FFD building global customer base for its software

Heeding the advice of a long-time mentor and listening closely to his customers have been keys for local software executive Barry Lucas as he has successfully ridden the economic challenges of the last few years to grow a global customer base.

The Chief Executive Officer and President of FFD commutes from Maryville to his office in the Fairview Business Incubator where the seven-year old company is located. This is his second “tour of duty” in Fairview, having started FFD in 2004 before moving out. With the recent economic challenges, Lucas “outsourced sales, shrunk the company and moved back into the incubator” in 2009. FFD is again close to outgrowing the space, so he’s expecting to relocate within a year.

In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Lucas talked about the company, his mentor and partners, and the strategies that FFD is pursuing today. It is clear that he credits his mentor, who also happens to be one of his partners, with a great deal of his success.

“Warren (Oliver) and I are extremely close,” Lucas said in describing the person with whom he has worked for two decades. They were together at Nano Instruments, and Oliver is one of two partners with Lucas in FFD. The other partner and co-founder is another long-time colleague – Jack Hay.

“Jack is the real driving force behind our software,” Lucas said.  “His ability to work closely with customers, understand their needs and turn that into specifications that our developers can code around is simply uncanny.”

Lucas, who earned his doctorate in materials science from the University of Tennessee, praises Oliver as “a good businessman and a strong scientist. Warren’s company is one of the most unheralded successes in our region.”

FFD was spun-off from a previous instrumentation company in which Lucas, Hay and Oliver were involved. Its focus is on software for knowledge capture, management and deployment on the manufacturing floor.

“Manufacturing companies traditionally cobble together systems, which is a royal pain,” Lucas said, adding that it is not only inefficient but costly.

He said that his advisory board challenged him in 2004 to think bigger and more broadly than just focusing on instrumentation. “Jack had developed the initial platform for Sequence within the instrumentation company for our own internal use.” Lucas and Hay spent three months talking with manufacturers and “found that most high tech companies struggled” with the problem.

FFD’s solution to these challenges was the development of what Lucas describes as an “authoring piece” (WinSequence) and a “deployment piece.” (WebSequence) He characterizes the former as a way to capture the company knowledge expertise that exists in one or two people on every plant floor. Using the name “Phil,” Lucas says that this Windows-based, personal computer approach enables workers to get answers to their questions “when Phil is in the field.”

Lucas said the tool “extends the reach of resource planning information and tells people how to do an operation.”

The other software piece – WebSequence – is, as its name implies, a portal available at every workstation. “We let them (the company) deploy their information through a web application,” Lucas said. “Our database allows rapid changes so that, if something is changed overnight, the worker has to acknowledge the new instructions’ when he or she signs-on the next time.

FFD has a short video about the LockStep and Sequence available on You Tube at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cR4O2-tdH_E. The company’s web site is at: http://www.sequencesoftware.com/.

The Sequence Enterprise version of FFD’s software was actually developed prior to the LockStep Desktop solution.  This is probably a good thing for FFD. Lucas recalled his board telling him in 2009 that “you need to figure-out what you are going to do for a year with no new revenue.”

LockStep is a scaled back, desktop version of Sequence. Over the past two years, Lucas said the company’s strategy was to “deploy as many versions of LockStep as possible.” He explained that such a large installed base would allow the single station systems to be upgraded to Sequence Enterprise as customers had the money to do so as the economy recovered.

“One of our best customers is American Science and Engineering (AS&E),” Lucas said. A marketing document produced by FFD quotes an ASE executive as saying that the Sequence software “has helped reduce cycle times by two weeks.”

As Lucas looks to the future, he talks about the world in terms of a global customer base. He talks about “large deployments in Germany and Singapore” and a team that just recently returned from an engagement in Scotland.

“We are all over North America as well as in Europe and Asia,” he noted. “I have never seen some of our largest customers face-to-face.”

To meet the ever-changing nature of technology, Lucas said that FFD is moving to mobile tablet platforms. The company just created an iPad app for AS&E. And, FFD has made a free, scaled back version of LockStep available in response to the sentiment driven by tablet and smartphone apps that “every application should have a free version.”

“Our big focus in 2012 is on partnerships to extend our market reach,” he said. Listening to his mentor and his customers has obviously allowed Lucas to weather the economic downturn and position FFD for success going forward.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: FFD desktop solutions were featured on a recent “Quality Digest Live” program. You can watch the show at http://www.qualitydigest.com/_qd.video_player.php?category=118&nvideo=20192.)

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