Seeing it through at CDS

CDS managing director, Bill Lea (l) with product director, Paul Willis at the company’s Salford office

CDS managing director, Bill Lea (l) with product director, Paul Willis at the company’s Salford office

Started in 1973 by a group of construction industry professionals and academics including Bill Lea, a building engineering graduate from the University of Liverpool, CDS Computer Design Systems celebrated its 40th birthday in January. Buying a mini computer, CDS set about producing software for architects and quantity surveyors. However, in 1974 a local fuel distributor’s request for a system to capture orders and produce delivery tickets was to introduce CDS to another software market.

When Shell issued a specification for software to assist its 35 UK distributors, armed with the aforementioned experience, CDS put in its proposal. With the addition of programmer Dan Townsend – still on the team today – CDS competed alongside big names for what was a very substantial project; the contract to design a pilot scheme was won in 1975.

Run with Pilot Fuels and Fuel Services Garstang, the pilot scheme was successful and rolled out to all Shell’s distributors by the late 70s. Bill explained: “We put everything together here – hardware and software – packed it up and put it in a van. I would then meet the van at the distributor’s office, install the equipment and ensure all was working before Shell started training. I got to see a lot of the UK.” By the end of the decade, CDS had 15 staff and contracts with Esso and BP followed.

Creating, maintaining and developing the CODAS product

Having garnered much information about the industry, CDS created its own CODAS product, putting in the first system for an independent distributor in 1982. “Although people knew of us, when we needed to get really serious about marketing, Rob Bowran, formerly with Shell, joined us. His marketing expertise and commercial nous really drove our marketing activity.”

How CODAS looks and is developed is the responsibility of product director, Paul Willis who joined in September 1979.

“In the 80s, every single system was different, indeed tailor made, with all maintenance done on site,” said Paul. “Now there’s a seamless system that works for everyone from just two to hundreds of users. Everything can be done in house whether it’s installing a complete system, loading a licence or providing monthly updates.

“Substantial investment has created a product that stands out. With everyone used to systems like Windows, we follow leading standards to create intuitive systems that people of all ages and abilities can quickly get to grips with. We don’t reinvent wheels – we like to use existing pieces of software under licence where we can. We also pay attention to what’s below the surface so that in five year’s time, the distributor has a system that’s current.

“We’re a team of technology-loving people who always want to learn about the next bright thing,” added Paul. CDS now has 36 staff, a quarter of who have 25 years service. The company’s graduate recruitment programme has seen six graduates join in recent years.

Providing an aspirational business information system

A modular system, CODAS enables distributors to enter orders, arrange delivery, send confirmation, update the sales ledger, generate invoices, produce statements and collect and process cash. It can also take care of RDCO and other legislative matters. Plus offer computer telephone integration and schedule and route vehicles.

“We’re not the cheapest but we do set out to be the best,” said Bill. “CODAS is a great product with the scope to embrace everything today’s distributor – from the largest operator to the two-man business where dad still does the coal deliveries – needs. There’s nothing cheap about it and nothing that says you’re only a fuel distributor so this is good enough for you – our standards are aspirational.”

When it comes to improving efficiency, more and more distributors are realising the value of technology. Making use of the fact that the exact location and amount of fuel on each of 10 tankers was known in real time, one distributor regularly rescheduled orders to ensure all customers were satisfied in the depths of last winter. Delighted by the efficiency improvements, the distributor told CDS that ‘everytime we buy something from you, we make money out of it.’

Paul is baffled by those who spend hundreds of thousands on trucks, but operate without technology. “I wonder if they know just how much margin is being made at any given time and exactly where it came from?”

Today over 400 depots use CODAS. With a high level of dependence on the information generated, it is sometimes hard to get people to turn it off.

“The level of stability we maintain for our customers is vital so upgrades are done in the evening and we’re always there to help at month end,” said Bill. “We’re committed to the fuel distribution industry, we won’t let our customers down and we’re honest about what can be achieved. We make mistakes like anyone else; sometimes a fault may not get attended to immediately but we can always be relied on to do everything it takes to see things through.”

How things have changed – in 1975, a dark-haired Bill demonstrates the CDS software to a member of Pilot’s Oil’s staff.   The ‘mini’ computer had 32KB of memory while the large disks only held 5 megabytes of data collectively!

How things have changed – in 1975, a dark-haired Bill demonstrates the CDS software to a member of Pilot’s Oil’s staff. The ‘mini’ computer had 32KB of memory while the large disks only held 5 megabytes of data collectively!

What more is CDS bringing to the market?

“We did become a little old-fashioned in the 90s but that was a salutary lesson and we’ll not get caught out again,” said Bill.

“We’ve now been here long enough to watch the tide go in and out on the industry,” Bill explained. “We’ve watched the majors retreat leaving distributors cast adrift or given their head – depending on your point of view. Acquisitions, disposals and mergers – all offer opportunities for people providing software and for new distributor start ups.”

“There’s a constant newness in this industry,” added Paul. “New clients bring different requirements giving the team a high degree of interest and challenge. We get plenty of suggestions about what the software should do. Some are rather individual and quirky so we distill these to the core requirement and produce a change that is universally compatible.

“We’re driving the paperless office forward. The level of integration across technologies continues to create more communication opportunities. For example smart phones and tablets synced to databases provide instant access to data, reports and other information, ideal for presentation at external meetings.”

“The scope of our application is increasing all the time. Over the past year, for example, we’ve been heavily engaged in retail operations. And, as our existing users look to broaden their operations, we will be following them,” said Bill.

CDS still retains interests in other sectors; in construction, CDS measurement software is used by quantity surveyors internationally, a drinks company uses its telesales software and work is done for occupational health & safety.

In a fitting tribute to Bill Lea’s 40 years in the software industry, asked why they had picked a relatively small software house, one of CDS’s clients outside fuel distribution said: “We know Bill Lea will see us through.”

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