BALANCING CRAFT AND COMMODITY
ROBERT TALBOTT IS UP TO THE TASK WITH TECHNOLOGY
Byline: BRENDA LLOYD
ATLANTA (FNS) — Robert Talbott, a men’s wear specialty-store favorite for better neckwear and dress shirts, handcrafts its products in the Old World style but manages its business in the New Age.
The Carmel Valley, Calif.-based manufacturer’s latest foray into space-age electronic-information-management technology is laptop computers for the sales force, a team of about 15 persons who are used to using pen and paper for order-taking.
Components of this sales-force automation (SFA) system include an IBM 360P pen-based laptop, a Citizen Notebook Printer II (which weighs about five pounds), and a wireless Ericsson Mobidem 9600-baud radio-frequency modem, which each sales representative carries.
This SFA rep tool is part of a series of Talbott’s evolving technology-based system, which now integrates every aspect of every department from sales and customer service, design and merchandising, to inventory control and purchasing and operations.
The laptops enable the sales reps, while they are with their retail customers, to bring up order forms on the laptop screen and fill them out by touching the screen with a special pen. Then, or later from their hotel room, the reps can transmit the order by AT&T EasyLink to AT&T’s mailbox in St. Louis. Talbott’s computer in Carmel, a UNIX-based Hewlett Packard 9000, is programmed to download orders every night at the 75,000-square-foot corporate and manufacturing headquarters, and a paper confirmation of the order is sent to the customer the next day.
Also, Talbott’s MIS department creates CDs that are sent to sales reps four times a year. Using CD Porta-Drives from CD Technology, the sales staff can pull new information onto their hard disks with the touch of a button, according to Carl Hamana, Talbott’s 41-year-old controller.
“What once took three hours of paperwork at the end of the day now takes the sales rep an average of 45 minutes,” he said. “In short, SFA lets the sales rep do what he does best — sell.”
It is a far cry from the technology used in Talbott’s manufacturing facility in Carmel, where neckwear and shirts are cut and sewn by non-computerized equipment. Fabric, bought primarily from mills in Italy and England, is cut by rotary knives, and the cut pieces are sewn on Singer and Juki sewing machines, according to Hamana. The company will carry the handmade tradition even further next spring when it will introduce two shirt styles that will have collars and cuffs truly sewn by hand. “Those will be very high-end,” Hamana said.
Robert Talbott was founded by Robert and Audrey Talbott 46 years ago after the couple moved to Carmel from New York, where Robert Talbott was a successful banking insurance executive. The business was based on the gift bow ties that Audrey Talbott sewed for her husband and his friends.
The company is still family-owned and has an annual income of more than $35 million and about 300 employees. Audrey Talbott now is CEO, a position she took after the death of her husband in 1986.
SFA is the brainchild of Hamana and David Downer, 37, the owner of ICA (or Innovative Computer Applications), Robert Talbott’s computer-consulting subsidiary. In 1994, Hamana and Downer (then MIS director) found a pen-based system designed for hospital patient admissions at the Comdex Show (an electronic trade conference) in Las Vegas.
“The technology represented a possible way around our sales force’s resistance to keyboards,” Hamana said. “We then spent 18 months selecting hardware and writing proprietary software using a modified Power Pen Pal by Symbol Technologies. The end result was SFA.”
Each time a salesperson dumps a retailer’s order into the computer, it triggers a domino-like information stream with trickle-down repercussions throughout the company. For example, invoicing, including appropriate discounts and credit terms, is automatically initiated from accounting, production slots are instantly scheduled, expected delivery dates generated and inventory levels deleted and the imminent Just-In-Time need for raw-material input to feed production, including packaging and shipping materials as well as fabrics, threads and labels, is electronically routed to respective departments for follow-up action. In the design studio, patterns and graphics for ties and shirts, as well as coloring mandates, are instantly downloaded to Talbott’s several mills in Italy and England. Design changes can be made instantaneously.
The benefit of offering a real-time, direct-data-link sales call to retailers is that fabric availability for massive orders and expected delivery dates are instantly determined, according to the company. During the same modem-linked sales call, sold-out patterns or colorways are flagged and a retailer can select alternatives, saving a return sales call. When retailers are looking for promotional merchandise, then boosted markup margins or discounted fabric, closeouts and special buys can be accessed and reviewed. Furthermore, credit history, terms, discounts and even credit problems requiring C.O.D. or prepayment are automatically red-flagged and can be dealt with and resolved on the spot.
The most notable advantage to SFA, Hamana said, “is the system’s ability to download up-to-the-minute inventory information to the sales rep’s laptop when an order is placed.” It has saved the company $300,000 to $400,000 in lost sales, which could occur when the sales rep doesn’t have the most current inventory numbers, and it serves to build customer trust, Hamana said.
“Over the next three years, we predict savings of $1 million,” he claimed. “Additionally, the SFA system streamlined order processing by eliminating seasonal logjams.”
The cost of the SFA system was about $250,000, of which $100,000 was for hardware, excepting the HP 9000 mainframe system, which was already in place. The rest was for salaries and consulting for software development. The project took about a year and a half from conception to implementation.
What’s next? In the future, Hamana and Downer plan to modify SFA to contain a three-way modem that will be able to utilize a radio signal and cellular and phone lines for transmission, according to Hamana. Also, a Pen Pal system is being developed for in-house customer-service order-taking of regular orders and Just-In-Time shirt orders.
Also, there are plans to computer-interface customer service with the inventory and shipping departments to maintain a dynamic inventory balance. And bar coding will be introduced for manufacturing-shop-floor control. Tags bearing bar codes will be used to track goods through all phases of production and will provide piece-rate payroll. Finished-goods inventory will also be scanned with bar-code readers, and orders will be picked and packed using bar codes.
Said Downer regarding SFA, “I want to give sales reps the best possible system … but also give them the necessary information and tools that allow for smooth data entry and ease of use. There was only one way to go — pen based. What is more natural for a sales rep to use than a pen and workpad?”
The technology offspring of Robert Talbott, ICA is a result of the success of Talbott’s MIS architecture, he said. It markets a fully-customized version of Hamana’s and Downer’s system’s capabilities to non-competing apparel makers, such as Cole-Haan and Nordstrom. Said Downer, “The goal of my company was to provide the apparel industry with a no-nonsense approach to sales-force automation.” ICA currently has relationships with Richter Management, with whom SFA was originally interfaced, as well as JBA International.
Downer said that ICA systems are custom designed to integrate in both laptop-to-host and host-to-laptop directions with logical data updating critical inventory, and customer and style information, along with E-mail. Also, ICA currently is looking at incorporating current applications into its product that will allow sales reps to have visual conversations with one another, as well as with the home office. “We’re also looking at creating on-line visual help that will incorporate video to help sale reps along through trouble spots,” Downer said.