BUSINESS SOFTWARE

Uneasy Rider

John Healy, CEO of Coventry Spares Ltd., realized that the year 2000 bug would paralyze his antiquated computer system. Here's how he brought his motorcycle-parts company up to speed.
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Case Study

John Healy never thought the year 2000 bug would infect his motorcycle-parts business. He was dead wrong

John Healy approached his PC warily, as though it were an animal that might bite him. Placing his fingers tentatively on the keyboard, he prepared to perform a simple calculation with the software he was using to manage his business, Coventry Spares Ltd., in Holliston, Mass. A few weeks earlier, his sister-in-law had nearly been stranded at the airport in Jacksonville, Fla., because the computers at the rental-car agency had choked on her driver's-license expiration date--July 15, 2000. Healy needed to prove to himself that his systems were safe.

He began by creating a purchase order for motorcycle pistons and dating it for the end of December 1999; he set the receivable date for the beginning of January 2000. Then Healy punched a key and waited for the software to tell him how many days the order would be outstanding. Instead of numbers, the system came back with a series of question marks.

With growing trepidation, Healy swung over to a machine running a subscriber database for the magazine he publishes, Vintage Bike. But that program wasn't having any of it either. "The message came back, 'Not valid date," recalls Healy. "It brought me to my knees."

Like most small-business owners, John Healy had always entertained an "it-couldn't-happen-here" attitude toward the year 2000 problem, a nasty programming quirk that--at the turn of the century--is supposed to cause computers worldwide to freeze up, mangle calculations, and do various other interesting and terrible things because they can't distinguish the double zeros of 2000 from those of 1900. "I'd heard about this year 2000 thing, but I'd always thought it was a bunch of crap," Healy says. "Computers were supposed to bring us into the future, so they must have been built to last. The programmers couldn't have been this stupid."

But apparently they had been. At least that's what the computers at the $1.3-million distributor of vintage-motorcycle parts were telling Healy, the company's founder and president. He was particularly concerned about Coventry's business system, a highly customized affair that runs, among other things, the company's payroll, ordering, inventory control, and product lookup. "It handles the 85% of the business that makes me money," says Healy. "If I didn't fix this by the year 2000, I couldn't do anything. I'd be a dead duck in the water."

John Healy's quandary has a lot to do with the way his business--and his business systems--have evolved. He calls himself "computer driven," but that doesn't mean he's stocked his offices with state-of-the-art equipment. Instead he depends on a hodgepodge of graying machines that he's accumulated over the years and kept alive through ingenuity and stubbornness. The other mainstay of his business is his family: his wife, Susan; his daughter, Lisa; and his two sons, Tom and David. They all have played crucial roles in the company's development. Trace the history of Healy's information systems and his family, and you trace the history of Coventry Spares Ltd.

Six-foot-three with white hair, watery blue eyes, and a thick thatch of mustache, the 58-year-old entrepreneur looks more like a retired sergeant major than someone who spends his weekends watching motorcycle racers dust up a track. But bikes have been Healy's life since 1959, when, as a junior at Boston University, he took a part-time job at a local dealer of Triumph motorcycles.

It was money that lured him back to that business several years after graduation. Healy had been trying to support his wife and two young children on a teacher's salary--$3,000 a year--not easy to do, even in the early 1960s. Then Triumph decided to open a second franchise in the Boston area. Healy's former boss, Pete Andrews, offered to help his young friend buy the new business "so at least he'd know who his competitor was," explains Healy.

With $6,000 from Andrews and a small stake of their own, John and Susan launched Triumph of Wellesley, in Wellesley, Mass., on April Fools' Day 1966. Neither had run a business before, but John was an ace mechanic and Susan was good with the books. "Pretty soon, we had money sticking out of every pocket," says Healy. "The bikes sold like candy. If you failed in the business back then, you had no skill at all."

Those were glory years at Triumph of Wellesley: "Woodstock in four walls," Healy calls it. The Wild One, released in 1954, had conferred cult status on motorcycles: anyone who rode or worked with them was cool by definition. Employees sported the same long hair and beads as their customers; Bob Dylan and other celebrities dropped in occasionally. And the business flourished: in 1969 John and Susan opened a machine shop in Ashland, Mass., and two years later they launched an accessories store in Boston. With the new stores, the number of employees climbed from 3 to 18.

Even if computers had been affordable back then, Triumph of Wellesley wouldn't have needed one. The most cumbersome task was keeping track of parts, and that's something Healy did in his head.

"When I was a kid, my friends and I used to memorize telephone numbers and license plates," he explains. "We'd say, 'OK, what was the license-plate number on that blue Ford we saw last Tuesday?" Those childhood games paid off: ask Healy the number for a ball bearing for a Triumph 650, and he'll produce it just by logging in to his own brain.

The other number-intensive task was inventory management, but Healy didn't need a computer for that either. "In those days it was easy to do because you could afford to overbuy," he says. "If you needed something, you'd buy 100 of them and throw them on the shelf so you wouldn't run out again."

The fast times slowed dramatically in 1972, when Triumph's new line of motorcycles failed spectacularly. The next few years were hard. Money was so tight that at Christmas, Healy's children had to make do with the gifts he got from suppliers in appreciation for his patronage. Suddenly the business wasn't fun anymore; it was work. And Healy started looking around for tools that could help him manage it.

That was in the years before desktop computing took off, so choices were limited. You could buy a big piece of iron--that is, if you had a couple hundred thousand dollars to spare. Networking hadn't caught on either, and the prospect of buying several stand-alone boxes, each running its own database, was anathema to Healy. "Every time an employee would bring a new Rolodex into my business, I would destroy it," he says. "I certainly wasn't going to have multiple databases."

For several years Healy experimented with only the most elementary applications, using an early Digital Equipment Corp. computer running a DOS competitor called CP/M that together set him back about $1,500. They didn't do much for his business, but Healy blamed the primitive state of the technology. If he waited long enough, he believed, something really useful would appear on the scene.

Then, in 1982, Healy fell in love. He was wandering the floor of a trade show in Boston--looking around and asking a lot of questions but not seriously expecting to buy--when he spied two terminals connected to a single box "with the biggest hole I had ever seen in a computer." The man demonstrating the system told Healy that the hole was a tape backup. "That caught my interest," he recalls. "No floppies?" The vendor, a local consultant who had developed some business software for small companies, explained that with that type of system, multiple users could access the same database from different machines. "I looked at that thing and said, 'I can have one Rolodex with a tape backup!" says Healy. "'How much does it cost?"

The hardware was from a company called Onyx; the operating system was called Oasis. Healy--whose financial status had recently improved, thanks in large part to the success of the machine shop--bought the whole shebang, including three terminals, two printers, and a basic version of the consultant's business software, for less than $20,000. Then he taught himself COBOL and, working closely with the consultant, set about customizing the software. "I studied what I did--every damn thing from the time I came in in the morning--and I studied what all my employees did," says Healy. "And then I laid it all down on a giant piece of paper and said, 'This is what I do. This is what the software has to do." Much of the customization was ordinary stuff: adding and subtracting reports, changing screens. The most formidable task was creating algorithms to cope with the industry's complicated method for labeling parts. By the time Healy and the consultant were done, they had rewritten more than a quarter of the code; in the years since, they've continued to modify the program.

When John Healy plunked down his money for the Onyx-Oasis system, he was making an investment in change. But change was something he would come to abhor, over the next decade, as it threatened both his family and his computers.

The trouble began shortly after Healy bought the new system and enlisted his daughter, who was then 14, to populate its customer database. Lisa, a budding computer prodigy who already knew COBOL, would spend hours plugging in data, as well as answering phones, taking orders, and doing other chores around the business. But in August 1982, Lisa was bitten by a mosquito and contracted eastern equine encephalitis. She lapsed into a coma and was rushed to Children's Hospital in Boston, where doctors barely managed to save her life. Both John and Susan lived at the hospital for two months, emerging only when Tom had a football accident that put him, too, in intensive care.

Finally, Lisa came home, but she remained severely disabled. Unable to afford round-the-clock care, the couple--harried businesspeople by day--became nurses by night, trading shifts and subsisting on three or four hours of sleep. "We were exhausted; we hated everybody," says Healy. "So much of business is personal, and we were becoming monsters."

Their final breakdown was precipitated by a mundane event: a customer's coming in to return a battery. "This guy was as tall as me and twice the size--just a big hulk of a human being," says Healy. "I hear someone yelling, 'John! John!' And I come running downstairs, and there's little pint-sized Susan preparing to go for the guy's neck. I said right then and there, 'We're closing."

That was the end of July 1985. Healy had three businesses and 28 employees; by the end of August he had zero businesses and 3 employees. (The employees stayed on so that Healy could qualify for his much-needed health insurance.) "I imploded," he says. Half a million dollars worth of inventory went into his garage, carted there by dozens of old friends who turned out to help with the dissolution. "I didn't want to have an auction," says Healy. "I just wanted to do it as quickly as I possibly could."

Then he and Susan started shopping for a small work space they could rent cheaply. The idea was to do a little wholesale business and go home at 5 o'clock. The place they chose, a drab brick building in a nondescript industrial park, is tough to find, impossible to stumble across. The sign at the entrance to the park announces every tenant but Healy; the door to the shop is unmarked. Coventry Spares Ltd. does no traditional advertising; it isn't even listed in the phone book. Healy likes it that way. In fact he is making a business strategy out of not being seen.

Coventry sells spare parts--more than 17,000 kinds, from fenders to main shafts--to vintage-motorcycle dealers. About 85% of its inventory comes from Britain, and most of it goes into bikes made between the end of the Second World War and the introduction of Honda's four-cylinder 750cc model, in 1969. (The most modern motorcycle for which the business sells parts was built in 1982.) Healy says that dealers buy from him instead of buying direct for two reasons. First, he offers a heavy-duty warranty, which his British suppliers don't. Second, the British manufacturers operate in a high-profile way meant to attract consumers--the dealers' customers. "I do the opposite of everything the Brits do," says Healy. "Because I hide, my dealers have more confidence in me. I have no business cards because I don't want to make the faux pas of going to a motorcycle rally and having my dealers see me handing out cards to their customers."

Healy's man-behind-the-curtain policy has paid off. Coventry did around $100,000 in sales its first year; in 1996 it grossed over $1.3 million and controlled 15% to 20% of the market. But through all that growth and turmoil, one thing has changed very little: the company's computers. After several years of nursing along his Onyx, buying used parts from people converting to newer systems, Healy finally replaced it in 1986 with an IBM 286. That change in hardware necessitated a change in the operating system, so Healy substituted SCO Xenix (an early version of Unix) for the Oasis system. But he continued using the very same business software he'd purchased and begun customizing back in 1982. "I hate change in operating systems, change in everything," says Healy. "You get the damn thing stable. It works. Leave it alone."

And that's what Healy did until his sister-in-law came back from Florida with the story about her driver's license. Coventry's business software was 14 years old. The operating system running it was six or seven versions out of date. And the box itself was a 286. None of the pieces could even begin to deal with anything after December 31, 1999.

As soon as Healy saw those question marks on his monitor, he knew what he had to do: call the consultant. Much to his relief he found that his old pal was up on the issue and had been working to make the business software Y2K compliant. Because the cost of the consultant's labor was spread over a number of customers--two dozen other businesses use a base version of the program--Healy estimates he paid only about $8,000 for the upgrade. Unfortunately the updated software wouldn't run on Healy's geriatric machines. So about a year ago, after a brief period of denial, out went the 286 and Xenix and in came an Acer 486 and the latest version of SCO Unix. Total cost for the hardware and the operating system: $9,000.

Healy transferred his data from the old program, including detailed information on some 500 customers, to the new one--a relatively easy task. But his original version was so highly customized that getting its successor to perform in the same way has been not just a struggle but a drain on the business. "Having to pay attention to the new stuff is adding another 10 hours a week that I'm paying attention to computers and not my business," he says. "While I'm playing with computers, my competitor is using a pencil to serve my customers."

Despite the almost daily glitches, Healy considered his business-software problem largely solved. But a seemingly tougher nut remained uncracked. In 1989 Healy became the editor and publisher of Vintage Bike--a 40-page black-and-white magazine about old motorcycles and the people who love them. He bought the magazine, which had been started in 1978 by a racing enthusiast in Atlanta--for $10,000 in cash and $20,000 in assumed debt. The package included subscription-management software, a database of subscribers' names, and an IBM PC "so old you could put it in a museum," says Healy. The magazine, which comes out quarterly and accounts for about 14% of Healy's revenues, runs paid advertising and costs $18.50 for an annual subscription. The subscriber database has grown to 12,000 names--both dealers and consumers--about 3,000 of them active.

The Vintage Bike database proved even less hospitable to the year 2000 than Healy's other systems: plug in 00, and it won't even let you try to calculate anything.

But unlike his beloved business software, this program cried out for change: Healy wanted to add things to it, like the ability to handle bulk mailings. Unfortunately the program was incomprehensible as written. The developer, who had created it for the magazine's original owner, had structured the database and devised the field names in anti-intuitive, idiosyncratic ways. (So, for example, instead of Name.Cust and Address.Cust, the descriptors read MC005 and TS137.) "It's common for a programmer to make himself indispensable by writing code that only he can decipher," says Healy. "It's like: 'You can't fire me. I've got the secret-decoder ring."

Healy wanted that ring, so he set out to track down the original developer, who he knew was also a motorcycle buff. After several months of asking friends and friends of friends (in the biker community, there are only two or three degrees of separation between any two people), he finally located the guy, who was running a tour business for motorcyclists in Phoenix. "I called him and asked, 'Do you want to rewrite this software?" says Healy. "And he said, 'No, I'm out of the thing completely. I don't want anything to do with it."

The developer did agree to send Healy the source code, however, in exchange for a small fee and some free advertising in Vintage Bike. When the code arrived, housed on an ancient five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy, Healy sat down and tried to make sense of it, having taught himself QuickBASIC, the language the program was written in, for the occasion. After investing 50 or 60 hours in the project, however, he was no closer to cracking the thing. "It's written in hieroglyphics," says Healy. "You might as well try to read the writing on an Egyptian tomb."

With year 2000 anxiety pressing him to work quickly, Healy concluded that his only choice--aside from rekeying all 12,000 names into another program--was to hand over the source code and database to a consultant who specializes in such things. The consultant that he selected, Hank Portier of Data Recovery Inc., in Needham, Mass., came back with news, both bad and good. The bad news: the code was copyrighted, and neither consultant nor client could touch it without getting permission from the original developer and possibly forking over a sizable fee. The good news: Portier could convert Healy's files into a format readable by current relational-database programs without recoding. The cost for Portier's labor--most of it spent combing through Healy's voluminous records and substituting four-digit years for two-digit ones in every date--would run about $2,000.

Healy hasn't yet decided whether he'll pay Portier to do the conversion or try it himself "in the winter, when things slow down." He's also still debating which database program to buy and even which platform to run it on. The cost for everything--new hardware, operating system, database software, and conversion--will probably exceed $20,000, Healy estimates. "Reality," he says, "has always taxed our computer budget."

Even after the subscriber database is safely reborn, Healy still won't be entirely free of the forest. "We've got lots of teeny pieces of software--all those little add-ons that you buy," he says. "I'm not even going to test those. I just don't use them that much." Coventry also has three Macs, used primarily to produce Vintage Bike. "Everybody says that Macs are bulletproof," says Healy. "But who knows about the software?" And what about Healy's suppliers? After all, if their systems aren't up to snuff, he may never get the parts he orders. And his customers? They won't be replenishing their inventory if crashing systems send their own businesses into a tizzy.

Healy looks slightly aggrieved at the questions. "I don't know what they're doing," he says. "I've got enough things to worry about."

Leigh Buchanan is the editor of Inc. Technology.

Last updated: Dec 15, 1997

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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