Whalley Computer Associates Enjoys Rapid GrowthWhen gauging his company’s place in the tech world, Paul Whalley says a little perspective is in order.
“I haven’t been to a Red Sox game where they chanted, ‘we’re number 200,’ but they don’t have 200,000 competitors,” said Whalley, vice president of Whalley Computer Associates (WCA) in Southwick, which has indeed grown from its humble origins to become the 200th-largest computer reseller in the country, placing it in the top one-tenth of 1% among approximately 200,000 players.
“I don’t think anyone pictured what this could come to,” he told BusinessWest, “but we’re very excited about where we’re going.”
Like virtually all other high-tech success stories, WCA’s beginnings were much more humble. As a part-time programming consultant in the Agawam school system in the 1970’s, math teacher John Whalley — Paul’s brother — purchased a small software-consulting firm. Working after school and during the summer from his Southwick basement, he built a small customer base.
Then, in 1979, incorporating his experience teaching his students programming on the school’s new computer, he started Whalley Computer Associates. He moved to new quarters in Southwick twice, all the while trying to convince his brother to come on board.
“My brother was a high-school math teacher, and he started this part-time,” Paul Whalley said. “I started helping him part-time, and he kept encouraging me to quit my job and go in full-time. I kept telling him, ‘I’ll quit my job when you quit yours.’”
In 1985, they did just that, with John (still the company’s president) leaving his teaching job and Paul resigning from his position as a programmer at MassMutual, in the process becoming WCA’s fourth employee. But the acquisition of customers such as Northeast Utilities, United Technologies, General Electric, and Cigna helped fund the company’s rapid growth, and WCA was on its way.
Today, Whalley boasts more than 3,000 clients, including 250 K-12 school systems, 50 colleges and universities, two dozen state agencies, more than 100 municipalities, and about 2,600 private companies — most of them small and medium-sized businesses, but also a number of major national firms.
Working out of its fourth Southwick location, a 62,500-square-foot facility on Whalley Way — as well as a 50,000-square-foot warehouse and configuration center in Westfield and an office in Milford serving Eastern Mass. and Rhode Island — WCA has recently broadened its reach across all of New England and Upstate New York, and shows no signs of slowing down.
“We want to grow in these new states exponentially, but also hold on to the valued clients we have,” Paul Whalley said. “We have so many clients who have stayed with us for 35 years.”
At a time when the economy was struggling to shake off the Great Recession, WCA thrived, posting sales growth of 50% in 2010, 38% in 2011, 50% in 2012, and 10% in 2013, and, boosted by recent expansion into New York, is on track to grow by at least 25% this year.
“Obviously, we think the model is working,” Whalley said. “We know the economy has not done well the last few years, but we’re growing.”
That growth has come on the heels of a significant evolution in what WCA does. What started as a software-consulting firm now manufactures computers and other devices for major brands. In so doing, WCA is the largest reseller of Lenovo products in the U.S. and has been the top reseller for Dell in the Northeast in five of the past 10 years.
The expansion of WCA was boosted significantly when one of its Milford-based sales representatives, Peter Aldrich, began selling products to EMC Corp., which became, and remains, Whalley’s largest client.
In addition, “we have 12 Fortune 500 companies and a lot of very large businesses. Friendly’s has been a client for 25 years; we’re proud to have them as a client, and, I think, they’re proud they do business locally. We do business with one of the largest apparel retailers in North America; we’re a supplier to one of the largest pharmacy organizations in the U.S., one of the largest financial institutions in the U.S., several retail organizations; we’re vendors to one of the largest technology companies in the world. There are probably 35 to 40 clients that we could name that everyone would recognize.”
The rest are the smaller type of business characteristic of the Pioneer Valley, which see value in WCA’s size and market position.
“We think our success really comes from focusing on providing tremendous value,” Whalley said, comparing WCA to the handful of what are known as direct marketing resellers, or DMRs, like CDW and TigerDirect.
“Although we’re smaller than them, we can match their pricing, and unlike them, we’re not mainly a telemarketing organization. It’s a different model, and I’m not knocking their model; they’re doing billions. But what our customers like about us versus them is that we can provide equal or even better pricing, but we’re a much more fast-moving, flexible, entrepreneurial company instead of a mega-corporation with lots of layers of management.”
The average computer reseller in the U.S. boasts 12 people and posts about $1 million in sales, Whalley noted, and WCA is in an enviable middle ground between them and the DMRs.
“We find ourselves in the sweet spot — there are maybe 50 like us in the country, in the middle, not small but not huge. I think that’s a perfect spot to be, where we have a combination of more resources than the small guys, but all the flexibility to move fast and customize with customers who are looking for that. Those mega-companies have their place, but we’ve found a very nice niche, and obviously, we’re in a good spot.”
WCA currently boasts 140 employees — 30 in sales and 100 focused on engineering, installation, maintenance, and support.
“I don’t know of anyone who has a service group of 110 people in New England or New York,” Whalley said. “We’re incredibly blessed with a very talented group of professionals, most of whom have been here more than 10 years. So, now that we’re moving into new states, we have a nice blend of seniority and people just getting into the industry.
“We’re a family company,” he added, “but we consider as family the long-time employees who’ve stuck with us.”
Those include a business-development team that makes outbound calls all day, “which the DMRs do, but not many people in our category do that. It’s a three-person team calling out all day, looking for business and appointments for our salespeople.”
Another way Whalley stays focused on growth is through some 30 training events a year intended to help its employees stay apprised of the latest technology.
“We consider ourselves customer-centric but vendor-agnostic,” he told BusinessWest. “We sell nearly all the major brands of the major products. We go in, listen to what the client needs and what their preferences are, and produce what we feel is the best solution. They may take the suggestion or buy something else; it’s their choice.”
WCA’s broad reach allows it to price competitively without being beholden to one brand, he explained. “I think people appreciate the fact that we’re not coming in telling them to buy this one thing. Frankly, if they want something and our product selection doesn’t match up, then we’ll tell them that. Ultimately, if we keep doing the right things for the client, we’ll succeed.”
He also recited a four-part creed posted over a set of warehouse doors on Whalley Way: “One: if in doubt, do what’s best for the customer. Two: if in doubt, do what’s right for the whole company. Three: if in doubt, do what’s best for your department. Four: if in doubt, do what’s best for you. Basically, the customer comes first. If you think of the customer first always, we’re going to do just fine.”
From the earliest days of working for his brother’s tiny company, Whalley has understood how important customer service is in the technology field.
“If your laptop breaks, you can probably use someone else’s for a day or so, or call and get it fixed. What really matters is that the network doesn’t go down. Take the cost of someone not working and multiply that by the size of your workforce, and it can cost a tremendous amount of money,” he said. “We have a top engineering team designing rock-solid data centers, and when there’s trouble, they can respond very quickly. It makes us a strategic partner with our clients; they buy things from us, but when problems occur, it’s on us to take care of them.”
Looking forward, Whalley said the company doesn’t want to rest on its laurels, but aims to move forward from a recent reorganization and several years of impressive growth to become an even more widely recognized name.
“On the engineering side, we’ve made huge strides, and we have one of the best engineering programs in the region,” he told BusinessWest. “We want to be one of the top two or three in New England and the Northeast. I think we’re headed that way, but there’s more work to be done.”
At the end of the day, however, it’s not about size, but service.
“We have to provide our clients with the best possible products at the best possible price with the best possible follow-up,” he said, “because, if we don’t, there are 200,000 others who would love to do it. We remind ourselves of that every day.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]