When Ben Zlotnick started Aden Earthworks, a Toronto-based landscaping and snow removal company in 2003, he never quite knew where his employees were at any given time. Most were at their job sites, but he couldn't know for sure if they got there late, left a little early or took an extended lunch break. His staff would fill out forms detailing their hours and he'd give them the benefit of the doubt.
While he does trust his people, in his business even a few minutes here and there can add up to lost revenue. The faster a job gets done, the more work he can take on. So in 2007 he installed global positioning system (GPS) devices on his 20 trucks and could see, on a computer, exactly where each vehicle was.
"Were they [employees] telling me things before that weren't actually accurate? Potentially," he says. "If there was anything going on, using this technology cleaned it up."
Today, Mr. Zlotnick's GPS devices, which are installed inside the hood of each truck, can do a lot more than track his employees' whereabouts. It can also tell him and his managers small details, such as how fast a truck is driving, where it is stopped and when the ignition is turned on. He can also receive e-mail alerts that say when a person arrives and leaves a job site. "It can tell us everything," he says.
Using GPS technology has made his business considerably more efficient, he says, mostly because it saves a tremendous amount of time. If a property manager calls Mr. Zlotnick to find out when a snowplow will arrive, instead of taking 10 minutes to call the driver to check, he can glance at his computer and report back in seconds. There's also a history of location data that he can look back on if a client has any service-related disputes.
Andrew Szabo, senior manager of technology strategy and architecture at Deloitte, says that for many years companies used GPS the same way as Mr. Zlotnick, to track vehicles and to help drivers get from one place to another.
Over the past five years, however, advances in cellular and mobile phone technology have opened GPS to countless new uses. It's possible, Mr. Szabo says, for business owners in every sector to use GPS technology to not only increase efficiency but also hike profit, too.
Retailers can benefit from better GPS technology, Mr. Szabo says. They could, for example, hire a telecommunications company to send out ads targeted specifically to cellphone users who are in close proximity to a store.
"Let's say The Bay has to clear out 5,000 towels this afternoon," he says. "They can now get to a phone carrier and say, 'Can you push this 25-per-cent-off offer to everyone within two kilometres of this specific store?'
"Think about the wholesale transformation that will occur in the retail business because of GPS-enabled technology."
The agriculture sector is another industry that's experiencing major efficiencies thanks to faster and more accurate technology. Jim Berenbaum, research director of mobility, wireless and network technologies at researcher Gartner Inc., says farmers can now pinpoint which plants are diseased, where crop damage is occurring and where exactly to apply pesticides.
It might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but the more advanced this technology becomes, the more accessible it gets. "It's being applied to many more uses – agriculture is a great example – because it's becoming cost effective," Mr. Berenbaum says. "It's also in your cellphone. You don't need something high-end."
As Mr. Zlotnick learned, one of the main advantages to using GPS technology is how much time it can save, both from a business and customer perspective.
Mr. Szabo likes to use this example of future possibilities: A house hunter puts his phone up to a piece of real estate and transmits its GPS co-ordinates to his bank, which in turn can tell him, instantly, whether he is approved to buy the house.
"Think about the time it takes to gets a mortgage approved," he says. "Imagine if there was a button on an app that could do it for you right then and there."
Although people have been using GPS devices for years, it is clear the technology's potential, and its impact on business, is only being realized now. Mr. Zlotnick will continue improving his systems to take advantage of new features; it's likely his next upgrade will be to a mobile system. "Our managers, who are on the road, would love to be able to see [on their phones] where people are," he says.
It's now been more than five years since Mr. Zlotnick installed his first GPS device in one of his trucks and he can't believe he ever ran a business without it. "It's crazy to even think about," he says. "It's made our business run a lot better."