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Visual solutions: Renewed focus on the future workplace

Events such as the pandemic and the supply chain crisis are highly challenging, “but sometimes you can come out of them stronger,” says Sharp Business Systems UK managing director Stuart Sykes

The Sharp Business Systems operation in the UK was already well-advanced in an important transition when Covid-19 struck in early 2020. From 2017, when the company was still, according to UK managing director Stuart Sykes, “predominantly a B2B print business with an embryonic visual solutions” department, Sharp Business Systems UK (SBSUK) had been progressively moving towards a situation where it could operate as a more diverse, “true technology partner” for its clients. Sykes: “That was the direction we were taking the business in, and we had been working really hard at that for 4-5 years.”

Needless to say, the pandemic did impact the pace of some of these changes. But according to Sykes, who has been SBSUK MD since 2016, the resulting period of reflection actually served to reinforce the validity of the new strategy. It also emphasised the wisdom of the company’s moves to strengthen its IT capabilities, which included the acquisition of IT support services firm Complete I.T. in autumn 2019.

With a sudden decrease in the amount of time that people were spending in the workplace, it’s not surprising that demand for some office equipment was hit “really” hard. “Lots of our channel partners did have a tough time. However, the IT business did flourish, so it was a mixed time for us [overall],” explains Sykes. But part of the reason that Sykes feels the company is emerging well from Covid-19 is that it has been able to “really stand by” its people. “For example we paid everybody 100% salary even though furlough was 80%. We also worked hard at undertaking as much background work as possible to make us stronger when the pandemic finished. So there were a lot of training and listening groups. Consequently, I think that people are coming back and feeling closer as a team.”

Nurturing a multi-faceted organisation has always been a top priority for Sykes, who joined Sharp in 2011 before becoming MD of SBSUK five years later. At that time, he recalls, he was aware that his main areas of responsibility would be: “1: the channel business for that traditional [print business]; 2: a significant direct business via some acquisitions of selling that type of product to end-users; 3: a furniture business, through acquisition, that is doing very well; and 4: a visual solutions business that involves selling to end-customers.”

In terms of a detailed assessment of the visual solutions business, Sykes defers to long-time Sharp NEC executive Ian Gobey. But he indicates that visual solutions is an increasingly important share of the business as it continues to pursue a strategy of “broadening our portfolio in various ways, such as through products and services ourselves from Sharp and the [other] manufacturing capabilities that come our way – as well as the software solutions too.”

There is no doubt that acquisition has played a big part in the development of Sharp in recent years. The 2018 purchase of Toshiba’s PC business and its subsequent evolution into a wholly owned subsidiary, dynabook, that specialises in laptop and mobile solutions for business users is one major example. Also critical is the aforementioned purchase of UK-based IT support services and cloud solutions provider Complete I.T. – a move described by SBSUK at the time as “providing a more sophisticated suite of integrated solutions for the workplace and further [enhancing our] status as a digital transformation provider”.

Sykes is in no doubt about the acquisition’s importance as SBSUK works to become a comprehensive workplace solutions partner, describing it as a “fundamental step-change in terms of the IT products and services we can offer. [As a result] we now feel we can offer clients directly or channel partners all the technology especially for the SMB type of company.” With the benefit of additional perspective gained during the unique circumstances of the past two years, SBSUK is now able to serve as a “true technology partner. It’s a very exciting time now as everyone is coming back with that vision and is very enthusiastic about moving on with it.”

This reworked emphasis is already having a marked impact on the composition of the business. As recently as 2017, the traditional print interests would have accounted for as much as 90% of the overall SBSUK business. “Now that’s more like 70% and will reduce more as we expand the other type of products we have,” he says.

In particular, it is clear that he feels there is tremendous potential on the whole workplace and collaboration technology side of the business. Like many in the industry, he agrees with the suggestion that the pandemic has acted as a further catalyst towards more hybrid working patterns – but has also served to optimise people’s expectations of enabling technologies: “I think that in the past we have all been in meeting rooms and not been able to find the right cables or get something working. So one of our [driving forces now] is making technology easy, and maximising [technologies] for collaboration and meetings is a key part of all that. We have products and services that we are producing, and we are talking to partner companies as well.”

Moreover, the growth of the IT operation highlighted by the acquisition of Complete I.T. demonstrates SBSUK’s positioning of itself as a “trusted” IT provider: “We do not see ourselves as a ‘brake/fix’ type company. Instead, we want to be providing [extensive services] that include acting as an advisor and helping customers to produce roadmaps about what they want to achieve during the next few years.”

With the support of a European IT centre based in Hamburg, Sykes indicates that SBSUK will be able to successfully address a wide variety of “SMB and mid-market” requirements – not least the ever-growing area of concerns related to corporate IT security. One of many disquieting developments during the past two years has been a huge rise in many countries of cybercrime, manifesting itself in two particular types of malicious activity: ransomware and DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks.

Whilst he believes that awareness of these issues is improving, it can still be the case at some SMBs that “people understand the risks but don’t quite understand how to sort them and who could really help them.” It is in providing these kind of capabilities that Sykes evidently feels there are huge opportunities for the re-focused SBSUK business.

Of course, the pandemic has hardly been the only cause of logistical problems over the past two years. The supply chain crisis initially focused on shortage of semi-conductors has expanded over time to include other areas with significant consequences for electronics manufacturing. There is a general feeling that, although the outlook is now improving, it will continue to be an issue for some time yet.

“It has been a tough time,” confirms Sykes, with manufacturers needing to remain responsive and keep on “liaising” in order to ensure they get supply. “The worldwide shortage of chips has obviously been worrying, but we have been able to get through this period without any major issues.” Nonetheless, supply chain delays are still an issue: “We have incoming stock all the time, but it could be that it will be 2 or 3 weeks’ late [arriving].”

But despite these challenges, it is evident that Sykes and his team are now looking forward with significant enthusiasm. The downtime resulting from the pandemic did yield a valuable opportunity “to reflect more in what is normally a very busy world”.

The continuing refinement of the visual solutions and workplace technology interests has been one obvious benefit; similarly, there has been extra space to work on the “partner programme so it is geared towards where our partners are and what they might need moving forward in the pandemic [and beyond that].

“Being able to go to our customers and saying we think you need to make these changes [in order to move forward], and this is what we can do to help that happen has been very rewarding.”

Indeed, Sykes believes that one enduring benefit of this whole pandemic period could be a greater receptiveness to new ideas and processes.

“I have noticed that people appear more open than ever to transition and change,” he says. ‘The pandemic was a line in the sand. Now, it can be said that changes in the use of office spaces and the rise of hybrid working were always foreseen. They were going to happen over time but then suddenly there was [this huge event] and things changed more quickly. Companies needed to work out how to change their business models, and that transition has proven to coincide perfectly with the way we have been developing.”