Since IBM bought out its first mainframe, user conferences have been a feature of the technology business. In the early days they were serious gatherings at which men in white shirts with rows of pens in their top pockets read the runes of the latest product announcements.
Nowadays they have morphed into much more sophisticated events full of showmanship and theatre. The techies have taken a back seat to the forecasters, marketeers and entertainers.
Manhattan Associates, the warehouse management software firm, recently held its annual user get-together in Paris. This year, Manhattan took the unusual step of charging attendees – not because it needed the €200 or so that delegates had to fork out you understand, but because the company believed a fee would ensure more people who booked would turn up.
Apparently, supply chain managers are less likely to cancel at the last moment if they have parted with cash. Supply Chain Standard needed no such inducements to attend. In an industry in which getting to speak to busy executives is a major problem, the prospect of being in the same room as 200 supply chain experts was too good an opportunity to miss.
But what was in it for those Manhattan customers who made the journey to France? Manhattan had decided to pass up the usual cheerleader sessions about product strategy in favour of a string of presentations from users. Representatives from Le Coq Sportif, Tesco, Woolworths and the Co-operative Group were among speakers sharing their supply chain plans with colleagues and competitors. Was this wise?
”Everyone knows what we are doing. Logistics and the supply chain is a fairly incestuous business, so there is usually a fairly good level of knowledge of what is going on,” Terry Ashworth, SC director of the Co-op, told delegates.
Ashworth was there to report on a project to rebuild the Co-op’s distribution network. The retailer suffered from high administration costs, low visibility and long lead times. The multi-million euro project to recast a supply chain serving 3,500 medium-sized stores is nearly three-quarters over with a new national distribution centre already built in Coventry and the first of five regional distribution centres (RDCs) open in Thurrock.
The Co-op expects a three-year payback in many areas of the project. Already, the investment is showing results with 16 per cent sliced off the number of road miles travelled from the Coventry centre and 25 per cent extra space available in the company’s existing RDCs. ”The design process is like a see-saw,” says Ashworth. ”It can be buyer-oriented or stores-oriented.”
In its quest for a suitable model, the Co-op has examined supply chains as diverse as the 7/11 stores group and those of automotive companies.
Running a supply chain in South Africa poses very different problems. When he introduced a warehouse management system, Allan Thompson, managing director of 3PL Kolok, had to cater for warehouse staff who had had no contact with computers – many did not know what a computer mouse was.
Thompson’s biggest problem is the hijackings and robberies that daily threaten his drivers. On one occasion, he even gave chase to two robbers armed with machine guns who had made off with a truck. Unarmed, but with the help of the police he arrested the Uzi-toting raiders.
Delegates had many reasons for pitching up in Paris. Some came to further their careers by seeing and being seen although that was hardly necessary for the high-flying Steve Robinson, boss of Tesco Direct, who talked about running a multi-channel operation. He had just quit the firm for another job but said little about his new post.
For Tim Owrid, supply chain director of Woolworths, it was a matter of repaying the favour of a smooth installation by Manhattan. In return, he treated his audience to a series of dry observations on the supply chain scene. During the gala dinner the previous evening, the humorous Owrid remarked that only supply chain professionals could be found discussing the finer points of lean techniques at 10pm.
John Lamb is a former editor of Computer Weekly, Information Week UK and Information Economics Journal