In a time when many executives are finding it difficult to strike a work-life balance, Ben Fox has an enviable job. As the IT lead at Yacht Havens Group, headquartered in Lymington, he works in a relaxed environment by the sea, looking out across the Solent towards the Isle of Wight.
Supporting a network of eight sites across the country on his own is no easy task though. The chain of marinas is in a premium market, where cash rich customers expect excellent service. It is a seasonal business which peaks at times like the week before the Diamond Jubilee weekend, when I travelled down to see him, and dies off in the winter.
Main revenues come from residents fees and leasing space to attendant businesses, such as boat engineering and on premises bars and restaurants. A third source of revenue comes from visiting boat berthing.
“The bread and butter of the marina sector is the residents, though” he says, emphasising the importance good customer service has in the business model.
The Yacht Havens sites in Plymouth, Essex, Scotland and Wales traditionally operated as autonomous units with their own market traditions. Some sites bill for services which in others are considered complimentary. It’s this heterogeneous environment that Fox needed to help streamline by centralising data management, to an extent.
“We were looking for best-practice across all the sites,” he says.
Fox, who has been the IT guy at Yacht Havens for the last eight years is dressed in a check shirt and chinos as he shows me around the marina. It’s a good illustration of the business challenges that shape his IT strategy. Traditionally, the maritime world is a cottage industry that has got along just fine without the benefits of digitisation, but Fox explains that there are good reasons for bringing the company’s systems up to date.
Up to now, the business has been supported by a network of locally-based servers, with company data being synchronised once a month. The marina business doesn’t change significantly day to day, but this sort of batch processing meant the company didn’t have the intelligence to make effective business decisions.
Fox explains that business efficiency could be greatly improved by a greater level of knowledge about which berths were free in each marina on any given day. The ability to aggregate this data over the whole company would also give it useful insights into market behaviour over a season or the full year.
Certain market demands have also pushed up the need for IT investment. Visitors expect free wifi as part of the service and offering this from 2009 has also enabled the company to provide residents with IP CCTV for extra security on their boats. Residents who sign up for the wifi service are also allowed to roam their connection to other marinas that have a wifi deal with the same provider, Spectrum Marina Wifi.
Recently, the company’s server software was becoming problematic, mainly because Yacht Havens had limited support. Desktop systems, based on XP, also needed updating. It had come to a decision point where Fox needed to decide whether to upgrade the company’s licences with Microsoft or look for another option. By 2011 cloud services had started to become a serious alternative to on-premise software architectures and Fox opted for a supplier called Databarracks.
“Cost was an issue but it was more about being able to streamline IT processes on all eight sites, but without putting anyone’s job at risk.”
Cloud services has also allowed the company to interact with its customer base through technology, by giving them the opportunity to complete berthing contracts online, for instance.
Yacht Havens migrated its systems onto the cloud service in November last year. The company operates the service as three virtual servers running core company applications to all of the sites, but for Fox, it’s essentially about dealing with one central server.
With a severely limited IT support operation, comprising Fox himself, the cloud architecture frees him from the tyranny of travelling around the sites, some of them in very remote areas, to do software updates.
When the network started to fail, it meant me driving to Scotland or Wales” says Fox. “It happened too seldom for me to contract this work out, but this gave me peace of mind, especially as we are 24/7 operation. Yacht Havens doesn’t shut.”