When Ken Pflederer, CEO of CSE Software, found his career calling in 1990, it arrived as a computer training center, Computer Skills Enhancement. In the first couple years, he taught computer classes, sold computers and computer furniture, sold and repaired dot-matrix printers, sold Sharper Wizards (the predecessor to PDAs) and wrote custom software applications for OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.
“In 1992, because the software design part of the business was growing, I hired two people, Lara Aaron, who started out as a software tester—unheard of in the early 1990s— and Renee Gorrell as a programmer,” Pflederer said. “I decided after their help and counsel that we needed to focus Computer Skills Enhancement on the one department that was making money and growing: software design.”
By the end of 1992, the hardware portion of the Morton-based business was sold, the classes were ended and the company began to focus on their rapidly-growing software applications. Computer Skills Enhancement then became CSE Software. “The three of us moved our desks, server and printer into a tiny backroom, and in 1993 started an amazing ride,” Pflederer said. “I owe any success that we have enjoyed over the years to my good friend Bob Linder, who saw a diamond in the rough and wouldn’t let me rest until I had the business up and running. With the financial help of Bob, his friend Lee Hinnen and my dad, Harlan, I was able to realize my dream.”
In 1997, both Aaron and Gorrell became co-owners of CSE— now vice presidents— and today the three partners continue to manage and run the day-to-day operations of the business. The partners find they are routinely fighting people’s impression of CSE as a small company that caters only to specific information technology problems. “It is deceptive because we have a small storefront here in the Morton Field Shopping Center, but when you get inside our office, we are a medium-sized, thriving business with nearly 50 employees. We are capable of great things and we prove it to our customers every day,” Pflederer said.
Born and raised in Tremont, Pflederer graduated from Tremont High School in 1969. The youngest child in his family, Pflederer says, “I was somewhat of an enigma for my parents. I loved the social life of school, but never gained an understanding of the importance of studying. I questioned everything and wanted answers to questions that seemingly weren’t available to me.”
After high school he went on to Illinois Central College with parental hopes of grandeur that he would study medicine, law or education. “But my only love was anything to do with engines, transmissions and electrical systems,” Pflederer said. He graduated from ICC with an associate’s degree in engine power technology, with an emphasis on diesel engines and heavy equipment transmissions.
Aaron was born and raised in Peoria and also received an Associate’s degree from Illinois Central College. She went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in business administration from Illinois State University. In the five years prior to working at CSE, she worked at an insurance brokerage firm in Peoria. “CSE has been my “baby” for a long time and I spend tremendous amounts of time and energy—days, nights and weekends—thinking about everything from the building to the people to the projects to the possibilities,” Aaron said. “I love my job because it isn’t really a job, it’s a living, breathing entity that I am fortunate enough to be able to help guide, protect and direct.”
Gorrell grew up in Germantown Hills and received an Associate’s degree from ICC and a Bachelor’s degree from Bradley University where she majored in computer information systems. “Since my first exposure to computers, an IBM PC Jr., I’ve been consumed with learning, researching or just having fun on them,” Gorrell said. “I would say the Internet is one of my hobbies, when I can find the time to surf. Ken and Lara are determined to find a topic or item that I cannot locate on the web. So far it hasn’t happened!”
In September of 1990, the first year in business for the company, Pflederer set up a meeting with Ron Hall, now the new IT Manager at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. “This meeting kicked off one of four software applications that we started that year for the hospital. We started several more in 1991, which found me teaching classes during the day and programming during the evening. I had found my first love—software development,” Pflederer said. Although CSE doesn’t have computer classes anymore, eLearning Solutions—Internet and CD/DVD-based—is a part of their software development offerings today. Over the years CSE has evolved into an all-encompassing software development business. They practice their very own four-D development cycle—Define, Design, Develop and Deploy—with various corporate and business software applications. Most of these are database-specific and include sales tools, engineering applications, technical data applications, eLearning solutions, multimedia applications, patienttracking applications and many others. In 17 years of business, CSE has developed over 800 software applications.
To complement the development services, a live-answer service was added—without any menu or prompts. Now a multilingual service desk supports over 100 software applications worldwide—mostly for applications that CSE did not write—24 hours a day, 365 days a year. With a 12-second average wait time and a 2 percent abandoned call rate, the company’s Key Performance Indicators (KPI) are world-class, Pflederer says. The service desk supports applications ranging from Excel spreadsheets with macros to enterprise-wide SAP applications. In addition, CSE has a fulfillment department which can duplicate all types of CDs or DVDs, creating various packaging options. They also offer daily order fulfillments (subscriptions) to customers around the globe. “We’re different in that we require no minimum quantities, our turn-around time is phenomenal and our prices are competitive,” Pflederer said. “Every technical solution we provide is an answer to our customer’s problem. It’s our job to understand what they are struggling with and what they want to achieve so that we can respond with a practical technical solution that meets their specific needs.”
For example, a customer sought out CSE to help him create a dynamic, far-reaching Training Incentive Program needed to get his company’s employees informed, motivated and excited about job training. To do this he needed a dependable, inclusive process for communicating, marketing and managing his training to thousands of employees worldwide. CSE’s development team went to work and designed a complex point-based incentive tracking application to be used by its own 24/7/365 service desk analysts.
In the application, each course of study was assigned a specific number of points. The higher the points earned, the more valuable the incentive prizes. Points could be redeemed from a catalog of top quality, name-brand merchandise that was hand-selected for the Training Incentive Program. As points were redeemed, CSE’s fulfillment department would warehouse and manage the prizes as well as distribute them worldwide. The line of incentive prizes established by CSE has not only reduced the Training Incentive Program’s costs by more than 45 percent, but also increased user satisfaction and reduced prize fulfillment time from two weeks to one day. “Six years into the program, the company has increased the number of employees annually registering for the Training Incentive Program by 800 percent,” Pflederer said. “In addition, a series of communications have been created and sent to employees to introduce, explain and get the employees excited about the training program.”
Another CSE customer was unhappy with using low-tech Excel spreadsheets for the data development of engine ratings. Both the data integrity (mistyped formulas), spreadsheet management and multi-user needs quickly became serious issues. CSE’s recommendation was to create a software application that contained all developed data and required formulas for new methods of testing and reviewing data results. A one-stop source for data and formulas was created and this application has increased data development efficiency while also significantly reducing user and calculation errors, Pflederer said.
What surprises Pflederer is that so many companies are taking development and support offshore. “We have experienced that while it may be cheaper initially, the final cost and results are generally more expensive and less intuitive and customer satisfaction drops drastically,” Pflederer said. “There is also the question of security and protection of intellectual property. In a world where both of these—security and intellectual property—are foremost on all of our minds, what are companies even thinking when they put these in the hands of our offshore competitors? We have lost requests for proposals to offshore, only to have them awarded back to CSE.”
CSE is also well aware that identity fraud and computer security issues are at the forefront of the information technology world today. With the popularity of web applications, customers’ security requirements have certainly become more stringent. “We are all looking for and working towards a more secure IT world and we continue to improve our processes and our knowledge in information security management,” Pflederer said.
Pflederer is quick to point out that there are always challenges in the business of information technology. “The IT world changes so quickly that by the time one realizes the change, it is already old news,” Pflederer said. “CSE’s niche in eLearning solution software continues to grow.” Now CSE is challenged to develop eLearning software that is Internet-based, interesting and capable of replacing one-on-one or classroom training. “Our customers need to be able to do worldwide, multi-lingual training at more affordable costs. It is really amazing how effective Internet and CD-based learning solutions can be,” Pflederer said. “The distribution department (fulfillment) is changing daily with the world. As applications grow, so does the need for ample media and there is still a huge need for CD and DVD distribution.”
Over the last couple of years, CSE’s support department has made the move to 24/7 availability, with a 99.99 percent uptime— thanks to the purchase of a Caterpillar-Olympian Gen-set. “We are currently in the process of becoming 6 Sigma certified. This is a huge endeavor that will take many resources, but we feel it could help us improve the efficiency in all areas of our business in the future,” Pflederer said.
The seed of Pflederer’s dream of bringing a computer service company to fruition was planted in the late ‘70s when his family lived in Brazil. His mother helped design a fund accounting application that later became one of the few systems used in the U.S. today. “My mother wrote pages of letters to me, explaining every facet of developing software and I was hooked. I devoured her letters, read everything I could about the up-and-coming computer explosion and pretty much couldn’t wait to return to the States so I could buy my first computer from Radio Shack.”
During the ‘80s he bounced from job to job but in each of his five or six jobs, he taught himself how to program in dBase (one of the best high-level programming languages of the day). Then, in the late ‘80s, he landed a job that afforded him the chance to write a complete inventory program and a program that tracked truck driver’s logs. “As I look back, I can’t believe how easily it all came to me. It was more fun than it was work, and I spent thousands of hours building database tables, learning about the relational connection between data fields and actually producing two products that were used daily,” Pflederer said.
Creating a fun and productive working atmosphere was also one of Pflederer’s primary business dreams. This is evident on the CSE website, where baby pictures of the staff are displayed next to their job descriptions. The three partners work very hard at making employees a part of the CSE family. “My philosophy is that my employees are more important to me than our customers. I believe that if we take care of our employees they, in turn, will take better care of our customers,” Pflederer said.
As a result of that philosophy, Pflederer says there is a great team of people working and playing at CSE. “They are hardworking, dedicated and loyal to CSE and to their customers. I can’t help but be humbled every time I walk through the office, because I can feel the good attitude in the air. My goal is to grow CSE so we can have more employees that love their jobs, reaching more customers so we can make their jobs easier and more effective.”
Last year, the three owners made a major decision and committed to an aggressive plan to double sales over the next five years. “We are working for a balance—trying to grow the company— while at the same time being aware of and preparing for a possible economic trough,” Pflederer said. “I am still surprised and humbled today, as I look back, and see the blessings I have received over the past 17 years. When I walk into CSE or meet with my people, I am still amazed at what has happened, just because I believe in a few basic truths: honesty, integrity, people and their needs.” IBI