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Thinking ahead

Thinking ahead

Stu Williamson photography is a highly specialized and focused photo studio in the UAE. The company which began operations around eight months back prides itself on a photographic background that encompasses Europe for over 20 years. With plans to expand aggressively across the UAE and open multiple stores within three years time, the company's staff shows an unusual understanding of how technology could become a huge aid in achieving their goals and growing bigger.

"We had IT systems in our studio in the U.K. When we decided to set up shop in the UAE, we began planning for some of our backend IT systems around six months before hand. We wanted to be well prepared for our start and begin with the basic elements already in place," explains James Reynolds who looks into IT investments and interacts with vendors at Stu Williamson.

Eight months into its set up, the IT infrastructure at the studio is still evolving. But the studio is unique in the way in which it has put together the hardware/networking elements and the software, in preparation as a growth driver for the future.

Networking and hardware

"Our work is focused on people and fashion. And when one clicks photographs there is a lot of creative work entailed. For all of this a Mac is the near perfect system," says Reynolds.

Stu Williamson has in place around four Macs that are connected through an internal network.

"These are used for day to day creative work. This involves retouching, art work, processing and finishing. It is all done on the Mac because they are much more user friendly, all design software works better on a Mac and everything is much easier to do on the systems," says Reynolds.

The studio also has around four PCs that are connected on the network. Apart from this it has a few stand-alone systems as well as laptops used by the staff.

Mac: Benefits

1. Better interface -- for the kind of precision work on photographs done by the studio, the platform offers the best benefits

2. Expanded capabilities -- the system offers the right software and elements for the work entailed in the studio

3. User friendly -- for design software especially the Mac offers a much better environment

4. Compatibility -- With Mac Office, as well as connectivity across the network, the Mac is compatible with other PCs and systems across the studio

The network comprises of Windows Small Business Server 2003, which connects all the systems and ensures that processes happen smoothly across the company. E-mails are centralized with Exchange Server and with Macs compatibility assured, the network provides users with a consistent user interface and experience.

Network: Benefits

1. Connectivity -- across the variegated systems of PCs and Macs through the office

2. Centralized e-mail -- which removes hassles connected to messaging

3. Consistency -- ensures that users have a uniform feel and experience across systems

4. Scalability -- the network can be expanded to provide remote office capability when other studio locations come up

Software

As a photo studio that does high end work in their field, Stu Williamson has a lot of off the shelf creativity software. But unlike other photo studios you might come across, this nine member organization has an ERP system in the back end that touches upon every aspect of their functioning.

"We wanted a system that would help us across the business and manage pretty much everything. Something that could look into our finances, do our bookings, track our product sales, have a good POS built in Ð basically manage everything that would be concerned with the retail side of our business as well as the backend tracking," says Reynolds.

After surveying some local vendor products, as well as playing with the idea of using a vendor from the U.K., Stu Williamson went in for Microsoft's Navision solution.

"The system has three components. It has ERP, as well as a retail management component, along with a POS. There was some amount of customization that was needed. Counting in the implementation and training we took around 12 days to put it in place. As we went along there were requests for additions and such and these were taken into consideration," says Bill Tomlinson, MD for Landsteinar, who implemented the solution.

"The system is easy to use and it can be easily picked up by our staff. And it serves its purpose as a good front end link to the back end to cover the overall management of the studio," says Reynolds.

ERP: Benefits

1. Finance management -- the system works to monitor every aspect of the finances of the studio which negates manual needs

2. Integrated diary - scheduling and booking of shoots becomes much faster and more accurate with the system

3. Report generation -- it provides detailed look into customer spend as well as product sales

4. POS -- the system presents a retail front that is well integrated and makes it easy for the staff

5. Usability -- the interface is intuitive which means even the IT ignorant staff can learn and use it without difficulty

The road ahead

Stu Williamson's staff is fluid and there is no particular IT team in place. People take on IT responsibilities as and when it comes along. They do not have a particular budget for IT but put in money as its needs evolve. What makes them unique though is their foresight.

"Stu Williamson, unlike many other SMBs that I have come across, has over - specified on its initial IT investments. Usually small businesses invest only in their immediate needs but here the studio has kept the future in mind," says Chris Wiener, IT Services Manager for Total Computing Solutions, another implementation partner of the studio.

Thus, the systems are good enough for another four years and the server can last them for around the same period comfortably. And this is evident even in the staff's aspirations for the future.

With the first phase of ERP implementation completed, Stu Williamson will be soon looking at the second phase of the implementation which will cover aspects of customer loyalty and retention. This will include building in more information about the customer, sending out messages and enabling the studio to offer more customized customer service.

An idea of providing WiFi for waiting customers and for transferring pictures without hassle is floating around and might take shape in the future. While they are now storing and archiving their photos on external hard drives and discs, Reynolds does not dispute the fact that they might be looking for something more advanced soon in the future.

"We do not have an endless budget for IT and we take it in line of priorities and what is needed first and immediately. As we grow I am sure there will be additional needs which had not struck us in time and in those, we will invest as the requirements arise," says Reynolds.

Sidebar: 5 things technology did for Stu Williamson

-- Enabled higher efficiency in their creative work -- The Mac systems proved to be the right aid for the high end work that is carried on at the studio.

-- Reduced manual work with connectivity and speed -- The network provides a reliable 'talk' mode between different systems that is being worked on thereby increasing speed of operations

-- Increased productivity -- The systems and the network rid people from labor intensive tasks such as taking down bookings or running around for every shoot.

-- Provided for better customer care and retention -- This was ensured by automating the process of bookings and schedulings.

-- Centralized processes -- This in turn made for easy tracking and, with the help of the easy user interface, the nine member staff can take up temporary IT roles as needed.

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