Sometimes the best way to upgrade is to resurrect the tried-and-true

Upgrade: "to extend the usefulness of (as a device)."
--Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

In October 1994 I realized a dream: I purchased a $3-million manufacturing plant in Brunswick, Maine. For nearly 30 years Keena Manufacturing Corp. had been churning out the so-called brown shoes of the industrial-packaging industry--you know, the brown paper tape with "strings" running through it for reinforcement. And not just the product was old-fashioned. The machinery had been designed and hand-built by one of the founders, and the information technology was obsolete. Without the money for a plantwide overhaul, I had to look hard at the resources I had and figure out how to expand their usefulness. To my surprise, I learned that you don't need new technology if you find ways to put a new spin on the old stuff. In fact, you can turn yesterday's equipment into today's advantage.

A simple example: Keena's reinforced packaging tape is made by a 26-year-old machine that unravels spools of fiberglass, weaves the threads into a net, and then laminates the interwoven threads between two layers of paper. We wanted to keep making the brown tape and also update it to give it a contemporary look, but we assumed that the latter would require a newer machine. Happily, we found that by simply coating the rig's lamination rollers with Teflon we could develop an entirely new product: Sizzltape. Sizzltape is reinforced tape that's laminated with the highest-quality gift wrap, giving the customer two bangs for the buck: a package that's sealed and giftwrapped at the same time.

When we looked at customer service, we realized we could upgrade our performance by actually downgrading our technology. A poll of our customers and staff had shown a nearly unanimous distaste for voice mail. The reason was simple: human contact was lost in a sea of electronic menus, thwarting instant gratification. So voice mail at Keena went the way of "snail mail" at most companies--out the door. Now our phones are not allowed to ring more than twice before a customer-service rep answers and quickly dispenses information or takes an order. We even instruct the reps in the art of schmoozing-- "How's the weather?" "How was your vacation?"--something voice mail can't do.

The real test of our back-to-the-future philosophy, though, came when I set out to analyze what we had--and what we needed--to gather and disseminate information. I found we were the proud owners of a single 386 PC with 80 MB of memory, an outdated DacEasy 4.3 accounting package, and an old version of a DOS-based database called PFS: First Choice. We ran out of memory in the first week of ownership, and data retrieval was so slow we had to run reports overnight. Even the help line for the computer had been disconnected.

No question, we needed to update our hardware and our accounting system. So we purchased three Pentium PCs with 2 GB of memory and strung them together with a peer-to-peer network using Microsoft Windows NT. The system gave us room to grow and also allowed us to install DacEasy Version 7--the ideal package for a company our size. We connected to the Internet via a 28.8-Kb modem and developed a Web site to market our products on-line. The price tag for the updates? A reasonable $9,000.

A traditional revamping would have included replacing the database software, the heart of our system. And in fact, we investigated database packages with manuals the size of the Manhattan yellow pages. But we soon realized that for all their muscle, those newer packages really couldn't do more for us than our trusty PFS: First Choice, a meat-and-potatoes package that was a snap to pick up. After all, our largest database was only 11,000 records; using one of the new programs to manage it would have been like using a bazooka to kill a flea. First Choice allows us to sort, retrieve, and integrate information, and it even set up a form that acts as a customer-contact manager--in short, everything we need to do, without the learning curve. It pays (literally) to remember that even the most powerful Windows software is really old DOS software in disguise.

Now I'm a hard-core believer that a blend of old and new technology gives the best return--in our case, 8% growth in the past year. And the new should be added only when it's clear that it will bring absolute value to the company.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still save paper clips.

Harvey Epstein is president of Keena Manufacturing Corp.