Thursday 22 March 2018

Intact takes on global software giants

Justin Lawless heads up Dundalk-based Intact Software. He tells Sean Gallagher how their SME software is growing at home and abroad

Sean Gallagher with Intact CEO Justin Lawless Photo: Tom Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Intact CEO Justin Lawless Photo: Tom Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Once the preserve of large corporations, Enterprise Resource Planning - or ERP software - has now become an important tool for many small and medium-sized enterprises.

With so much data being generated by businesses today, this type of integrated software is now widely used by firms to capture, store, manage and interpret information - information essential for the smooth running of business functions that include everything from purchasing, manufacturing and sales to customer relations management (CRM), inventory management, shipping, payments and accounts.

The fundamental advantage of ERP systems is that, by making data available in real time, management is in a position to make faster and more informed decisions as well as reducing the likelihood of errors occurring due to inaccurate or delayed information. Providing such increased visibility of data across organisations also helps avoid what is commonly known in organisations as 'silos' or 'islands of information' where one department doesn't know what the other is doing.

Last week I met up with Justin Lawless, the CEO of indigenous Irish business, Intact Software, to learn about how his company is taking on the global incumbents in this growing but highly-competitive sector. Set up in 1992, and with offices in Dundalk, Omagh, Cork, and Wicklow as well as in Manchester, the company now employs 60 staff and has annual revenues of over €5m.

"We are essentially a software company that develops enterprise-class business management software for the SME sector. This empowers these companies to manage and control every aspect of their businesses from the front door to the back door," Justin explains as he welcomes me to his company's new offices in the Blackthorn Business Park in Dundalk.

This modern business campus, now home to an array of professional and IT-based businesses was once the site of a thriving shoe factory - a striking reminder of just how much the nature of business in Ireland has changed in recent decades.

"The most important benefit of our software to our customers is that it gives them the right information at the right time to make substantial improvements in their businesses decision and ultimately their bottom line," Justin says.

"Instead of having a number of individual software packages that manage sales, purchases, stock and accounting, our system integrates all these functions into one system where each element talks to the other. That way, duplication in companies is reduced and the increased ability to share data results in better collaboration within and between various departments." he adds.

Justin introduces me to group sales director Mark McArdle. With the firm for almost 20 years, Mark demonstrates how the software works including elements such as the CRM system, supplier management function and a module that allows companies track their stock levels, locations of their stock and re-order points.

There is also a full job costing facility that allows business managers monitor labour, materials and other input costs while linking everything back to a general ledger.

The accounting module is an important part of the software and provides everything from full profit and loss accounts and trial balances to balance sheets.

"Our customers are typically organisations that employ between 500 to 300 employees with many operating in the retail, services, wholesale and distribution or building supply chain sectors," says Justin. "We are particularly strong in sectors who have omni-channel sales such as mix of web, field sales reps, telesales and point of sale." he adds.

Having already developed a strong customer base in Ireland, the company currently exports through a network of resellers in the UK, the Mediterranean, Australia and New Zealand. In addition, they are now looking to expand into Canada and the US markets.

It's been a story of slow but steady growth for the company. Set up by Paul Marry and Aidan Lawless (Justin's brother), both are still actively involved with the firm. Paul looks after UK business development while Aidan is Chief Technology Officer. Both men are from the Dundalk area. Paul studied accounting at Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) and joined a local accounting practice. Aidan, on the other hand, was fresh out of college where he studied computer science, also in DkIT. Both were introduced to each other by a local man who ran a successful office supplies business. He wanted to develop an accounting solution which would have an additional sales and stock management function built in.

By introducing both Paul and Aidan, he hoped that their accounting and IT skills would be the perfect combination to develop such a solution. And he was right.

"The pair began by building vertical market add-ons using various software systems," says Justin. "However, they quickly realised that this didn't work effectively - so rather than building solutions around these existing systems, they developed their own system and added other features, such sales and purchase order processing. And things grew from there," he adds.

In 1998, Justin joined the company on a full-time basis. Prior to that, he had worked part time in the firm, while studying business and computer science in Dundalk. He gradually worked his way up, spending time in the sales, services and support departments. In 2009, he was appointed director of professional services before becoming CEO in 2013.

Looking back, were there any events or developments that helped the company grow?

"Y2K was a time of significant growth," says Justin. "Similarly, with Ireland's move to the Euro, many Irish firms who had used UK software systems realised they were not effective in dealing with punt, euro and sterling currency conversions. However, because of our location in the border county of Louth, we had considerable experience of dealing with this," he adds.

Customer referrals also appear to have played had a major role in the company's success, with over 80pc of all new customers coming by way of referrals from existing customers. Their route into exports also came about through their existing customer base.

As those businesses with whom they had worked in Ireland began to set up overseas operations, they invited Intact Software to install their software solutions in these new locations. As a result, they quickly built up a solid base in the UK from which they were able to grow. As more and more UK customers began to install their software, the distributors of the software systems that had just been replaced began to enquire about becoming resellers - which drove revenues even further.

In 2011, while on an Enterprise Ireland-backed trade mission to Australia, Justin and his colleagues were introduced to a leading reseller who helped them break into Australia and NZ.

As we talk, Justin tells me that the company is on the verge of announcing significant expansion.

After 18 years in the business, does he still enjoy what he does?

"I love it. I love how our business is all about solving problems. I love how we offer a flexible system that can be personalised like no other software in the SME space," he says. "But being in the technology sector, we are constantly facing challenges.

"To remain at the cutting edge requires us to continually innovate and reinvent ourselves. Our focus on innovation is deliberate and planned - it's part of our DNA. But it is this focus on innovation that separates us from our competition. And when it comes to competing with large billion dollar companies and winning out - well, you just can't beat that," he adds with a smile.

Looking to the future, Justin says that while he is fully committed to the Irish market, he is also focused on growing the business internationally.

"We have significant plans afoot to grow the business in the English speaking parts of the globe, because these regions follow the same accounting standards as Britain and Ireland.

"It's an exciting time for us now because we have recently begun discussions with potential partners in Canada, USA and South Africa. In revenue terms, we are committed to growing our turnover from our current level of €5m to €20m over the next three years," he adds.

With growth in technology set to continue and having seen what Intact Software can do along with its commitment to innovation and customer service, I believe they are well on their way.

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