an office, however.

Speas is developing the microprocessing component of the electronic meter for POM Inc. of Russellville, the nation's second-largest developer of parking meters.

Time on this meter is determined not by coins but by a card containing a microchip with a designated amount allowed to be spent.

The city of Hong Kong is testing 200 meters. POM officials say about 1,000 more are being used in major cities throughout the United States. Because of the competitive nature of the business, POM won't indicate which cities. They do say they have a backlog, though.

"It's still in the trial phase," says Bobra Wilbanks, POM technical sales manager. "They are credit card only |in Hong Kong~. If the meters test out, they plan to purchase a large quantity over the next five years."

Wilbanks says technology is changing all the time. POM has been working on solar-powered meters, she says, and Speas' development with a circuit board has no moving parts, no batteries and is virtually maintenance-free.

"We're very pleased with Speas, they are very good at their job," Wilbanks says. "We've even had outsiders, competitors who have commented on the expertise at the latest technology."

Wilbanks says she has worked with Rita Speas on developing personal computer (PC) software for a meter manager system. All data about the meters, rates and collections are stored. The software uses a hand-held infrared communicator that retrieves the audit program and can reprogram rates.

Speas is adapting the computers it originally designed for NCTR in a program overseen by the St. Nicholas of Myra Foundation. Computers will be sent to Russia for a study of the children of Chernobyl, site of a nuclear reactor meltdown in the 1980s.

Speas is a small company with just seven employees, although it subcontracts work for its nationwide maintenance of hardware for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Among Speas' other projects are its Professional Automated Legal System (PALS). Speas developed and implemented it for one of the nation's largest foreclosure law firms. It provides data entry, reporting and document generation functions for a variety of case types.

The list of projects goes on, leading to the latest venture -- TotalHome, which could prove lucrative. Gary Speas, at least, thinks so.

"With a product like this and with a potential market," he says, "the key thing was getting in on the ground floor."
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Title Annotation:Speas Technologies Inc.'s installation of home automation systems
Author:Harris, Jim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 14, 1992
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