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August 2001: Volume 43, Number 8

Dealers Needn’t Fear Additional Market Niches; They May have the Appropriate Software In-House to Manage IT
by Charles D. (Charlie) Kent

Editor's note: Charlie Kent, of Tyrol Data Systems, joins WC&P as a guest columnist this month. The next column will rotate back to Nevada Computer Systems.

How many of you have a secondary product line? I’m not talking about small bottle/big bottle, or your salt routes. I’m talking about a completely different product line. How about natural gas, home heating oil, snack foods, motor oil case goods, ice or lawn care? Should you be in an industry such as these? I can’t tell you. But I do know that you understand competition, service, drivers, routing and sanitation. Hell, you’re already over half way there on any of these other route dependent ventures.

Are you worried about your computer system being able to handle it? P'shaw! Most computer systems on the market today could care less what you're delivering. And most companies providing these systems have various functions they've written over the years that, with a little tweaking, will provide those features specific to your secondary industry. In fact, most of the companies out there have a history somewhat similar to my company, Tyrol Data Systems.

It all started…

I had a real job once back in 1979. Of course, all I do now is play and have fun but back then I actually had a real job. Being basically a lazy person, I had over the previous years learned computer systems work to make me look good and do my job easier. Programming was fun—like putting together a puzzle—and not many people could do it.

A friend of mine had a beer distributorship around the corner from my office. When the frustration level got high for me, rather than injure myself kicking my desk or pounding the wall with a fist, I would sneak out and go visiting. He had just purchased one of the first IBM table tops ($20,000) and didn’t know what to do with it. Hey, I’m old—this is before PC days. The language it used was like one I operated with, so off we went. Basically, I programmed his business and he, being on the ski patrol at a local resort, taught me how to ski.

IBM did a sales brochure on the beer distributorship and its computer system and the calls started coming in. When opportunity raps lightly on the door, dumb people jump without looking. And really dumb people buy a ski resort at the same time. I didn’t know you could lose so much money so fast. But we got our name: Tyrol after the Tyrolean Alps. La-te-dah!

Beer, ice & water

While the ski resort was all downhill—no pun intended—the software business was anything but soft. Breweries had realized early that their distributorships were their arm to raw data for sales analysis purposes. And they mined it quite well. It seemed that every six months or so, new requirements were pounded down the pipeline. I didn’t realize my favorite little bar could be categorized in so many ways. The upshot was, of course, the computer and its specialized software were becoming a requirement for all distributorships. On we marched. And computer prices kept falling.

In 1983, I did a demo in Chicago to a beer distributorship and two weeks later the IBM salesman called and asked if I wanted to give a presentation to an ice company. What the heck, I thought, I'd just throw my beer programs on their server and bingo, done. Wrong! Every time I turned around, the client would say, "That’s nice, Charlie, but in the ice industry we do it this way." Back to the coding regimen. We finally finished our first ice customer and he was extremely happy, enough so that he taught us how to sell to the ice industry. And on we marched. And computer prices kept falling.

In 1986, one of my ice companies called and asked me to accompany him to an International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) show in Las Vegas "to see if I can learn anything about this second business I just got into." Such a deal. I went and learned that the bottled water industry went to market the same way as the ice industry did. My programs would work without a lot of rewriting. On we marched. The next year we exhibited at the IBWA show. And computer prices kept falling.

We even participated in the Water Quality Association convention for about three years in the early '90s, but we got so busy with our other niche industries that we couldn’t do justice to those in your organization.

Our latest major undertakings have been into handheld computers for drivers and the Latin American market. The latter has kept us extremely busy. Just translating the screens into Spanish was a major job. And we probably will be finding snippets of English in the code on into the next century. And on we march. And computer prices keep falling.

Exacting demands

Throughout our history, we've seen many variations in coding requirements due to secondary product lines and have reacted to them as needed.

First, there was degree-day accounting for the home heating oil industry. It's a mathematical calculation that tells who'll need oil soonest. Done. Next was the snack food distributor’s problem of keeping track of inventory in a customer’s vending machine and keeping track of out-of-date inventory returning from the customer (since it, of course, cannot go back into your inventory). Done. Then there was the convenience store and its cash registers. Done. How about a trash man? Done. What's the difference between coolers in the house and propane tanks outside? None. One of the more interesting ones was a slush dealer who deals in the little push cart with the umbrella on it you guys in Boston see all over during the heat of summer. Gotta keep track of those push carts. Done.

Every once in a while, we get a little stumped. There are some products sold by the case or by individual unit—liquor/wine and oil filters are two that come to mind. A simple way of handling this is to have two product codes, one for the case and one for the bottle/filter. This is adequate, but hardly elegant. You spend all your time moving product from one to the other or looking up two product codes and mentally calculating the total. Another is to have one product code with a unit of measure of bottles/filters. Again, adequate but hardly elegant. You spend all your time doing mental gymnastics again. Or, have the computer keep the inventory in units but before printing, convert it to cases and bottles (36.11 is 36 cases and 11 bottles). Bingo.

As an aside that has nothing to do with secondary products but which illustrates what your systems programmer can do: Did you know that in Uruguay, they bill everything in Uruguayan pesos. No big deal. The programs handle that. They bill everything in Uruguayan pesos except cooler rent and cups. These are billed in U.S. dollars. And the exchange rate fluctuates daily. A customer comes into the office to pay his bill and pays for the water in pesos and must pay for the other stuff in either U.S. dollars or whatever the dollar amount is worth in today's peso value. Whack! But done.

Conclusion

The above are examples showing what your programs probably already do, or at least what your computer company has the capability of doing. Should you worry about your computer system when contemplating a secondary product line? Absolutely not.

About the author
Charlie Kent is president of Tyrol Data Systems of Stafford, Texas. He can be reached at (281) 494-0400, (281) 494-4944 (fax) or email: charlie@tyroldata.com