It took a pair of fresh eyes to see just how much the business of timber merchant CF Anderson was being held back by its ageing management software.

When Alex Heddell was taken on two-and-a-half years ago as IT manager, the company relied on a 15-year-old Wang mini computer. The system ran the business reasonably efficiently but a key issue was its lack of flexibility, particularly over accessing data, and thus, management reporting, which had become a crucial.

“It was obvious the company was being held back by the limitations of the old system,” said Mr Heddell, now CF Anderson‘s operations director, “and, because Wang had gone out of business, there was an ever-increasing risk that something would fail and we would be unable to obtain parts on the reconditioned market.”

The selection process

It took him around 12 months of searching before a final decision was made over the right IT system for the business. Five potential solutions were quickly narrowed down to two which were looked at in detail. A key factor was that CF Anderson had already installed Microsoft‘s Great Plains accounts package and was very comfortable with it. The eventual choice was therefore between bisTrack, a system developed by Progressive Solutions International (PSI) and which is designed to interface with most standard accounts package, and a bespoke “from scratch” system built on to Great Plains by a specialist supplier.

The company finally selected bisTrack, which is designed specifically for timber and builders merchants and built on Microsoft’s powerful, modern database management system, “SQL Server”.

Implementation took around six months, with most data being transferred electronically from the old system. Day one with the live system was surprisingly calm. Because it is a Windows-based system and looks like Microsoft Outlook, users generally find it familiar and easy to learn. “All our 50 users adapted very quickly and the intensive training we did in conjunction with PSI meant that we had no real problems,” said Mr Heddell.

CF Anderson invoices every day and an immediate and significant benefit was that the company gained a day on its invoicing. “From a cash point of view, this was fantastic,” said Mr Heddell, “and this happened just a week after going live. We also quickly saw productivity improvements in order processing as the orders were so much easier to enter.”

He added that bisTrack’s management reporting abilities provided a dramatic improvement to business. “This was the really big sea change, going from a system which had to run reports overnight, to being able to pull off up-to-the-minute reports as and when you need them.”

Flexible reporting

The bisTrack system is also designed to provide flexible end-user reporting on the basis that one user might focus on margin differences between branches, another on product spread by key customers.

CF Anderson’s senior management can see business as it comes in via their customised “dashboards” and use the system to produce in-depth analysis on purchasing, turnover, margin and stock turn.

bisTrack has been designed to offer straightforward integration with hardware add-ons such as hand-helds and wireless bar code scanners. The CF Anderson sales team carry “Blackberries”, allowing them to access live bisTrack data over the GPRS network to check stock availability and pricing during customer visits. Together with a major customer, the company is also piloting the internet trading system “”.

A crucial requirement from a software supplier, according to Alex Heddell, is ability to work in partnership with customers in developing software further. An example of PSI’s approach was the development of bisTrack’s Transport module, designed with major input from CF Anderson which now uses it to allocate delivered orders to its designated routes. The system can be used to “manipulate” individual journeys and, when finalised, picking notes and journey manifests are printed.

“The bisTrack system will grow with us,” said Mr Heddell. “If we find we need something which isn’t already incorporated, I’m confident that PSI will work with us to fill the gap.”