Andy Wortley has no trouble recalling the first time he promoted his company’s IT strategy to an outside audience.
“It was at a European Rental Association Convention in Amsterdam. I stood up and told people what we were going to do, and they laughed.“
Years later, with A-Plant now recognised as Europe’s Large Rental Company of the Year at the ERA/IRN European Rental Awards, the company’s IT director can afford a smile of his own.
And while hardware and software might not be the only reasons why so many industry honours have gone the UK-based company's way of late, they have definitely played a part.
As Mr Wortley told IRN: “There’s no doubt it has attracted more of our customers to hook up with us. Without what we’ve done in IT, our support office building - in Warrington, Cheshire, which employs 90 people - wouldn’t be big enough to house A-Plant. In total, we have no more than 150 support staff for a £300 million (€420 million) business.”
It’s a far cry from the late 20th century and the early years of the 21st, as he admitted.
“I came from an operational background. I got into IT because no one else wanted it.
“If you wind the clock back 15 years, rental companies had no IT at all and nor did their customers. They didn’t see any value in it, and for us it was like trying to push water uphill. Now it’s become as important as price. It has become a differentiator.”
One area where A-Plant has been able to differentiate is finance. Around one in five of its customers now complete their transactions electronically, a figure Mr Wortley believes can double within a few years, partly because of an established working relationship with construction industry software company Coins, which has over 80,000 users.
“Arguing about 50p (€0.70) a week on the hire rate is not much good if you have a room full of paper. The cost of manually receiving an invoice is between £2.50 (€3.50) and £15 (€21). If it goes into query it’s more like £70 (€98). We’ve got a customer that self-bills and has been doing for the past three or four years. It’s incredible. When the hire period comes to an end, you need to produce an invoice for accounting purposes, but that’s all.”
Fleet management is a similar case in point.
“One customer’s criteria include that no machine is more than three years old. Another insists that anything costing more than £5000 (€7000) is fitted with a tracker that alerts people if the equipment is used out of hours. You can track it from an iPhone.
“We created a system off the back of this – proactive off-hire. It’s free of charge and anyone can use it. If someone orders something, I ask when the hire period finishes, and later I can alert them to the fact that the end of the time is coming up. It’s parameter driven - they can receive the alert two days before, or a week before, or even escalate it to another email address altogether.
“We have between 200 and 300 people using that system. We don’t want to be falling out over rates.”
Meanwhile, some parts of A-Plant’s IT offering come from the most unexpected sources, such as the company’s Auto Tool Hire Unit (ATHU).
“I got the idea of a manless depot from the Trafford Centre in Manchester. There was a video shop and it had a kind of vending machine allowing people to rent films when it was closed. So we got a 35-foot container, entirely electronic, no people involved at all. You can put one on site in the most high-security settings - they have been in hospitals, prisons, the London 2012 Olympics.
“Then you start thinking - does it have to be a container? Could it just be a fenced off yard with RFID readers on the gate? Could we load qualifications so it stops people driving off with dangerous bits of kit?”
If Andy Wortley was to stand up in front of an ERA Convention now, the subject might well be Business Intelligence Modelling (BIM).
“All the biggest companies are into it,” he said.
“All the information on a building is in the software; all the specifications, the prices, the materials. If we can get hooked in, the advantages are obvious. And we want to do it before anyone else does.”