From STORAGE Magazine Vol 9, issue 7 - November/December 2009
NCE Computer Group has clocked up more than a quarter of a century as a leading player in the storage industry. Its mission? Quite simply, to provide "the complete data management solution". Editor Brian Wall goes inside to find out what makes it tick
Founded in San Diego, California, in 1981, NCE has forged its ways to the top through the formation of strategic and enduring relationships with many of the leading hardware and software manufacturers - while crucially retaining its vendor-agnostic status.
And while selling the solutions that reflect and fulfil each individual customer's needs is a key art of the business, NCE's remit goes way beyond that, embracing in-house repair, on-site support services, parts supply, data destruction, data recovery, professional services, decommissioning and a Part Exchange Programme (PEP) for excess inventory.
With such a comprehensive suite of offerings, it isn't any great mystery why Storage magazine's newly launched 'INSIDE' series has turned the spotlight on this highly driven organisation whose acumen, knowledge, commitment and passion for the business shines through at every turn, from management and workforce alike, as I toured each and every department. But what first inspired me to visit NCE's UK and European headquarters, based near Chippenham in Wiltshire, wasn't the above. In all honesty, although I was aware of how successful the company had become, I did not necessarily know why. The primary reason and impetus was my close involvement in, and attendance at, our own Storage Awards over the years - the celebrated 'Storries' - where the victors of the glittering prizes included one persistent and recurring name: 'NCE'..'NCE'…'NCE'! This year alone, it notched up three successes, one of which was the coveted title of 'Storage Service Company of the Year'. That triple triumph was the culmination of a sustained period of excellence that clearly demonstrated one thing: this company was no shooting star; it was here to stay. That was the prompt to take a close-up look at its operations and understand where NCE's remarkable achievements stemmed from. Before getting to grips with the structure of the business, I wanted to get a 'feel' for its ethos and culture. So I sat down first with director of solution sales, John Greenwood, who has been with the company for the past decade. What had prompted him to join NCE? Much for the same reasons, it seems, that makes him feel equally as committed to the cause today. "I'd worked for resellers focused on storage solutions before, but none offered the depth of approach to the market that NCE has. That was the attraction to me, really - NCE was so much more than just a reseller. Here was a company that had a strong service foundation as well, was firmly established in the storage sector, and was knowledgeable and well respected. Here was an opportunity to join a business where I could help to build on that success."
NCE is certainly a rare breed in storage, in that it has to embrace two highly challenging and disparate areas: the channel (from the service standpoint) and end users (from the reseller perspective). That it makes this the foundation of its success speaks volumes for the way it has structured and streamlined its operations. "NCE is unique in this respect within storage," states Greenwood. "Our focus represents both a convergence and an overlap that makes it all the more challenging to get our message out and the message is this: we offer an end-to-end approach to our customers. At each stage, we support and deliver whatever it is that they need to solve their business issues. That may involve marketing, selling, scoping, installing, supporting a solution. It might also mean providing a comprehensive repair service or wider range of professional services that identify and remedy a client's performance issues.
"The point is this: NCE is so much more than a reseller. Our purpose is to build a relationship with our customers, to the point where we understand what drives them and how they function as a business, and what their needs are - and all strictly from a storage perspective. It has never been our aim to expand and cross over into other areas, as some organisations have tried to do. We have always concentrated on our strengths - which is storage - rather than looking to diversify." But why should that be, when there is a much bigger technology pond out there to fish in? "That's actually quite a fitting analogy," laughs Greenwood, "because the fact is we don't want to water down our message; to dilute what we're good at. That is where we are successful and, if anything, we have taken the business forward by concentrating on that strength. And storage is not about to go away either. In fact, the demands for storage are increasing rapidly and will continue to do so. It's a natural evolution of business and its technology requirements."
NCE is growing, too. But it has been wary taking the acquisitions and mergers trail, preferring to expand organically. "We are not a company that takes the 'big bang' approach. Instead, we have put in place the people we need when we've needed them, in response to demand. The result is that we've seen the business grow year on year, step by step. Nothing has been rushed or forced. Allied with our independence, where we are not aligned with a certain vendor or technology, this has been our greatest strength. It means the solutions of the customer require always come first - not the solutions themselves." Not surprisingly, NCE wins a vast amount of business as a result of referrals from existing clients. "There are many household names in our customer base, so their endorsement is particularly important and gratifying to us," says Greenwood. "Certainly, we set out to understand in great depth what it is the customer is looking to achieve, in storage terms. Yet there is rarely a mention of any specific products at the initial meetings. Instead, we set out to qualify what the organisation's challenges are, and their aims and objectives.
"If we can get under the skin of the business, we will have a much clearer vision of how technology can underpin all of that and then come back to them with a number of options. An essential part of our business message is that we are not just there to sell to one area of the business and that's that: it's a whole value proposition." NCE prides itself on being so much more than a reseller as well. Service, for example, plays a major role in its make-up. For instance, it has always accumulated a rich vein of expertise through the retention of a talented and knowledgeable workforce. "It made sense to gather up all of that capability and to group it under one banner," says professional services manager Richard Morgans. "To this end, we offer data backup consultancy and solutions, storage health check reports, physical to virtual (P2V) analysis, data storage solutions and virtualisation solutions."
To deliver on each of these, NCE's approach goes beyond tracking down the in-vogue solutions and thinking and passing them on. Aware that there is a lot of hype surrounding both server and storage virtualisation, for example, the challenge, it says, is not to seek out the current virtualisation offerings, but more how to integrate the offerings together and, ultimately, to make them work. As Morgans points out, most businesses are now under huge pressure, trying to cope with shrinking resources and expanding workloads. "Often that means they are fire-fighting issues such as degradation in the performance of their infrastructure or an unusually large number of disk failures, for example, with no time to step back and assess what is going on. Our role here is to help them get to the root causes by carrying out an overview, using an in-depth, granular approach and, where applicable, using the appropriate software tools."
Virtualisation is now very much top of the list, with most organisations having adopted it in some form or looking to do so. Through capacity planning and professional analysis, we can help them to identify whether or not they are getting the most from their existing infrastructure. It's a situation where a company can change its way of thinking, all for the cost of an idea; where a day's consultancy might save you a year's capex [capital expenditure] investment.
"We might walk out of a customer's premises with no sale, having only sold them an idea. But that's okay, because we are not after a fast buck, but a relationship. And customers remember that. Our overall aim is to introduce them to the solutions that are best for them. Those that aren't, we won't - because, at the end of the day, it's our reputation that's at stake."
This commitment to long-term relationship building, founded on deep knowledge and expertise, is an attitude that spans the business. Speak to director of IT, Steve Rains, and the same exacting standards are invoked. "Most of us within the company have come from storage backgrounds and spent most of our careers in storage repair or storage sales. Yes, there are a lot of companies that deal with many products, but do they really know storage to that depth and detail? For us, it's what we thrive on."
Field services sales director Brian McWethy is just as vocal about the way his division delivers. "We provide flexible service levels up to 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and, as standard, deliver a 'call to fix' service level, not just a site response. We also carry our own vast stock of spares, which, coupled with the high levels of expertise we have built up, means our customers benefit from a very high level of first-time, no-hassle fixes. That means they stay up and running, which is what service is all about."
NCE's on-site service engineers are trained in its own workshops, down to component-level repair, where they solely support data centre products. And, in addition to holding large stocks of original manufacturers' parts, the company also owns a large population of working platforms that facilitate the training of engineers, fault replication and module testing.
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