Originally a feature in our 2013 Annual Review, WhichPLM is proud to publish this detailed interview with our founder, primary consultant and Managing Director, Mark Harrop, as he celebrates his 40th year in the business – to this very date – and shares with us the transformation the industry has undergone.
Question: The past twelve months have seen some real transformations in the breadth and the scope of technology for the fashion industry. For someone who’s been involved in that industry for almost 40 years, just how different are things today than they were when you started out?
Mark Harrop: The fashion industry today is, in a lot of ways, the same as it’s always been. We still make and sell (or at least try to sell) the right garments for the right markets; we still source materials from all over the world to make our clothing, footwear and accessories; and we still employ designers to envision them, technicians to make them practical, marketing teams to advertise them and so on.
In a host of other ways, though, the actual “business” of fashion has changed dramatically, influenced by the technological revolution that has transformed a range of other industries since the commercialisation of the Internet in 1995.
In 1974, when I started working on the cutting room floor at Lawtex, there were no computers. All of our cutting tools were handheld and motorised. We developed patterns by hand in 1/5th scale with little in the way of concrete details to help us visualise how they might look full size – a little like taking photos outdoors and not being able to see the fruits of your labour until you went into the darkroom.
Today’s cutting rooms would be practically unrecognisable to a factory worker plucked from 40 years ago. We have processors built into cutting and sewing machines, with the blades and needles guided by entirely digital patterns in exacting detail. Our designers create those initial designs on touchscreen tablets, using standardised canvases to build their silhouettes and grades upon. In some cases, those designs can then be draped – in a choice of materials that react realistically according to their cloth characteristics – over three-dimensional virtual avatars, allowing them to see a fully-realised prototype without ever leaving their desks… let alone going into the “darkroom”!
When I started out, all of that designing and manufacturing tended to be done in the same place – or at least in the same country. Today, garments are very rarely conceived in the countries where they’re manufactured, or manufactured in the countries where they’re sold. A huge amount of footwear and apparel is made in countries like China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and then shipped over to Western retailers. But even this looks to be coming to an end, as those same manufacturers start to develop their own brands to compete with the influx of foreign names.
So we can manufacture more quickly and in more places than ever before – thanks to mechanised, intelligent machinery and the collaborative potential of the Internet.
But that’s not all: in changing, retailers and brands didn’t just digitise what they’d done before. Forty years’ worth of progress has enabled the industry to take advantage of opportunities that simply didn’t exist until now.
Over half of all adults in the UK have bought products online, and a prominent retail research agency suggests that online channels may account for between 10-15% of all fashion sales this year in our home country alone. The same patterns (or even more pronounced) are being mirrored in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Australia, and coupled with the ubiquity of mobile devices, these trends have even created a whole new category of shoppers. Called “showroomers”, these consumers visit brick-and-mortar stores to touch products and experience the brand lifestyle, but do so with a smartphone in hand, searching for better deals on the same products from online mega-retailers like Amazon.
That kind of access to information – the encapsulation, really, of just how much everything’s changed since I joined the industry – doesn’t just empower consumers, though. Retailers and brands can leverage a massive amount of information (from cutters and sewing machines, to merchandise planning systems and 3D-prototyping software) using a centralised data repository like PLM to coordinate their business intelligence and make truly informed decisions.
They couldn’t have done any of that forty years ago!
Q: On that subject, technology for fashion – primarily PLM and ERP, but also things like CAD, CAM, CRM and planning – has become such a large and enduring industry that there must be many people working in it today who’ve never had the real experience of actually making a garment. Can you tell us more about how your early hands-on knowledge has helped in your career?
MH: My first cutting room job, as I said, was at a company called Lawtex. When I started out, aged sixteen, I was working directly with fabrics myself. It wasn’t long, though, until I was promoted to running the cutting room, where I worked to bring in new and improved methods and handling techniques, increasing our output by 20%.
I eventually moved into production management, where I ran a factory of 200 staff, producing uniforms for companies like British Airways and the Ministry of Defence.
I owe a great deal to that first-hand experience – from the initial apprenticeship right the way through to my first management role – since it allows me to talk to virtually everybody who’s involved in the product lifecycle. There have been times when I’ve walked into a brand office or factory in my suit, laptop under my arm, ready to meet the board, and been greeted with… shall we say a bit of scepticism from designers and pattern makers. To them, I looked like just another I.T. salesman. In those cases, being able to roll up my sleeves and talk shop with everybody, from the purchaser to the cutter to the production manager, has really given me the edge.
I have also seen that manufacturing transition I talked about – from domestic factories to offshore hubs – happen in real-time. And that’s an opportunity very few people will ever experience, seeing a complete transformation in the way an industry works, enabled by mechanisation and technology.
Although I would never change my background, it does make me a little sad from time to time to think that unique skills and experience like mine (and that of a lot of the other WhichPLM Editorial Board members) will eventually disappear, leaving us with an industry where all the hands-on manufacturing expertise is second-hand, passed down from the new experts offshore.
Luckily, though, those skills and experience serve me very well in my consultancy work for some of the world’s biggest brands.
Q: It seems like wherever you went, technology followed – or vice versa. At what point in your career did you notice that, instead of just helping companies to design, cut, and sew garments, technology was becoming capable of managing the product lifecycle in its entirety?
MH: The CAD industry was doing extremely well in the mid-1980s – prices were high, competition was low, and the software was selling almost as quickly as the vendors could fill out order forms. We might reasonably have expected that to be the end of it – the most that technology could do for fashion. At least until 1987, when an enterprising group of people (I don’t mind calling them that, since I was one of them!) brought the concept of product data management (PDM) from the aerospace industry and into fashion, working under the banner of Microdynamics.
PDM may have started off small, but it quickly became a revolution, forever changing the way the retail, footwear and apparel industry managed its data. Today most of us know the central idea as PLM, but at the time PDM was something entirely new – a way to move information from paper scattered on people’s desks to a centralised database, bringing with it predictability, efficiency, and the ability for designers and executives alike to trust in their information.
How that original solution became today’s massive PLM marketplace is another story entirely…
Q: Well, we know that there are now around 60 companies selling PLM to the fashion industry today, so I’m sure our readers will want to know how we got here.
MH: Well, I’ve mentioned that in the late ‘80s Microdynamics were the only company selling PDM. It didn’t take long for new competition to emerge, though – about two or three years. As with any new development, imitation trumped innovation, and most of the competition understood the end result – PDM – but not the processes and the journey that had brought us there.
Over the next decade, however, other vendors became smarter and more efficient. Methods were improved upon as staff moved from company to company, sharing their knowledge and expertise. Soon enough the competition became advanced enough to start challenging our (Microdynamics’) market leading position.
Being in the privileged position of watching other vendors improve their efficiency and process support year on year, though, had the benefit of allowing us to remain one step ahead, deepening and broadening the scope of our solution as often as we could.
That, in turn, allowed Microdynamics (which was acquired by Gerber Technology in the early 1990s) to take the lion’s share of the market. By combining the original solution with their own WebPDM system to create what they termed at the time a “second generation” solution, the company managed to remain market leaders until the early part of the new millennium.
At that time, I had left Microdynamics to join a company called Freeborders. We were a young team, with big ambitions – all of us coming from well-known fashion industry companies. It was there, in 2003, that we launched what was to become, for a short while at least, the successor to PDM: Collaborative Product Management, or CPM.
As it turned out, CPM became more of a stopgap solution between the eventually-web-enabled PDM and the truly web-based PLM. We can see that from CPM’s much shorter shelf life – just a few years, compared to thirteen years of PDM and, to date, ten years of PLM.
In those ten years, though, PLM has grown more rapidly than PDM or CPM ever did. At the start of the millennium there were around five vendors, and today the industry is home to almost sixty companies selling advanced PLM solutions. And, this figure will only increase as retailers, brands and manufacturers become better informed and better able to realise the true value of adopting a PLM solution.
Q: Being part of that growth must have been instrumental in your decision to branch out on your own and found WhichPLM? Tell us more about that.
MH: In 2007, after thirty-three years in manufacturing and technology, I’d reached a point where I felt like I had gained some really valuable experience from two sides of the technology divide, as a customer and as a supplier.
So, I thought, what better way to use that knowledge than to help others? I knew from experience that retailers and brands were making large – and very expensive – technological investments without necessarily being in possession of all of the facts.
PLM had become such a massive market, so quickly that it had created an environment where all the power rested in the hands of the salespeople. Those retailers and brands knew they needed something to help them manage their product development, and they were told PLM was the solution, but most of them had very little idea what it was, let alone how to go about comparing the solutions available in order to find the best fit for them.
And with fifty solutions (at the time) being pitched to inexperienced companies as the complete solution to all of their problems, it’s little wonder that many customers were taken in by the marketing spin and wound up implementing inadequate or unsuitable solutions.
So I decided to use the insight I had from both sides of the equation – buying and selling solutions – to provide impartial and unbiased information about PLM: what it is, who it’s for, how to implement it and, giving rise to the company name, which vendor’s solution to pick.
Q: Since you wanted to act almost as the ‘police’ for the PLM industry, did you find that people were receptive to the idea of WhichPLM?
MH: For the readers – the retailers, brands and manufacturers who wanted to understand PLM and make their own, informed choices – we were providing a service they desperately wanted, so many of them jumped at the chance. In fact, within a week of founding the company I was approached by to help them on their PLM journey.
Despite knowing that WhichPLM was something the industry needed, though, we started out with pretty modest goals. We didn’t necessarily see ourselves becoming a major destination for fashion technology news, but today we have a circulation of around 30,000 readers, and we’re seeing new and exciting brands engaging with our content every week.
This all goes to show that the market itself is still growing – and growing fast. Because so many companies are realising the potential of PLM each year, the need for what we do has only increased, since there have always been – and still are – too many vendors overselling their products, solutions and services, and under-delivering on those promises.
That may sound as though we have an antagonistic relationship with suppliers, when in fact we enjoy strong, productive and professional links to the vast majority of the world’s PLM vendors. Yes, at times those relationships will get a little rocky, since we firmly believe that the “right” PLM choice is the one that’s right for the client, not the one that’s in a supplier’s best interests.
Rather than treating a rejection as an opportunity to learn and improve, there are certain suppliers who will look for reasons outside of their own organisation to blame for their not winning a deal. The smarter vendors will instead use our expertise and the feedback they’ve received from their prospective client to improve their products and services, and be better prepared for the next time a retailer or brand asks themselves, “which PLM?”.
Q: It sounds like your ethos has always remained the same, but presumably WhichPLM hasn’t been static since day one. Can you tell us about some of the most important developments and changes you’ve made to the company and the website over the past few years?
MH: From humble beginnings, we’ve grown to become the most-visited website in our category, and in order to accommodate the needs of so many new readers we’ve undertaken two complete website re-designs. The second of those was in late 2012, and was accompanied by our first full re-branding, with a new logo and an entirely new look to complement some exciting new content.
Content is something we’ve always put first, and so our 2012 redesign was accompanied by a big recruitment drive for our Editorial Board, which now comprises experts in everything from tailoring to enterprise resource planning. Those experts, as well as our own in-house team, are committed to providing up-to-the-minute and exclusive articles, information, education and thought leadership completely free of charge to all readers.
We’ve also worked tirelessly to build on the quantity as well as the quality of our content; you’re reading our second Annual Review (containing our third industry survey), which in a very short space of time has become a landmark industry event. And our range of tools and tips has only increased, too.
But it isn’t all about content. In the past five years we’ve built a small but extremely capable team of people to manage our consulting work, our online magazine, our relationships with suppliers, and some new initiatives we’re very excited about.
Q: On a personal level, how do you feel about the past five years?
MH: I’m lucky, really – not only do I spend my working days doing something that I truly enjoy, I also get a huge sense of satisfaction from knowing that my advice benefits others who are in a less informed position.
Trust is a huge thing, and knowing that retailers and brands all over the world have confidence in me, my team, and our guidance is immensely flattering. And equally I have absolute respect for them, whether they come to us through their designers, technicians or executive team. Helping an enterprise to realise their technological ambitions is as rewarding for me as it is for them, and I’m as excited about doing that as I was on the day we launched WhichPLM.
The day that changes will be the day I seek out the next challenge and leave WhichPLM in extremely capable hands.
Q: Speaking of seeking new challenges, the market as a whole is beginning to understand that PLM is not the only solution that apparel companies need to succeed – we understand you’ve brought the WhichPLM ethics over to two new brands?
MH: When I started WhichPLM, the PLM industry was the most obvious target for the work we wanted to do. My own experience was in PDM and PLM for fashion, and I knew that the market would benefit from the kind of advice that we would be able to put out there: informed, impartial and insightful.
There’s still a great deal that I want to do with WhichPLM itself, since I firmly believe our core services are more sought-after now than ever before, and I want to make sure that we can bring everything we do, intact, to everybody who has a role in the product lifecycle.
A big part of that involves education, since there is still a great deal of reticence – particularly from creative teams – to adopt something they don’t necessarily understand, and in some cases see as a threat. To that end, we launched WhichPLM Academy last year, a brand-new initiative and a brand-new website delivering world-class PLM training (from the basics upwards) around the world. I’m thrilled to have had such a knowledgeable team to develop the course, and to have such an experienced and dedicated duo delivering the classes, which all can be found at www.whichplmacademy.com.
The Academy isn’t the only initiative I can discuss with pride. I remarked earlier that PLM was the logical destination when we started out, and I’ve always recognised the limitations of my knowledge and experience. So, when we began to be asked about the possibility of founding “WhichERP”, I had always dismissed it as being outside my area of expertise.
Two years ago, though, I swallowed a bit of pride and realised that, while ERP is not my focus, I knew people who understood that world at least as well as I understand PLM. At that time we registered the www.whicherp.com domain, and filed it under a list of things to do when time permitted.
As it turns out, time never really permits, so instead we chose to just get on with it! My counterpart on the ERP side, Chris Houghton, has worked closely with WhichPLM Editor Ben Hanson, who is heading up WhichERP also, and the rest of the team to launch our third brand – offering the same level of ethics and expertise to an entirely new market. Having only been live since April 2014, WhichERP is gaining momentum fast.
I’d like to close by thanking all of our loyal WhichPLM readers and our dedicated team for making these and other exciting innovations possible, and I look forward to providing the same uncompromising and professional content and services for many years to come.