Auction Block

Auction house Bonhams 1793 bags a bargain with a custom management system.

Bonhams 1793 Ltd. is a distant third behind top auctioneers Christie’s and Sotheby’s. But it’s catching up, thanks in part to an auction management system developed under the direction of CIO Roland Whitehead.

In developing the system, Whitehead bucked conventional wisdom, which says nobody in his right mind would develop a big, complex application from scratch when commercial packages are available off the shelf.

His secret? First, select software that can be tightly integrated and at the same time easily modified. Second, go for open-source software whenever possible. And third, adjust the attitudes of both developers and users.

In 2000, Bonhams, which is based in London and has operations in the U.S., embarked on a series of five acquisitions. After the first one, Whitehead was brought in and charged with evaluating and standardizing IT systems. The key was developing a custom, comprehensive auction management system that would combine the functions of ERP, customer relationship management, auction catalog production and more. The result was A3.

Bonhams’ big competitors had chosen packages from SAP AG and Siebel Systems Inc., but Whitehead wouldn’t go there. “You get packaged applications, and then you have to tailor them to your needs, but you also have to change your business too much for the tailored applications,” he says. “We have proven that you can develop a system from scratch at significantly lower cost.”

Whitehead selected data­base and development products from Progress Software Corp. He says the Bedford, Mass.-based vendor’s OpenEdge application framework offered a unified environment of development tools, application servers and application management tools. It also provided an embedded database and hooks to connect to and integrate with other applications and data sources.

“In previous projects, I’ve chosen a database from a database vendor and a tool set from another vendor,” says Whitehead. “But we wanted a development suite that was all in one.”

Bonhams’ developers used the tools and database to establish at the beginning of the project a development framework — a set of routines and procedures that could be easily modified and built upon. Screen formats and content were database-driven and could be changed without new code having to be written, Whitehead says.

“By careful planning of their architecture, they were able to [achieve] cost savings by deploying everything on IBM xSeries servers running Linux,” says Robin Porter, business development manager at Repton Computer Products Ltd., an IT reseller in Hanworth, England. “Not many were brave enough to do this so early.”

Whitehead’s boldness extended to his choice of application software as well. “Everyone else in his situation would have done what everyone else does — buy an expensive ERP or CRM solution and hire expensive consultants to implement and tailor it,” Porter says.

But the key to rapid development didn’t lie solely in technology, Whitehead says. “It’s primarily a matter of mind-set,” he explains. “You have to believe that you can actually do it.”

That meant boosting the IT staff’s confidence. It also meant building the rest of the company’s appreciation for IT people — “who traditionally had been fairly close to the bottom of the pile,” Whitehead notes.

A3 enabled Bonhams to significantly reduce the ratio of overhead staff to revenue-producing staff, Whitehead says. “Our earnings staff were in the minority,” he says, “but now they clearly are in the majority.”

See more of the Best in Class special report.

See the list of 2007 Premier 100 winners.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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