Three centuries – not out!

Published:  26 September, 2011

COLCHESTER: Few independent builders’ merchants in the UK can claim to be in business so long as to have spanned three centuries as Kent Blaxill can.

Behind the scenes of today’s busy trade counters and bustling yards stocked with countless lines of product, Kent Blaxill's offices pay a silent yet proud tribute to the previous generations of owners and staff in an impressive photographic display of their Company’s history, from their humble beginnings in 1838. Indeed, one gets the certain feeling that they are not only proud of their history but clearly have every intention of serving their customers for decades if not centuries to come.

Certainly, for a company that was established in the same year as Charles Dickens published “Nicholas Nickleby” and has traded through two World Wars, not to mention the Crimean and Boer Wars as well, Kent Blaxill’s success is a reflection of their continued commitment as a family-owned business to their customers with whatever building products and home improvement supplies they need.

Today’s Kent Blaxill is run by the 6th generation of family – Simon Blaxill - but the size and scale of the operation would be unrecognisable from the small firm that originally supplied glass and oil from a high street shop. Glass and glazing products still form an important part of the business but is one of several specialist divisions under the Kent Blaxill banner. The Company now occupies a seven acre site at its main Colchester premises and has seven other branches across Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, all of whom contribute to the group’s £25M turnover.

Always one to move with the times, Kent Blaxill has always recognised the importance of having good information within the business and recognised the need for an IT system at an early stage. However, in 2009, and after 23 years of service, even Kent Blaxill’s aging ACSL software was beginning to show its limitations. In IT terms, the Company was experiencing “growing pains” as Chris Barton, Kent Blaxill’s Business Development Manager explained. “..Whilst there was no main issue with the way the ACSL system continued to run, it was clear that we just could not get the kind of information out of the system that a modern company needs to run its business. There was no accurate customer or product sales analysis available from which we could target our sales and marketing. Crucially, one of our key drivers for the development of our business was our plans to significantly develop sales over the web and we already knew that the old system’s ability to integrate with a new and dynamically updated website was practically non-existent.”

In 2009, Kent Blaxill brought Gareth Chambers onboard to help with their website developments, beginning with the Company’s power tool range; but as Gareth explains “…the trouble we found was that ACSL could not link with the off-the-shelf e-commerce application we’d bought, on a transaction-by-transaction basis. The best that we could expect was to batch update the website with stock and pricing information from ACSL overnight, but this was not good enough for what we wanted.”

Kent Blaxill feared that this delay between website and back office system, a scenario known as “web-lag”, could result in unhappy and disappointed customers if the stock they thought was available on the website and actually been sold-out by one of Kent Blaxill’s eight branches. Such scenarios could not be entertained as customers would be frustrated and Kent Blaxill’s reputation would suffer.

Chris Barton explains that, from an early stage “…we recognised that a tremendous amount of future business would come over the web, particularly from key areas of our product range such as our growing specialist paints sector; and whilst we predict that this growth may be 2-3 years away, we felt it important to ensure the correct foundations for a website, with customer portal applications, was laid immediately. We did look at the next version of the software we were using, but it was clear that we would have to look to an entirely new system and so we looked to the other systems on the market.”

So began a lengthy and thorough process of evaluating a number of merchants’ software solutions on the market. However, in concluding their evaluation, which involved several presentations and trips around the country to visit reference site users, Kent Blaxill elected to partner with Chatsworth Computers and its Merlin Business Software solutions.

The original shortlist had come down to three companies, but was quickly narrowed to two after a large US software vendor did not inspire confidence, particularly with a concern over the likelihood of escalating costs. “…of the two remaining vendors, the presentation of Merlin was the best and Chatsworth Computers gave the better impression of the kind of company that we wanted to partner with…” Chris Barton explained “…our decision was more to do with the people, than it was to do with the software. We wanted to find a partner as much as a supplier because we consider this to be a relationship for at least the next ten years.

Having agreed terms, Chatsworth Computers installed an initial 140-user licence of Merlin across Kent Blaxill’s eight locations, deploying it on a centrally-located virtualised server solution comprising two identically configured Fujitsu Rack Mount servers each mirroring of the other’s combined Linux-based PostgreSQL database and MS-Windows Server domain controller and Terminal Server elements. By using a separate Network Disk Storage Server, the new central virtualised server solution would continue to provide indefinite processing to all of Kent Blaxill’s users across all sites, susceptible only to external failure of the network infrastructure.

Indeed, the new central virtualised server solution that had been designed by Chatsworth Computers’ own VMware specialists offered a tremendous amount of additional processing power; so much so, that each of Kent Blaxill’s three existing servers were also virtualised on to the new system, allowing Kent Blaxill to decommission all three of them and allowing them to enjoy the significant reduction of costs associated with their maintenance and general running costs.

Following the installation of the new server hardware and the delivery of the Merlin Business Software, a thorough and comprehensive on-site implementation project of training and go-live support services preceded a go-live in 2010 which was successful, though not without its anticipated issues. The process was streamlined by Chatsworth Computers’ ability to offer a data conversion service, transferring the data from Kent Blaxill’s ACSL system directly in to Merlin’s powerful PostgreSQL database, having previously worked with other uses of the same software.

Even whilst still within the first year of going live with Merlin, Chris Barton admits that they are still finding new things about the system and are still learning how to get the most out of Merlin; “…it’s like learning to drive a car. You only learn so much with your driving instructor; it’s when you pass your test and get out on the road – that’s when you actually learn what driving’s all about. Now we’re really in to the system, we’ve got time to get in to all the information available to us and use it for marketing like we’ve always wanted.”

Adding to this theme, Kent Blaxill’s Gareth Chambers continued, “…this is a classic example of Merlin allowing us to really, effectively target customers and allows us to segment them into different groups so we can pinpoint and target our advertising, rather than casting a net wide and wasting a lot of resources like we used to, because our old system could not give us this kind of detail.”

Even though Kent Blaxill’s go-live with Merlin was achieved several months ago, they continue to work closely with Chatsworth Computers to review processes within the business and look to see how Merlin can be applied to simplify things further.

However, the immediate benefits are there to see; customers are being served quickly and efficiently and stocks are being managed better than ever before. “…we’re certainly finding it better to get at information from all areas of the system using Merlin’s embedded reports, Crystal Report Writer or even the basic links to Microsoft Excel...” Chris Barton comments, “…I can now find out what I want to know within minutes; certainly more staff can find more information for themselves using Merlin than they ever could with our old system. Previously, we used to have to wait for our weekly visit from our IT guy to get any reports written that we needed and that was usually well after we actually needed the information.”

The first stage of Kent Blaxill’s plan for a new website is also off to a flying start with Gareth Chambers recently receiving Chatsworth Computers’ “User of the Month” award, following a recommendation from specialist web design company, WIDA Group, for Gareth’s tireless work to populate the new Kent Blaxill website with excellent photographs, imagery and content.

Looking to the future, Kent Blaxill recognise that the subject of IT in business is not a static one, but a constantly changing element which is key to the continued success of their business; and as Chris Barton predicts with the likes of a plan to link Merlin’s lorry route planning system with their existing vehicle tracking system, there are plenty of other projects in the pipeline for Merlin Business Software and Chatsworth Computers yet to come.

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