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It has been a rollercoaster ride for the quartet who now make up the board of Optimise. FPJ checks in to the company's new Nottingham facility to chart progress.


THE FOUR directors of Optimise Systems Ltd would be the first to hold their hands up and admit the last couple of years have been rather fraught with uncertainty. A series of management buyouts and a history of virtual neglect have left customers somewhat dazed and confused about the virtues of the company's software offering, Prodigy. However, with a fresh perspective from new premises, an injection of finance and new blood, and a bucket load of enthusiasm, the minds behind Optimise believe they have got what it takes to put Prodigy back on the map.

In April 2005, the company obtained exclusive ownership of Prodigy, which has eliminated a fundamental shortcoming outright. The directors agree that previous owners of the software have tended to manage affairs on a remote basis, which has left clients rather jaded and ill-informed. However, Optimise is strictly a hands-on operation, they claim.

"The difference this time is that we are the decision makers," says development director, Arthur Field. "The customer base, management and the product has pretty much remained consistent but it is now much easier to get development decisions made."

In a bid to emphasise the clear channels of communication with its clients, the company held an open day in July, during which the directors outlined their objectives for the future, both long and short term. "We treated the open day as a starting point," says sales and marketing director, Phil Carter. "We haven't finished the race by any means but we are starting to deliver on the promises we made."

Optimise is under no illusions that reaffirming credibility within the marketplace will be easy. In recent years, the industry has spawned a number of strong players in the field of IT. Yet, managing director, Barrie Astbury, says the new competition has stirred up the industry, raising the stakes of the game, which will only have positive repercussions in the end. And, the company feels it is finally moving in the right direction towards attaining a stronghold in one of its particular fields of interest, namely small to medium-sized produce marketing organisations.

Having acquired more spacious offices, the staff is better able to distinguish the two sides of the business – maintenance work and programming. However, the directors feel that with the addition of new staff members and the possibility of further recruitment, extra space may be required before long, so they are already assessing the possibility of expanding on their current site.

The team has been growing at an impressive rate. This year the company hired Tim Spate, who joined the existing staff in the role of senior project leader, as well as four trainee programmers. "We were only going to take on two new programmers originally but when we saw their aptitude we really couldn't turn them down," says Astbury.

And, having reached a level of stability, all staff members are fully focused on the technology at hand. So why are the directors putting so much weight behind a mature system like Prodigy? Working under various names and management teams, the four directors have been involved with Prodigy at varying stages of its development, accruing some 80 years of relevant experience between them. "We've got a lot of affection for Prodigy because we've grown up with it and the last thing we wanted to see was a really good product die," says Astbury." And the team is quick to highlight its advantages. "What we have to offer new customers is a stable and well developed product, which therefore doesn't have a major development cost to carry," says Narracott. "It is a very robust and flexible product. It needs regenerating but whatever we do we don't want to lose those qualities."

Being a Unix-based system it doesn't need rebooting on a frequent basis and having ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) means it can be used in a variety of different formats, to suit individual user preferences, he explains.

Like a lot of mature products, Prodigy has been subjected to a fair amount of amalgamation which means various versions of the software are being used within the industry. The company intends to focus on developing particular aspects of the program suite, for example, a new production module, which is already underway, although it has come to the conclusion that clients are in need of guidance in using the existing technology, before embracing too many new facilities. "Customers are not getting enough out of the system," says Carter. "There are is a real lack of training available so we are proactively putting in schedules for people to come here for proper training days. This is one area we feel has been neglected for too long and we are determined to put that right."

According to Narracott, this gesture demonstrates the company's holistic approach. "We offer a total service," he says. "We don't have an engineering workshop but when we install or upgrade we will do everything from just supplying a server with software to a complete infrastructure. By working with hardware partners we can concentrate on the software maintenance and functionality of the products."

One disadvantage of the system, to which the company readily admits, is that it "doesn't look very pretty". However, Field is quick to emphasise that the system has improved in this respect. "And we are not restricted by any specific environment." he adds.

With regards to the company's medium-term plans at least, the current Unix based system is very much a fixture. "Unix is where we want to be for the moment but we are in an ongoing development phase and all platforms will be and are being considered," says Astbury. According to Carter there are reasons for and against using a Microsoft platform, but Optimise is wary of aligning itself too strongly with either school of thought. "There are a lot of people who are very anti Microsoft but there are also a lot of people, especially the next generation – the sons and daughters of directors – who have been totally brought up on Windows, and it is not in our interest to alienate anyone."

Optimise is pleased to announce the recent addition of a major potato supplier, North Norfolk Potato Growers Ltd, to its books. Carter says the team is looking forward to working closely with the company as it develops in the future.

In this age of rising costs and negligible returns, the importance of selecting a first-rate computer system cannot be over-emphasised, says Astbury. "Fresh produce companies are pretty well all getting the same prices for their goods and are now beginning to realise that the only place they can make any savings is in their own warehouses." Technology systems in produce facilities are still fragmented, according to Astbury. But he suggests this cannot last, especially with the growth in mobile technology, which will ultimately co-ordinate all operations within an individual company, providing access to all files from any location, in real time.

Sales and marketing are not the only objective in focus, however. "The new business is great, we love putting in systems and growing the business but we are not going to forget our existing clients," Carter says. "We have given ourselves two years to achieve what we talked about at the open day, about bringing Prodigy a little bit further into the twentieth century, before we think about our long-term aims."

Topping the agenda is the plan to get the website up and running, which should be finished early next year. With the company hoping to raise its client base by 10 per cent next year, this will be a much needed resource, says Carter. The company is also determined to strengthen relations and trust between the development and sales teams to avoid giving clients unrealistic forecasts for any programming required.

The team at Optimise Systems has set itself some steep challenges, but ambition, and a little risk are all par for the course, its directors surmise. "Next year will be a critical year for us," says Astbury. "There have been a fair few casualties but we don't intend to be one of them. Watch this space because Prodigy really is back. We are not going to take the attrition we have suffered lying down."


Reproduced courtesy of the Fresh Product Journal
Elspeth Waters
16 December 2005


Prodigy Software