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If you're "little guy" Tom Cooper, in contrast to vertically integrated competitors who wait to reach a managerial consensus before launching new initiatives, you decide one day that you want to try something new, and you just go ahead and do it.

Nearly 2 years ago the president of Cooper Concrete in Garland, Texas, turned his new hobby of designing Web pages into part of his one-site, two-plant business. For now, he's familiarizing a few do-it-yourselfers and small out-of-town contractors with cooperconcrete.com, which they use to pay their bills and even order concrete.

Customers can make secure payments through a Web-based service. Or, they can access an Order Online link, which has a shopping cart. They get a list of possible preset 3000-psi concrete orders that include price, cubic yardage, and delivery. The customer can also order fibers or increase compressive strength by 500 psi.

Overall, Cooper's Web site experience shows how far the producer can go with e-commerce at minimal cost. However, Lawrence Afable, NRMCA's IT manager, says 20 regular online customers is the point at which the producer must Web-enable a plant's dispatch and accounts receivable functions to prevent a data processing burden. Beyond this point, you may need separate databases and servers for these functions, and for batching and material inventorying. You're also looking at the need to hire a Web-hosting service.