Through Acquisitions and Changing Business Models, ECi’s Commitment To Service Remains Strong

by Lisa Weber

Providing end-to-end solutions for more than 7,000 diverse customers is no easy task. However, Ron Books, president and CEO of ECi Software Solutions, says it’s what his company does best.

ECi provides business and e-commerce software solutions for growing companies. Headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, the company serves several industries, including managed print services, manufacturing, contract office furniture, office supplies and business intelligence. In September, the company expanded its reach by announcing the acquisition of Digital Gateway, which, according to Books, will become part of ECi’s Office Equipment Division, including the e-automate, OMD and La Crosse dealer management software products.

The acquisition of Digital Gateway will allow ECi to partner with another industry leader. Jim Phillips, the CEO of Digital Gateway, will assume the leadership of ECi’s Office Equipment Division and work closely with Laryssa Alexander, who will continue as president of OMD and La Crosse. “Their goal is to wake up every day and think about this marketplace,” Books says.

Books said the two divisions are prepared to “meet technology together.” Digital Gateway, a leading provider of business management software, will retain its original name, Books said. In business since 1995, Digital Gateway’s original purpose was to provide its clients with efficient software to help manage everything from accounting to service dispatch. Because such integrated software didn’t exist at the time, Digital Gateway, led by Phillips, created e-automate dealer management software to help streamline all of the vital processes, including accounting, sales, service, inventory, purchasing, equipment tracking, meter reading and reporting. The e-automate software has modules to automatically collect meter readings, use laptops in the field to update service calls, sell supplies online, manage point-of-sale activities and customize automation tasks. In the last decade, Digital Gateway has seen its flagship e-automate product leveraged by more than 1,000 dealers throughout North America and the Caribbean.

It’s a good fit for the company, since ECi is known for business software that is easy to learn and easy to use. Its OMD and La Crosse management systems include tools that address managed print services; online customer care; order entry; remote asset management; reporting; wireless integration with remote devices; accounts receivable and payable; contract management; credit card processing; and financial analysis, management and reporting.

Books says he is excited to share technologies and platforms with the company’s newest partner. He said that since assuming the job of CEO in 2008, his top priority has been to focus on a more customer-focused, consumer-driven company. Digital Gateway, he said, fit that mold as well. “Our cultures and objectives are similar,” he explained, “and that led to where we are today. We’re excited about the opportunity to go forward.”

The size and scope of the company, which has offices throughout the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, presents some huge challenges for a company that prides itself on offering end-to-end solutions. ECi systems process more than $50 billion in transactions for millions of small and medium-size businesses annually. About $2.6 billion in e-commerce sales flow through ECi Web storefronts each year. These transactions occur in more than 20 countries and are conducted in more than 20 different languages. Books said he foresees using cloud technology to further expand the company’s international presence. ECi will retain Digital Gateway’s headquarters in Provo, Utah. “We service incredible entrepreneurs that do business the way they want to do business,” Books said. “Our dealers have their own business flows, different aligned manufacturers, stockless versus intricate warehouses, unique private-label content, different buying groups or affiliations and so on. If you asked 100 dealers to tell you their top 20 technology priorities in order, I would bet that you wouldn’t get two answers that were the same. We have watched some of the larger players like SAP and Microsoft try to come to our markets and dictate the way our customers do business, and it doesn’t work. … At the end of the day, our systems need to be flexible enough to cost-effectively accommodate each individual’s unique business requirements while at the same time trying to minimize duplication of efforts and time to market.”

The rate at which technology changes, Books said, also presents challenges. “While we have some decent-sized customers, for the most part, we service smaller businesses. … They need technology to compete in today’s world; however, the ability or willingness to pay can be limited,” he noted. “Most of our customers pay us less than $12,000 annually for the software that runs their entire business. That is often one-third (the salary) of their (lowest-paid) employee. Sometimes this can affect the pace at which we can invest. We want to do everything we can to help our customers compete, so when we (are) unable to deliver everything they want in the time they want it, we take it personally. It can be challenging, (but) our customers are extremely resilient.”

Even before the recent acquisition of Digital Gateway, ECi had undergone several transformations. Founded in 1998 under a completely different name and business model, and its founders, Paula Jagemann and John Sidgmore, began by selling office products online. Jagemann and Sidgmore were both from UUNET Technologies, a company that Books says was truly one of the creators of the Internet. They sold that company to MCI Worldcom and thought that the Internet would be the perfect medium for selling office products. “Based on that,” Books recalls, “we developed an e-commerce solution to go to market with. As we started taking this to market, we realized our value was more on the technology side than on the office products side. We had interest from other independent dealers to license that technology to use in their companies.

“Being that we were competing with them on one front and partnering on the other, there was a conflict of interest,” Books continued. “As a result, we spun off and sold the supplies side of the business to focus on providing technology to independent dealers. We acquired some ERP solutions, realizing that integration to the back office system was key, which is where ECi started becoming the business it is today.”

Initially, ECi focused on ERP and e-commerce solutions for office products dealerships. “The emergence of what people now refer to as a hybrid dealer is what led us to expand our focus to office machines and office furniture dealers,” Books said. “We started seeing dealerships expand their product offerings, which included servicing machines and selling contract furniture as two areas of focus. Since then, the company has expanded to other verticals, including lumber and building materials, hardware stores and general manufacturing. However, the biggest changes took place as technology expanded and (a) company’s reliance on technology increased.

“What was ERP and then e-commerce as the primary technology needs (later) expanded to Internet supplier communications, sales analytics, CRM, integrated credit card processing, device management, mobile products and so much more,” Books said. “Our business model combines deep vertical specific knowledge and requirements of each industry with a consistent surround or value-add technology … so we can leverage 7,300 unique customers’ investments and accelerate our time to market. At the end of the day, the end consumer is the same, so there is a lot of IP that can be shared across verticals.”

Books doesn’t believe for a moment that the company’s evolution is complete. “With the increasing online presence, with social media, you’re going to see a tremendous movement in expansion of technology,” he predicts. “E-commerce is a great example. While it has been heavily adopted in some markets, others have been slower to integrate it (into) their normal business flow. This will be unacceptable in the future; it’s not going to take place because Ron Books says so, but because consumers demand it. They want access to their orders or rewards programs. They need to compete to win business, and we think that’s going to drive the market. … We see many of the dealers expanding into new markets — into machines, office products — and we see a lot of technology that needs to be in place to support that.”

ECi, he says, is ready to meet that challenge. “We truly understand the industries of those we serve,” he said. “We understand what their unique business needs and unique functions are. The value that we provide is that the people within the company spent years serving the providers. In order to produce in the industries we service, you have to understand the industry, or you won’t be able to beat the competition.”

ECi’s bottom line? “We are absolutely committed to the industry,” he says.