Stock management - Enabling Malabar's colourful progress



"Colour is the most powerful way of communicating joy, fear, danger and passion without having to use words. It is a reflection of our character".

That is how Peter Sterck, chairman of furnishing fabrics company Malabar sums up his company's view about colour. Over the past few years, Malabar has built up a strong reputation for its wide range of flamboyant cottons, taffeta silks, jute hemp, linnes and voiles from the Indian sub-continent (largely from the Malabar region in South West India).

The recent launch of their Taprobane range of silk jacquards, chenilles and chintzed sheers was marked by a head-turning photo-opportunity, when the tiny island of Taprobane - just off the coast of Sri Lanka - was wrapped in brilliant red cloth.

The company was set up in 1989 to provide fine cotton fabric for Peter Sterck's sofa business. Since then, the supply of wholesale fabric business has grown to become a highly successful business employing more than thirty staff. The majority of Malabar fabrics are yard-dyed in hanks to give superb colour yield and are then hand-woven on floor looms and the core range of cottons are available in hundreds of different colourways.

Malabar's success in fabric design and marketing is reflected in the growth of the organisation. In 1996, the firm moved along the Thames from Battersea to its current location at Vauxhall and has since doubled in staff numbers. The growth has also required Malabar to scrutinise its business systems, resulting in the appointment of Oliver Frost as operations manager in the Spring of 2001. He comments on the task he faced: "Although there is a variety of areas where action is required, sorting out stock management in the warehouse was my first priority."

Malabar currently receives an average of three container deliveries every month - which equates to around 50,000 metres of cloth. The process is complicated by the fact that deliveries are received from co-operative societies in India that gather cloth manufactured by local craftsmen on hand-looms. Being a slow process, a run on one particular fabric can quickly exhaust stocks, which can take up to 8 weeks to replenish. Add to this the unpredictability of the monsoon season and it becomes clear why stock control has been difficult to co-ordinate. "Fabrics that are hand-woven in Indian villages may have a natural appeal, but it can be hard to ensure we satisfy customer requirements", says Oliver Frost.

"If we do not have the product available for immediate dispatch, customers expect an accurate indication of when it will be available."

Malabar supplies fabrics to department stores, furniture upholsterers and many small interior designers throughout the UK, with about the same volume of cloth being sold abroad, via agents. Although the company had installed a financial accounting system five years ago, it did not cover stock management of the warehouse. As a result, warehouse staff have needed to phone and visit the administration office, which has introduced unnecessary delays and the risk of inaccuracies. A visit to an Italian textile company by Peter Sterck provided an insight into what was possible and Oliver Frost was keen to identify a system that could help the company get to grips with the problem.

At present, around 2,000 product lines and 10,000 rolls of fabric are stored in the warehouse, from which 2-300 orders are dispatched every day. Oliver Frost comments: "Sales staff must be able to inform customers about our stock position with confidence. Past difficulties with forecasting have meant that we carry more stock than we might want to - particularly for our best-selling products - to avoid the risk of losing orders. Although we started investigating warehouse management systems that could be bolted onto the existing accounts software, it was quickly apparent that we would be better off making a fresh start."

Malabar reviewed three software solutions, including two that were specifically developed for the textile trade. The final choice of Mertex software from Reflex Data Systems was influenced by the company's reputation, as Oliver Frost explains:

"Their customer list is large and includes a number of companies that we know well. Reflex has established Mertex as the leading product for textile merchants." The total investment in information technology products and services from Reflex amounts to £100,000.

In addition to the Mertex software, Reflex is upgrading the server hardware and providing a number of hand-held radio terminals for the warehouse - enabling real-time, mobile updating of stock information. "Our aim is to know the location and length of every roll of fabric in our warehouse. We certainly want to avoid warehouse staff walking across to the office for paperwork every half an hour."

"Their customer list is large and includes a number of companies that we know well. Reflex has established Mertex as the leading product for textile merchants."

Malabar hopes to expand its business still further, doubling the number of customers and expanding beyond Europe into the USA and other new markets. "Like other companies in the textile trade, we have come through a challenging period - sustained by a good range and good designs. Although we are determined to maintain our growth, we do not want our business administration to grow too," comments Oliver Frost. "Implementing effective information systems is crucial if we are to achieve these objectives.


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