The Midlands – Boom time

A small trader in the Midlands wanted to put his company on the Internet to help him to do business with companies in other countries, particularly Germany. The boss of this ten-man operation, however, had missed one thing.

Germany and other European Union countries will be in the first wave of economic and monetary union on 1 January next year and dealing in euros. Anybody trading with those countries will have to take account of the euro and this company’s technology was not euro-compliant.

One of the tasks of Bentley Jennison, the company’s accountancy firm, is to make clients aware of such problems and to help them find the best solutions.

Bentley Jennison has more than 10,000 clients, which it serves from its headquarters in Birmingham and other offices in Telford, Stafford, Stoke-on-Trent, Nottingham, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Swindon and Bristol.

Five years ago, the firm expanded considerably by setting up an IT consultancy division at a separate centre in Birmingham. ‘We understood the business and it was a natural extension of our skills,’ says George Rourke, director of the IT consultancy division. For the clients, the IT unit made the firm a one-stop shop for all accountancy and technology services.

Birmingham as the natural site

The choice of Birmingham as the site for the consultancy was natural too. The firm has a heavy concentration of clients in the Midlands plus Birmingham is geographically reasonably central to all of the Bentley Jennison offices.

The firm’s IT specialists have the job of helping clients to select the most appropriate system for their business so they can get the best from the technology that is available, and this involves talking to a spread of staff who will work on it. ‘They use us as a sounding board,’ says Rourke, ‘and with our service we take the risk out of things.’

The IT team then performs a hand-holding supervisory role in the early days to be sure that everybody is conversant with the technology and uses it properly. ‘We try to ensure a major upheaval is carried out with the minimum disruption,’ says Rourke.

The service is adapted to the type and size of the organisation. The 10,000-plus clients are broken down into three categories. There are the very small businesses, which Bentley Jennison calls ‘the VSBs’ with up to 50 employees.

Then there are the small to medium-sized enterprises, usually known as SMEs, with 50 to 200 employees.

The third group consists of public-sector bodies, including local councils, housing associations, health authorities and further education colleges for which the firm has particularly specialised services.

Many of the clients are owner-managed and are in the VSB category with their own tailor-made service. ‘They are the ones who particularly need help,’ says Rourke.

‘We provide training and selection for them. Often it is somebody looking to computerise accounts for the first time. We look at what clients want and make sure they get all they need for this purpose.’

In the public sector, the firm is at the moment selecting a suitable system for a large housing association. More recent years have brought their technology torments. However, the formation of the Bentley Jennison IT consultancy division in 1993 was a timely addition to the firm’s service.

The exporting company that had overlooked the single currency issue is not alone. European economic and monetary union, better known as EMU, looks set to bring some shocks with it on next New Year’s Day. Rourke observes: ‘Some small businesses say they don’t have to be EMU-compliant.’

The exporter going on the Internet was a classic case, but the problem can be even more complicated than that. Bentley Jennison has found companies believe they are fully ready for EMU because they have multi-currency software in their computers. But they have forgotten a little horror that calls itself ‘triangulation’.

For example, those companies that have international commercial dealings involving deutschmarks and lire – the currencies of two of the countries that are committed to joining EMU on 1 January – will have to go through the euro as the single European currency.

The calculation, from deutchmarks through euros to lire will have to be done to six decimal points before any rounding up or down. The IT team’s duty is then to inform the company that its software will, therefore, have to be capable of this number-crunching arithmetic.

EMU may be the lesser known of the two main technology problems looming for businesses, though it is the one that will strike the unsuspecting first. The second, and possibly more damaging, problem coming closer by the day, though admittedly a little further away, is the millennium time bomb. Strangely, a recent survey showed that more small businesses believed they were prepared for the millennium than those that thought they could handle EMU.

Nevertheless, all the research conducted by business information companies and other organisations has revealed a large proportion of small businesses that have made no provision for the effect of the date change at midnight on the final day of next year. It sounds closer if you think of it in that way.

Disaster prevention strategy

Bentley Jennison wants to be sure its clients are not hit by the year-2000 problem. To help avert disaster the firm is holding seminars for interested parties at the moment.

It is offering health checks to its companies to see how seriously they are exposed to the problem and to help them become millennium-compliant.

Some companies may think the biggest danger will be that pensions and pay will be held up for a week or two if their technology reads the 00 date as 1900 instead of 2000. Their worst fear may be merely irate pensioners and workers.

There are, however, more lasting consequences of ignoring the time bomb.

Vital export orders may not be delivered if they are computer-controlled and as a result valuable customers may be lost for ever.

The issue is particularly relevant to companies in the Midlands. The area has always been known for its factories producing components for car manufacturers and other heavy industries. These large companies are keen to protect their markets and some have stipulated that they will not deal with suppliers of components unless their technology is millennium-compliant.

BT, for example, is also refusing to continue to do business with companies whose computers and software are not up to date with the millennium.

Bentley Jennison’s IT specialists are making a point of emphasising the perils of non-compliance at the firm’s millennium seminars.

The issues of compliance with EMU and the year 2000 and the need to install effective, efficient technology have contributed to the enormous growth of Bentley Jennison’s IT consultancy recently.

The staff has doubled in the past 12 months to meet the needs of the firm’s clients. Rourke predicts that it will grow by another third this year and by yet another third in the crucial 1999.

He says: ‘Our whole theme at the consultancy is to make IT work harder for you. That sounds like a punchline but it is exactly what it does.

We aim to make IT work for people to give them a competitive advantage.’

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