Despite a track record of early adoption and success with automation, Williams Bros. Lumber doesn't get swept up in gee-whiz computer technology. Driven by the need to prove the value of systems before investing in them, the dealer only invests in systems that can quickly impact the business in a positive, tangible way. As a result, company management doesn't ruminate over technology investments to the point that things can't get done, especially as the company has grown explosively in the last decade, a period in which it has also maintained a strong focus on leveraging technology to improve the way its business operates.
With the technological savvy befitting a first-mover firm in the industry, William Bros. has been able to determine what systems it needs and then decide whether commercially available systems meet those objectives or if an application should be built in-house. For example, when the company couldn't find the right commercial document imaging and archiving system, Williams Bros. built its own.
Building a Foundation Calhoun and his partner bought the assets of Williams Bros.—which has been in business for more than 80 years—in 1990, at a time when the company was bringing in roughly $30 million in revenue. By the mid-'90s, the company got out of consumer retail entirely and shifted its focus to framing lumber and millwork for production builders and contractors. The strategic shift has paid off handsomely, as the company rocketed to $440 million in revenue in 2004. It now has 17 locations primarily in the Atlanta area.
The dealer's history with technology predates the current ownership, according to David Montgomery, vice president of IT. The company first had computer systems in its retail stores in the 1970s and was an early adopter of the now-ubiquitous fax machine.
In 1996, Williams Bros. was an early user of a then-nascent technology called document imaging, which eliminates paper records or documents by capturing their contents in a digital form and storing them on computers, rather than in desks, filing cabinets, or warehouses. The company conducted time studies and determined that it took a customer service representative as long as 30 minutes to answer an inquiry for a customer about an invoice, including the time to locate the invoice, copy it, and share the information with the customer. Montgomery began investigating commercial document imaging systems but found they were unable to extract data from key business systems, including Williams Bros.' enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.
So Montgomery worked with an Atlanta-based software developer to create a system from scratch. The system was a success, reducing the need for physical storage space and allowing the company's credit department to retrieve signature copies of invoices in seconds instead of minutes. “We worked with the developer as far as how to pull data, the types of merges we needed, the matches, what we needed to see in terms of type of documents, and so forth,” says Montgomery. “We developed and ran that for four or five years.”
“Whereas our system was becoming obsolete, we decided to switch to their system, take advantage of their enhancements and integration in their system much quicker,” Montgomery explains of the transition to the new imaging system.
The potential expansion of imaging technology—like all its IT initiatives—underscores the company's philosophy toward IT: If a technology can deliver significant customer benefits or make a significant financial impact, the dealer will make the investment. At the same time, Williams Bros. will aggressively evaluate new technologies before broadly implementing them.