In Part 1 of the interview, Allen and Mary re-lived their early days together, revealed the story behind Beck Consulting’s conception, and talked about how software and technology were an important part of the company’s fabric from the very beginning. The story of Beck’s history continues…
Mary Beck: Let’s see, from there, I think the significant event that happened next was the Gulf War. That was around 1990. As soon as that war was announced, all the prospects we were talking to basically said, “Wait, with this war going on we don’t know what’s going to happen.” A recession ensued. It hit our company pretty hard and meanwhile in Fresno it was just getting hit hard in general. The unemployment rate was really high. I mean it was like 20 something percent unemployment.
Allen Beck: Interest rates were sky high.
MB: Meanwhile Macola was saying, “Fresno is not that great of an area. We think you could do a lot better in a different market.”
AB: They were looking at market demographics and that sort of thing.
MB: They gave us two choices. They said the Seattle area or the Bay area. I think we did a marketing campaign and we got more leads in the Seattle area? We actually attempted to move. We opened an office in Kent, Washington. We would spend a week up there and then a week back in the Central Valley, week after week. Boy, that was getting old. We could tell that up there they had gotten hit really hard too because Boeing was having a hard time.
AB: Whenever Boeing sneezes, Seattle gets a cold.
MB: Yeah. We said, “That’s not going to work,” and decided to give up on that adventure. That was like ’91. Meanwhile back in Fresno, we’re still working but things aren’t going that great. All of sudden, we got a call from the controller of Ghirardelli Chocolate. They’d heard about Macola, and they had heard about us specifically through another Fresno client. They said, “Can you come show us Macola and talk to us about Macola?” They’re in San Leandro and we trekked up there and did a presentation. It went really well and then, long story short, they wound up buying it. It was even written up in CFO Magazine. They needed a new system because they had been part of Golden Grain. They had been split off from Golden Grain and their Golden Grain system was going to go away. They were becoming smaller, and I was like, “Oh my God, okay.”
AB: They literally had a gun on to their head.
MB: Yeah, and therefore so did I.
Beck Consulting: Those are the projects where you can’t push back a go live. “This is the day.”
MB: It was a hard date, and two pieces of their system were really sophisticated. Their order entry was very sophisticated. In the sense of pricing. They had a lot off invoice deals, they had what they call billbacks. Now you guys handle it in Beck Consulting as “trade deals.” They had all kinds of issues like that on the order entry side. Very custom with the way they wanted their invoice to look. Well, Macola didn’t do any of that but they liked the rest of Macola. Just not the order entry. Then the other thing they really needed was an industrial contract quoting system, where they could put in the market price of beans on the world cocoa market and have it wind up putting in all kinds of other factors. Calculations based on the amount of pounds that one of their industrial customers wanted for chocolate chips, things like that. They needed that. That one was not as crucial because it was being done on spreadsheets, but they wanted that ultimately. My focus was, okay how can I deal with this order entry system? I used a program called “Magic Software.” Stupidest name ever, but it was a great database program and it worked against Btrieve files, which at the time is what Macola used. I was able to design and write a whole order entry front end, and used it also to do the data conversion from the Golden Grain system into Macola. I mean, we had everything converted and tested. It was a wonderful go live. Everything went really smooth. Ghirardelli went on for a lot of years. And in 1993 we decided to move.
AB: We were spending three and sometimes four days a week in the Bay area.
MB: If not for Ghirardelli then for somebody else, like in Silicon Valley.
AB: We’d drive up on a Tuesday…
MB: …go home on Friday.
AB: Go to work, live out of hotels, and then drive back Friday evening. It got to be a drag because it was virtually every week.
MB: Nothing was happening in Fresno. We decided, “It’s just silly, let’s just move.” That was in 1993 that we moved to the Bay Area. That was big because from there the business just kept growing. The Macola side went on pretty well for a number of years. The problem as I recall…
AB: The “Y2K.”
MB: The coming of Y2K.
AB: We had been working with Macola by that time for a decade, more than that. They kept saying, “We’re going to come out with a new version. We know all this COBOL-based stuff is not sustainable any more. We’re going to develop a new application and we’re writing it all ourselves.”
MB: Of course we said, “You know, just to get past the Y2K hump, it would be probably be easier for you to go through and touch all the data points and just get there.” It was also a DOS-based application and not Windows. They wanted accomplish both Y2K and Windows.
AB: They wanted to do both. They thought, “Well okay, Macola is going to be the legacy program and this new one is going to be the Windows program.” Like a lot of the software companies of that time they could not figure out exactly what their focus was. To make a long story short, they spent a lot of time and effort trying to develop this new program for Windows and didn’t pay attention to their bread and butter and drained a ton of the corporate resources by trying to come up with this application which ended up being a total turd. Never saw the light of day actually.
MB: Meanwhile they did go ahead and start to put a Windows front end on Macola. They realized they were hitting too many issues; they thought, “We’ve got to keep moving forward.”
AB: From a marketing standpoint, it was a Windows-like front end but it really wasn’t a true GUI. A lot of software companies did that then. In doing that they introduced a ton of errors and it got to the point where, we kept a bug log because everything we ran into of course we had to send back to them. We [finally] said, “We don’t know if they’re going to make this, so we need to look at something else.” We looked at a bunch of different applications.
MB: We were looking for a true Windows app, not where they put in an interface. We were looking for a Windows-based application that was Y2K compliant and had manufacturing. That was slim pickings.
AB: We went through all of them in terms of valuation and then in ’97 we started hearing about this program called “Navision” and they kept getting good write ups. We had been resisting it because, A) it was from out of the country. We were like, “Tech support is going to suck.” B) it didn’t have manufacturing. But in the meantime I had been getting these calls once every month from this guy. “Hey it’s Gary Hager for Navision. I really want to show you this application.” “Not interested, no manufacturing, out of the country.” He was persistent and one day I said, “Okay, come in and show me this. I’ll give you five minutes to convince me.” It got to the point where I was really irritated with him. I said, “By the way, if I ask you to leave and you don’t want to leave, security for the building is literally right across the hall from us.” He said, “Okay.” So at the point in time, he’s at the front door, he’s got his laptop open in front of him. (Laughs) We go into the conference room and he says, “I’m not even going to show you the software, I just want to show you two things.” One of them was, he went into inventory and changed the item number in the master record.
MB: I mean, it was, say, A-10, he did, Q-25, or whatever. I don’t know, just something. He knew what he was up against; in Macola if somebody wanted to change their master numbers, like a customer number or whatever, you just had to kind of block that number and start over. There was no changing the master.
AB: What he did was show us something in the customer history where they bought this item. You could see the item number. Just keep that in mind. He goes in and changes the master record. We go back out to the customer, see the invoice.
MB: The history is changed.
AB: The history is changed. Holy crap! That’s amazing. Then he did one other thing. He added a field in the master record.
MB: Yes. Went into a table and added a field, then put it on a screen.
AB: Then it was everywhere. It was like, it was one of these WTF moments right?
MB: I think you ran down the hall and got me at that point. (Laughs)
AB: Yeah, I said, “How much time do you have?” I mean, that was it.
MB: Because we knew the challenges, the things in the past that had been such a pain-
AB: From a programming standpoint.
MB: Many people like Ghirardelli had come to us with, “I have this uniqueness. Everything else I can switch to generic and whatever but I need this to stay unique.” There was always something that no canned software would do. We had gotten to the point where we knew we needed to have some database application that would attach to the back end like what Magic did. Or preferably we wanted to quit having to use it as a something that attaches. When we saw this, “Navision” thing, that was astounding! I mean, my jaw was just dropping at this. By end of ’97 we had our Navision certifications. We hadn’t totally given up on Macola just in the sense that if they could turn it around, we would keep those Macola clients going. But meanwhile until they turned it around, I literally told the existing Macola clients, as well the president of Macola, “We will no longer sell it or upgrade it until you get rid of these bugs.”
BC: At that time was Navision just the financials?
MB: It was called “Navision Financials.”
AB: Then they said, “Oh we’re going to have Navision Manufacturing.” Then came Navision Distribution.
MB: They were three different databases.
AB: Navision Manufacturing was an add-on piece that they had actually bought from a firm in Germany. We found out real early on that cost accounting in Germany is very different than the rest of the world. We ran into all sorts of issues with it, and finally had to have the developers in from Denmark and we had to educate them on cost accounting because they had been getting it from the German company they bought this from. I think they spent two days with us and they finally became convinced that it wasn’t right and the product would never work because of the way cost accounting was done in Germany. The Distribution, they bought that from Lanham, and that was a mess. You could look at the code in manufacturing and distribution, and you could tell that somebody that wasn’t working against the same set of standards had written this stuff. That was a real rugged period of time. It was a complete mess and I think those programs lasted maybe two years from a marketing standpoint. They ended up developing all the rest, the distribution and the manufacturing, internally. Which was good because it was still the same philosophy in terms of the development.
MB: In the meantime generally we were focused on putting the right piece into the right client and if it wouldn’t do what they needed, we told them, “Here is what I would have to write” or “Here is what it would have to do.” We never had any problem from a client standpoint. It’s just that we wanted to take it to another level and we either had to do it ourselves or-
AB: We couldn’t do heavy distribution, we couldn’t do heavy manufacturing because the capabilities just weren’t there for a number of years. Light distribution worked great because we could customize a lot of the stuff from the pricing and purchasing.
MB: That was getting a little further down the pike years-wise. In the very beginning with Navision, I think it was like in the spring of ’98, I implemented Navision for ourselves because we had been using Macola internally. Then I started Allied Foods, which was our first Navision client. They had been a Macola client and they were getting nervous that it was not Y2K compliant. From Allied, then all of sudden Joe Heffington [from Danish Creamery] called and said. “I want to split Dairy America off.” They had been part of Challenge-
AB: Dairy America is the distribution arm.
MB: Challenge was owned by Danish Creamery at the time. From that standpoint again it was a very hard cut-off because they were moving from the Dublin office to Fresno. There was going to be no computer system. So, I had a very hard date for that.
AB: That’s for sure.
MB: That was in ’98 that all of sudden I had to get that done and meanwhile we had been staffing up and training but it was Y2K. We were busy as we could be. There was a Navision developer from New York. I was holding off on starting Dairy America till he got here. He had been here for like, I don’t know, just a few days. He didn’t like the Bay Area and said, “I’m quitting.” I had no other staff to do it. I had done some amount of programming just because I wanted to know how to do it. I wasn’t a developer, I wanted to focus on implementation and technical sales and definition. Well anyway, short story is, I end up doing Dairy America myself, having to program it because there wasn’t anybody else to do it. I met that deadline. Then Joe calls up and says, “Well the board of directors of Danish Creamery are talking with the boards of two other creameries and we’re thinking of merging. We would want you to do the computer system for them.” I said, “Joe, that is huge. I mean you’re talking five different manufacturing plants, spread out over California. Some of these people have never used Windows. I mean, don’t know how to use a mouse. We’re not talking that I can do a lot of implementation remotely. I mean it is getting to five plants, physically. This is Y2K.” The merger was going happen on August 1, 1999. This is like the end of ’98 and they’re all on really ancient computer systems, other than Danish Creamery. It’s like, “How am I going to get that done?” I said, “But Joe, I can’t even find any more staff at this point.” Joe was desperate and he said, “Mary you got to do this for me. We’ve been working together for years now. You’ve got to do this for me. You’re the only one I trust to do it.” I stupidly agreed. (Laughs) I just felt the weight of the world went on me. I basically stopped doing everything but the accounting. Allen had to take over-
AB: Everything else.
MB: He took over everything. I mean, I literally would come in on the weekends and do payroll or whatever because I would be here programming or I would be at one of the plants. I would go for weeks without seeing the staff. It was a miserably long time for me. I ultimately got the part of it that pays the dairymen done on August 1, 1999, on the day of the merger. Then there was the Y2K piece. I had to have everything basically ready to go for Y2K. I was literally on the road. A lot of times I would leave on a Monday, come home on a Friday, and then I’d go in on the weekend and do the accounting. I did that for a long time. Even into the first year there was stuff that they didn’t have implemented that needed to be implemented, I’d go from one plant to another plant. That probably takes us through to about 2003. The one big thing that happened then is Microsoft bought them.
AB: (Laughs) I was really uncomfortable.
MB: The good side was all of sudden, anybody you talked to, “Yes, it’s Microsoft,” and they were like, “That’s cool.”
AB: They had more credibility.
MB: But on the other side of the coin we also knew that Microsoft had bought products and then killed them.
AB: [Our salesman] Mike and I and our Navision rep at that time were waiting to do a presentation in Washington and the Navision rep gets a call. He kind of steps out to the lobby and comes back in. He says, “I’ve got to talk to you guys. Microsoft just bought Navision.” I asked him, “Is that good or not?” “I don’t know.” We’re going to this demo like, “Are we going to demo a software that’s going to be around?” There were rocky moments after that. That’s for sure. There pretty much have been in many ways up until the last couple of years when they finally realized, “Wait a minute, we’re not killing off Navision, that’s the cash cow.”
MB: We weren’t sure what they were going to do it but ultimately that all turned out okay.
AB: Especially when they started screwing around with…what was the other product?
AB: AX. It was like, “Oh, this is going to replace it all. It has a better development environment.” We had already looked at AX very seriously, even after Navision. We said, “This development environment sucks. It’s really rugged compared to Navision. It has more sophisticated tools in some ways but it-”
MB: There were a lot more options from a setup standpoint which would make it maybe so that we didn’t have to make as many customizations, but it is definitely not going to be as easy to develop in compared to Navision. Our development time is going to go way up and that means from a project cost it would go way up.
AB: Because AX was actually kind of a multi-layer code set. You had to do some things here, you had to do some things there. It wasn’t in my mind a real integrated code base. We had worked with a highly configurable product at one time in our company history where it had a huge number of setup parameters that made it extremely flexible, but it was just a b*tch to get right because it wasn’t well documented, and when you flip this switch it also affected these other switches, that sort of thing. It wasn’t just 0 and 1. AX is that kind of an application.
MB: At least we were concerned that it would be.
AB: We said, “No, we’re going to pass on that.” Initially they kept saying, “We’re going to replace everything with AX, and we’re going to have the small business version for it, blah, blah, blah.”
BC: “We’re going to merge them all together.”
AB: Yeah, merge them all together. “That’s where we’re going to put our resources.” For quite a while Microsoft put a lot of marketing dollars into that.
MB: And not into Navision.
AB: Not into NAV at all.
BC: I remember, AX was always front and center.
AB: They put so much money into it, and for a number of years they virtually ignored Navision, and every year Navision outsold everything, by a factor of three.
BC: Yeah, it was exponential.
MB: At first it really felt like they were taking it away. It’s like, “Is this going to be a relic that we’ll maintain but not do anything?” Then they started doing more again, so then it was like, “Phew, dodged that bullet.”
BC: What were your thoughts when the RoleTailored Client came out and you had to go from Classic to the RTC?
AB: I don’t know what other people’s take on it would be, but, because of our size and the relationship we had with Microsoft at the time, we actually had the RTC before most other partners saw it. It was one of these things that you looked at it and thought, “This has a lot of potential, but-”
MB: “Today, it’s kind of rugged.”
AB: But it was really rugged. We had actually been in a focus group a year and a half, two years before where they had a UI design team that was built around really what became the RTC. There were I think two people that they sent out. They were actually from Denmark, and they had things they wanted to show us on screens and stuff like that. We looked at it and went, “No. Conceptually, it’s a great idea, but you’re slowing down the user. You’re making this much more difficult for the user.” “Oh, but it looks better and it’s more intuitive, and this and that and the other.” “Yeah, but now you’ve got to do the click count. I can get to this task faster in the Classic environment than I can get to it through this UI. For a power user, it’s not a productive front end. Because when I look back at the legacy that we came from where we were working with 100% numeric menu-driven applications, power users, even though the menus might be three levels deep, they knew, “Okay, I’m going to hit 1, Enter, 7, Enter, 4, Enter,” and I was right into my input screen or my report, the exact report or whatever. The reality is that those users that the RTC was really tailored to aren’t the people who put the data in the system. The data doesn’t magically appear. There’s actually fingers putting this data in there. The RTC, in many ways, took the efficiency away from true data entry power users. Of course, the flip side of the coin is people that aren’t quote, “power users,” that are really just inquiry people or “I want to see this data,” it makes perfect sense because it’s a lot easier for them to get to what they need to do because we can use the RTC and make it do what they want to do.
MB: We used to have to do a lot of programming to do stuff that-
AB: To create those shortcuts, if you will.
MB: Yeah, and that just made for more problems upgrading, and that all went away [with the RTC]. I think there were advantages and disadvantages.
The story continues in Part 3, in which the Becks discuss the genesis of Beck Consulting’s software solutions, the process of transitioning ownership and retirement, and the merits of the food industry as a vertical market.