The customiser is always right

Gateway will build the PC you want - right now. By Dorothy Walker
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There is very little that William doesn't know about PCs. He has built and tested them, loaded them with software and packed them lovingly into boxes, all in the 18 months since he graduated from selling hamburgers.

When he joined the PC manufacturer Gateway 2000 in Dublin, his fast-food training stood him in good stead. "Make it happen fast" is the motto here, and this quirky company has accelerated from a standing start to be a Fortune 500 player on the back of this blindingly simple concept.

Gateway's entire European operation is in one building, from which its staff market, make, sell, ship and support PCs.

They deal directly with each customer on the telephone, shunning shops and distributors. Every machine is built just in time; not a pin meets a slot until a PC is ordered and paid for. Then, just in case this all seems too serious, they ship your PC to your door in a piebald box that looks like a cow.

My taxi driver thought the splotches on the boxes were cowpats, but conceded: "Whatever it is, it's working for them." Gateway, which began life in a US barn in 1985 when an Iowa cattle farmer decided he ought to diversify into computers, now has a annual turnover of $3.7bn, and continues to grow.

The Dublin workforce is 800-strong, and 1,200 more jobs have just been announced. Not one employee is American. Most are locals, although salespeople are hired from throughout Europe to speak their native tongue when helping callers decide what flavour of PC they would like.

The approach pays off - three-quarters of all customers end up ordering a PC with add-ons beyond the models that feature in Gateway's catalogue.

On the factory floor, the short-order computer cooks assemble the ingredients. They don't have to make the chips: all components are bought in from suppliers such as Intel, which provide motherboards. The company does compatibility tests to ensure a new accessory works with everything else.

For production manager Michael O'Callaghan, the spectre always looming is lead time - the interval between a customer buying a machine and seeing it arrive on the doorstep. It currently stands at six days. The most common glitch is when someone orders and is then convinced by friends that he should opt for some even bigger, faster twiddly bits - by which time the machine is often built.

The bits only seem to come in go-faster form anyway. Gateway doesn't advertise anything less than a Pentium 75 PC, and its slowest CD-Rom is a six-speed model.

"Change is the essence of our business," says O'Callaghan. Because everything is made just in time, he says he can change the production line immediately to include something faster or bigger, and pass price cuts on to the customer. And there are no obsolete models sitting gathering dust in shops.

Each machine is built by hand by a team of seven people, who can produce around 60 PCs a day.

William, now in quality control, checks the work of Clodagh (software loader, used to be in car parks), Adrienne (card fitter and ex-hotel assistant), Colette (graduated to cables from hairdryer switches), Noel (to disk drives from dispatch) and Paul, who came straight from college to do motherboards and memory.

Anchorman is former carpet cleaner Dave, who must ensure the correct voltage is set - something management forgot to do recently when they were building computers for charity, in what turned into a spectacular demonstration.

The average age on the floor is 22. Recruits - many of whom haven't even used a computer - are trained as a team. They are encouraged to continue learning, and work their way up fast.

The company is keen to make the manufacturing process more personal, so the builders will think of making an individual customer happy. Recent shipments, however, ranged from 32 Pentium 166 machines for a company in Papeete, French Polynesia through 68 Pentium 200 PCs for a post office box in Luanda, Angola, to a monitor for a lady in Norwich.

Because the customer is right there on the other end of the telephone, Gateway can do just-in-time market research. If they want to find out how high a premium a buyer is willing to pay for a special delivery (Christmas Eve is the most popular request), the salespeople just ask the next 20 customers who ring up.

They can also gauge when to expect peaks and troughs. Mondays are mayhem (people have had the weekend to read the ads); blizzards are bad for sales (families fret about basics like food and heating), and last year's national strike in France was brilliant for business, but no one has worked out why.

Advertisements are produced in-house, and production staff have their say. Senior managers also do their share of customer support. Operations manager Mike Dunne fondly remembers his last stint on the helplines.

"A customer was having floppy-disk trouble, so I advised him to take out the disk and close the door. There was a long silence, and I realised he was closing the sitting room door. Then a lady rang up to say that her foot pedal didn't work. I had to explain it was a mouse."

The answer was to label each part of the PC more clearly. This was put into practice next day, which Dunne says was just in time.