With a reputation for providing cloth used to create suits for royalty and the stars (including 007's attire in the James Bond films), it is not surprising that Holland and Sherry states that it provides 'The Finest Cloths in the World' alongside the company's distinctive logo. Founded in 1836, Holland and Sherry is one of the oldest established weavers and merchants in the world and looks entirely at home in its fine listed building on the edge of Scottish Borders town of Peebles.
The range and quality of cloth supplied by Holland and Sherry is staggering. Typically, the warehouse contains around 3,500 product lines, much of which involves mohair, cashmere, and other luxury fabrics as well as some unique items, such as the hand-made 'Initial' cloth - featuring personalised lettering woven into a subtle stripe with silk thread. The company launches around 400 new patterns each season and distributes hundreds of 'bunches' to customers via the firms distribution outlets in Paris, Milan, Sydney, New York and - of course - London's Saville Row.
Charles Stewart has been Chief Executive since 1972 and has done much to maintain the family character of the company: "We try to be polite and extend simple courtesies to our customers," he says. "Holland and Sherry is well-established and successful, but we are not arrogant and definitely aim to avoid complaints." These traditional business values are reflected in the company's approach to investment in information technology, which has been significant over the past few years. 'Aye been' is a Scottish phrase that is apparently frequently used to explain why changes to existing practices are not made in a hurry, in order to safeguard the company's high standards for product quality and customer service.
Holland and Sherry purchased the Mertex system from textile systems specialist Reflex Data Systems in 1995. Replacing a bespoke system that lacked much of the functionality required by the firm and would not work after the 'Year 2000', Mertex was selected primarily to improve stock control and order entry activities. Although the system was based on a packaged software product, substantial adjustments were made to reflect the way things had 'aye been' at Holland and Sherry. Charles Stewart recalls: "We requested 360 changes in order to try and ease the introduction of the new system and, with the benefit of hindsight, we would not repeat that. There are times when it is simply better to change the way things are done." As if to illustrate this point, Holland and Sherry has recently implemented the latest version of the Mertex software package with virtually no changes at all. Stock control is now totally managed using the Mertex system, with an accuracy that no longer requires manual confirmation of the figures - a significant advantage for a company that turned over £4.3 million worth of cloth last year. Even so, Holland and Sherry has retained the manual stock books, as Charles Stewart explains: "There are some things that are difficult to recreate on a screen. We can gather a group of people around a stock book to examine a sample of the fabric, as well as checking the current stock position on every piece of cloth." With fabrics costing anything up to £200 per metre, the skill and experience of stock-keepers is essential. Their judgement may be influenced by subtle factors, such as the position of 'strings' marking flaws in individual pieces of fabric or the knowledge that extra 'fingers' of fabric are given to certain tailors.
Similar contrasts exist in the way that orders are handled by Holland and Sherry. Whereas hand-written dockets are sent to Peebles by fax from London, the New York office uses the Internet to key orders directly into the Mertex system via a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Charles Stewart comments: "Saville Row sees a steady stream of customers face-to-face throughout the day and typing an order into a computer would disrupt the personal service." Nevertheless, the Sydney and Paris sales offices will shortly switch onto VPN systems and most of the overseas agents send orders by e-mail to Peebles. Deliveries are currently made daily to New York and three times a week to Australia. "Once a customer has chosen their cloth, the next thing they want to know is whether they will get it the following day. Out of the thousands of product lines we supply, there may be only 8-10 that we cannot deliver from stock at any one time," says Charles Stewart.
Holland and Sherry produces half a dozen new 'bunches' for the Spring/Summer season and then again for the Autumn/Winter season. On each occasion, the company distributes around 15,000 bunches, which are issued to customers free of charge. It is an expensive process that may, in some instances, involve the production of personalised bunches. The Mertex system provides detailed sales information, which enables the company to identify which fabrics from the different bunches have resulted in sales and, therefore, to target the production and distribution of subsequent bunches.
Charles Stewart comments: "At any one time, we may have forty different types of bunches in the market - each containing forty different cloths. Management information provides crucial guidance for the decisions we make. If necessary, we can extract data from the system into spreadsheets for further analysis and reports."
Accurate management information provided by the Mertex system enables Holland and Sherry to pin-point its outstanding commitment (orders placed on mills for cloth) and intake (orders placed by customers for cloth) - the two key measures of the company's performance and an illustration of the strategic role now played by the system at Holland and Sherry.
Mertex has evolved significantly since the system was first installed at Holland and Sherry. In 1995, the software was being used by only a handful of textile companies, whereas now, Reflex Data Systems is unquestionably the leading supplier to the textile market and works with 60 clients, ranging from major weavers to specialist merchants and converters. As the system's functionality has developed (and as Holland and Sherry has adapted its own processes), fewer and fewer bespoke adjustments have been necessary. The in-house IT Manager works in partnership with Reflex Data Systems to support the company's Information Systems. Importantly, the company has benefited from enhancements introduced for other textile companies, which allows all users to benefit from years of accumulated market expertise and software development. Equally, bespoke enhancements introduced by Holland and Sherry have helped to helped develop Mertex into the industry leading package that it is today.
In contrast to the company's prudent 'Aye been' mentality, Charles Stewart recognises that information technology holds considerable potential for the future of operations at Holland and Sherry: "The Internet presents huge opportunities for a more direct and more individualised service for our customers. It could speed up the process of product selection, with virtual 'bunches' being continuously updated and orders being taken online. We could even set up web conferencing facilities and master tailors' clubs. But, we are some time away from ideas like this."
Whatever happens in the future, information technology will continue to be used in ways that reinforce Holland and Sherry's tradition of customer service and product excellence. With that being so, it seems highly likely that we will continue to see the rich and famous dressed in garments bearing the famous logo of Holland and Sherry for many years to come.
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