Shawn Pressley, project systems manager for Hill International Inc., shuttles between the Comcast Center, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and other worldwide construction sites, tracking work crews, owners, vendors, supplies, bids, job changes and corrections, and the money flowing among them all.

"My office is my laptop," said Pressley, checking work at the Comcast tower in Center City. "When I'm in the Middle East and I have to get information to our corporate office in Marlton or get it from someone in Spain, I used to have to look at e-mail, faxing and Fed Exing. That's driving up costs, and the number of people you have to rely on.

"But in the last couple of years, where the technology is, it's click, password, find what you're looking for. And Big Brother can watch it all."

Pressley uses construction-management and scheduling tools from Primavera Systems Inc., of Bala Cynwyd, and cost-estimating software from Hard Dollar Corp., of Tempe, Ariz., and is weighing whether to buy software that would link site supervisors via handheld computers, from Vela Systems Inc., of Burlington, Mass.

"Computers have revolutionized this business," said Gus Perea, president of Adams-Bickel Associates Inc., a builder based in Collegeville that uses project-management software from Primavera and a construction-accounting system from Maxwell Systems Inc., of King of Prussia. "We can do twice the administrative work with the same people."

The recession has brought new residential building to a halt and made it tougher to finance commercial construction. To try to escape the building cycle, construction-software executives have built and bought new product lines and sought clients abroad.

"Commercial construction right now is falling off. But on the industrial side, things are booming; from oil companies worldwide, we're seeing huge demand," said Joel Koppelman, Primavera's chief executive officer.

His company, which has grown partly by acquisition, reported last week that sales rose 43 percent, to $178 million, in 2007.

Among the other locally based construction-software firms, Bentley Systems Inc., of Exton, founded by former DuPont Co. engineer Keith Bentley and his four brothers, reported more than $400 million in sales of engineering-, construction- and utility-management systems for 2007. Maxwell, which sold $40 million in cost-accounting, estimating and other systems after an acquisition last year, is backed by Philadelphia's LLR Partners Inc.

Despite recent mergers, it is a fragmented industry, with firms joining forces on some applications while competing on others. "Our big competition is Microsoft Excel," said Primavera's Koppelman.

The industry is segmented by product. "You have project-management software, where Primavera has absolute leadership," said Tim Curran, chief executive officer of Vela Systems. "You have construction management, where Primavera and Trimble [Sunnyvale, Calif., owner of Meridian Project Systems] split the market. You have accounting, estimating, bidding, where it's Sage Timberline Office [Beaverton, Ore.] and also Maxwell. There's design software, which is dominated by Autodesk, and Bentley. And there's field software, which we do," linking tablet computers from job sites to corporate offices.

"More and more of our customers are starting to use the word

paperless

," Curran added.

At New Jersey's $1 billion Meadowlands stadium construction project, Skanska USA is using a materials-management program from Vela. For $50,000, plus $12,000 in development costs, the program tracks the status and quality of 3,200 pieces of precast concrete built by High Concrete Group L.L.C., based in Denver, Pa., at sites in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

"Each piece gets it own truck" and needs to arrive just in time for installation into a steel frame whose construction is also carefully timed, said David Campbell, Skanska vice president of innovation and technology. He learned about the system on a recent visit to Finland and won permission to try it here.

Bentley's rival in the engineering market, Autodesk Inc., is a public company, and its finances are more open to view. Autodesk reported sales rose 18 percent last year, to $2.2 billion, but projects just a 12 percent to 14 percent increase this year, with sales to U.S. and Latin American builders and manufacturers "flattening," chief financial officer Alfred Castino told analysts at a forum sponsored by Morgan Stanley on March 5. Autodesk shares have dropped to $34 from a high of more than $50 in December.

Software does not always follow the construction cycle, since cost controls are most in demand when business is slowing, said Jim Flynn, chief executive officer at Maxwell Systems.

"In the residential market a year and a half ago, people had more work than they could handle, so they could price things at high profit margins, and costs weren't critical," Flynn said. "Now, all of a sudden, it's a much more competitive workplace, and they have to bid closer and closer to costs so they can manage their debt burdens and their crews. Or else they're looking at a formula for going out of business."

Area Construction Software Firms

Bentley Systems Inc.

,

Exton.

CEO:

Greg Bentley.

Employees:

2,400.

Revenue*:

$400 million.

Products:

Engineering-, construction-, utility- management software.

Owners:

Bentley family.

Primavera Systems Inc.

Bala Cynwyd.

CEO:

Joel Koppelman.

Employees:

565.

Revenue*:

$178 million.

Products:

Project- management software.

Owners:

Koppelman, Faris, Francisco Partners, Insight Venture Partners.

Maxwell Systems

King of Prussia.

CEO:

Jim Flynn.

Employees:

265.

Revenue*:

$40 million.

Products:

Accounting, estimating, payroll, work-order software.

Owners/managers:

LLR Partners Inc.

* 2007

SOURCE: Companies