Founded in 1981 as Remainders Ltd, The Works began as a retailer selling remaindered books. It has grown both organically and through acquisition. In March 2007, The Works acquired 26 outlets of the chains Bargain Books and Bookworld. The following year, private equity firm Endless purchased the company. It launched an ecommerce site in 2012 and a loyalty card programme in 2013, listing itself on the stock exchange in 2018. Today, it is a discount retailer with 500 stores across the UK and Ireland, and annual revenues of £217m.
Like many rapidly growing companies, The Works was having a hard time managing its IT. It has 15 IT staff, but infrastructure management remains a challenge. There were three people in the infrastructure team, and then in summer 2018 the company’s senior engineer left.
“When you lose somebody senior, they take a lot of experience with them, and a lot of skills,” explains Geoff Smith, the company’s head of IT. “It puts a big hole in the business.”
The average senior infrastructure manager’s tenure at The Works had fallen to 36 months. Filling a position like that can take another six months, and then the company would have to invest time and money in retraining them on the Group’s own Microsoft-based infrastructure. This all influences its infrastructure management capacity.
The Works changed its approach, replacing the senior infrastructure manager with an outsourced service. Rather than a simple support contract, it looked for a service spanning the full spectrum of infrastructure management functions.
Probrand had supplied The Works with hardware and software for 20 years, and the retailer quickly included it in a shortlist of three incumbent suppliers for its infrastructure service. “Probrand’s offering was head and shoulders above the others,” recalls Smith. “Its head office team was substantial, with different teams for functions like databases, infrastructure, and development.” He awarded the contract to Probrand, confident that the company could support other areas of the business as issues arose.
Probrand provided The Works with a full network monitoring service and hands-on helpdesk operation. It also put one of its infrastructure experts on-site at the retailer’s headquarters in Coleshill, Birmingham, backed by 40 other engineers and technical consultants at Probrand’s offices.
Probrand’s IT outsourcing service went beyond ongoing infrastructure management; Over the next 12 months, it also managed several new projects for The Works.
The first involved migrating its mail server from Microsoft Exchange 2007 to Exchange 2016. The Works had attempted this both internally and with contractors. It had to roll back the migration on both occasions. The third time was a charm.
“Probrand did it and it went extremely well,” says Smith. The company subsequently added another Exchange server at The Works’ Salford data centre for resilience.
A far bigger project involved upgrading the physical infrastructure at The Works’ head office in Coleshill, Birmingham, moving the old systems to Salford with no disruption to business or services.
Probrand also helped The Works when it realised that it was running out of data storage space. The retailer had never audited its storage use or conducted any housekeeping. Probrand’s infrastructure manager analysed its storage and put tight controls in place to free up capacity.
Finally, The Works called on Probrand when upgrading some of its Microsoft servers. Probrand advised the company to move to a thin provisioning model to save more storage capacity.
Probrand’s infrastructure outsourcing services bought The Works several benefits. One of the first was cost savings.
Smith said: “Probrand’s more realistic specification on the server migration project saved the company £20,000 in hardware and running costs. It cut the server count at Coleshill from five to three.
“The storage auditing project negated the need for additional storage substantially extending the life of the existing solution.”
Probrand also bought The Works more continuity in two ways.
“We no longer risk losing critical knowledge through staff attrition. Probrand’s expert team both on and off-site provides coverage during sickness and holidays, meaning that The Works is never without the expertise and capability it needs.”
Probrand’s backing also increases the depth and breadth of the knowledge, Smith explains, because the on-site infrastructure manager can call on several specialist teams for advice on different infrastructure issues. They have extensive knowledge both of The Works’ existing systems and of any new technologies that the company is considering.