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Issue Date: December 2006

Ability to succeed

1 December 2006

It is lunacy for a local company to compete against some of the largest software companies in the world, but Ability has done just that for years.
Ability Solutions has a long track record of supplying software to South African businesses. The company may not have the high profile branding of some of its local and international competitors, but it has survived the ups and downs of the dotcom era and is still alive and kicking - and growing.
Originally founded in 1978 as Hill-Cunnington, a company that recognised building customised software for companies was a good way to sell more NCR hardware. The company diversified into new technologies over time as the basis for its software development (such as Universe). However, management soon realised that the opportunities related to garnering income according to man-hours spent with the customer was somewhat limited.
John Olsson, marketing director of Ability says that to change its business model the company developed its first ERP suite, called Option 3. He says this was the first locally developed multicompany, multi-user and multicurrency solution developed, providing financial, inventory, order-entry, job costing, salary and other functionality business needed and for the most part, still needs. And while the company and its software has evolved dramatically over time, Olsson notes that one industrial concern recently celebrated its 20th anniversary using a 300+ concurrent user version of Option 3. The firm always eased client worries about local suppliers' reliability by supplying its source code with the application to ensure its customers could support themselves.
John Olsson, marketing director, Ability Solutions
John Olsson, marketing director, Ability Solutions
Hill-Cunnington then made the decision to standardise on the Microsoft platform to be able to offer reliable and stable applications in the financial, distribution and supply chain management markets. Not only did the company want to standardise on a platform it foresaw would dominate the market, but as a competitive differentiator it could make use of Microsoft's SQL database to create a crash-proof accounting system (called AccountAbility) that would not lose or corrupt data even when the power failed in mid-transaction. Olsson adds that another selling point for Ability is the fact that its software is designed to make it easy to integrate third-party applications.
In the late 1990s, the company was bought out and incorporated into the listed Ixchange group. In this time, it managed to attract about 80 new clients that installed the Ability Suite at over 100 sites. After the dotcom crash, Ixchange was broken up and Ability Solutions formed with an MBO of the company's Ability Suite (the financial, distribution and supply chain management software).
The product's stability and reliability, combined with the service culture within Ability has seen the company continue on its growth path in the subsequent years. One of the company's strongest assets, clichés aside, is its people. Some of the staff have been with the company for over 14 years and therefore have an in-depth understanding of the products, markets and clients.
Today, the market is again changing, this time consolidation is occurring on a broad, global scale. Olsson says that while still Hill-Cunnington, the company used to compete with the likes of Accpac or Syspro, but now faces the Microsofts and Oracles of the world.
Of course, Ability plays in a specific niche of the business applications market where it believes it is ahead of the pack. It retains loyal customers because it is able to rely on years of experience and expertise, as well as personal service that larger companies are not able to emulate. And service and the ability to change with the market is what has and will sustain the company for the long term even if that change includes being part of the consolidation process and aligning itself with a significant player in its space.

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