Traditional steel company accelerates digital uptake

Steel, manufacturing and construction are not sectors that usually make us think of whizz-bang technologies and cool ‘apps’, but COVID-19 has meant crunch time – regardless of the sector – with customer and employee expectations of a seamless pivot to working and transacting online.

With over 60 years of history, Steel & Tube has not been immune – due to COVID-induced timelines, the company had to move extremely quickly to fully implement its new e-commerce platform to keep sales up when its 25 retail outlets temporarily shut in lockdowns.

Steel & Tube was already on a digital transformation journey, with the hire of Mike Hendry, a digital change expert from Auckland Airport, in May 2019. But the lockdowns accelerated the process at breakneck speed.

Through last year, it had become clear to Steel & Tube that to meet intense competition, respond to volatile prices, increase sales, and reduce cost – digital technologies had to be brought to the front and centre of its strategy. Meeting and surpassing customer expectations were at the heart of this, and with a new sense of urgency, the organisation focused on bringing these technologies to market.

The digital style of work and product development required a bit of a cultural shift for the company, but the changes were quickly recognised as exciting opportunities for both clients and employees, with new, convenient and efficient ways of doing things made available through using the cloud, chatbots, web stores and electronic transacting.

All was tracking well – then COVID hit and Level 4 lockdown changed things.

It didn’t stop progress, in fact, it sped it up.

As well as having to enable 800 employees to work remotely, Hendry and his team had to rapidly ensure Steel & Tube products were available to purchase online. During this lockdown, 13,000 products were made available for purchase.

By the time the second lockdown happened, 47,000 were offered.

“What we did as a team, and continue to do, in very compressed timeframes is to use the right technologies to enable the transformation of a traditional distribution business into a customer-led, solutions-focused partner company to our customers across New Zealand,” says Hendry. “Employees have really supported the strategy and rallied around the specific digital initiatives because we all realised we had a window of opportunity to really lift our competitive game.”

But Steel & Tube did not traverse this journey alone.

Before Hendry set about transforming the digital side of Steel & Tube, he brought in Qual IT, New Zealand information technology and quality assurance company, to help.

“With the high levels of change in our industry – acquisitions, restructures, market pressures, etcetera – we needed to focus on our agility and the performance of our platforms,” explains Hendry.

“I needed help understanding how the Steel & Tube environment performed, so we could engineer a more contemporary architecture. We needed an honest, independent health check.”

“That is when I brought on board Qual IT.

“Our job is to tell the truth about the current state,” says Reg Prasad, general manager, Advisory & Northern Business at Qual IT, “and then partner with our customers to ensure that, going forward, the right IT investments along with the right processes and governance are formed to enable the strategy from the top down. And importantly, that the investments can operate with longevity and minimal costs along the way.

“Pre-COVID, Mike was talking about a pretty significant digital change at Steel & Tube, which would put huge demands on the existing systems. We had to make sure the systems were up to it.

“We also advised Mike on where he could make efficiency gains, by speeding up how quickly their systems could adapt, work, reduce cost and drive the outcomes the strategy required.

“And when COVID and lockdowns happened, the rubber hit the road.

“As part of the on-going digital transformation, an e-commerce platform was implemented and had to rev up ASAP to ensure Steel & Tube could effectively serve those customers still able to operate in lockdown. The goal was to use these platforms to ensure sales and service could continue with nationwide shutdown of its trading locations.

“Systems failure was simply not an option. Moving from onboarding almost 50,000 products, ensuring a great customer experience, simple transacting, and delivery through the supply chain during lockdowns was a massive task.

“And I am happy to say, Steel & Tube, hit the mark, and reinforced their position as a digital leader in the steel industry,” says Prasad. “I feel confident that following a massive year of IT change, Steel & Tube are now positioned for the future and can take their clients and employees with them.”