Making IT Happen
By Mark Morris
Mike Sheil says he enjoys his work because his business — information technology — is always changing. And he acknowledges that this is an understatement, as recent events have shown.
Sheil, president of Whalley Computer Associates in Southwick, began his career with the computer reseller right after graduating from North Adams State College, now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. After four years, he left for a medical device company where he stayed for another four years. Sheil returned to Whalley 24 years ago and rose through the sales ranks until being named president in June 2020.
His relatively new position comes with a lengthy job description, but, overall, he is charged with authoring the next chapters in what has become a long-term success story — a company that has grown exponentially from its humble roots over the past 43 years because of its ability to adapt to that constant change he mentioned.
The past two years, dominated in every way imaginable by the COVID-19 pandemic, provide a dramatic example of the company’s ability to respond to change, and, in many respects, lead clients through it.
“Before COVID you would get a quote, get a PO, order the product, it comes within a week and we can install it the next week. If we can get back to that type of normal business environment, I believe our company will experience tremendous growth.”
Indeed, a banner hanging in the production area reminds employees that, when in doubt, they are to do what’s right for the customer, the company, and the individual. This clear guidance turned out to be valuable when COVID hit and flooded Whalley with sudden demands for products and assistance. With millions of employees suddenly leaving the office to work from home, Whalley clients needed the resources to make that happen.
“We helped companies with thousands of workers to get their folks set up at home,” Sheil recalled. “Some needed monitors and docking stations, while others sought upgrades to their data center because so many more people were tapping into their bandwidth.”
In one instance, a higher education client was looking for 400 laptops to outfit staff members who had been sent home to work.
“I received the request on a Saturday,” Sheil recalled. A colleague found the product, provided a quote for what it would cost, and sent it to the client. “For the first time in my career, I received a purchase order from a public university on a Sunday.” By Monday afternoon, 400 laptops were shipped to the university.
Looking ahead, Sheil said Whalley will soon begin to grow its physical presence with a new 84,000-square-foot building next to its current headquarters in Southwick. Plans call for locating the OEM division in the new space as well as expanding warehouse storage and improving delivery options.
“The new building allows us to go to our clients and let them know we can do even more for them, so that’s exciting,” Sheil said. “This is an opportunity to grow our business in North America while showing our commitment to Southwick and Western Mass.”
For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Whalley’s long and intriguing history, and at what’s next for a business that helps its clients get it — and IT.
Taking Big Bytes
Tracing that history, Sheil noted that, in the early 1970s, Agawam math teacher John Whalley purchased a small software consulting firm that had a few clients. Working out of his basement after school and during the summer months, Whalley began to add customers, and by 1979 established Whalley Computer Associates.
By 1984 he moved the business out of the basement and in 1985, left teaching to concentrate on growing his company. Whalley is now CEO of the company, which is located in a 62,500-square-foot state-of-the-art building where 200 employees provide products and services to more than 20,000 customers around the world.
Whalley customers range from small businesses to corporations, as well as educational institutions and healthcare organizations. Clients tell Whalley representatives what challenges they need to address in their computer systems. Whalley then orders the product, configures it to fit the client’s needs, then delivers and installs the product at the client’s site. There are other resellers who simply order the product and send it directly to the client, who usually don’t have the space to handle a computer system shipment. Sheil said Whalley is different because it takes a hands-on approach.
“Once we receive the product it’s completely handled by Whalley employees,” Sheil said. “From the engineers and technicians who configure the products, to the people who drive our trucks and install the systems, everyone has a vested interest in doing it right.”
And during the pandemic, the company’s resolve to do it right was certainly tested, a test Sheil said it has passed.
“COVID and supply chain issues have been challenging, yet we experienced growth during that period,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all thanks to our people who were flexible and willing to respond to all these requests.”
The OEM division of Whalley provides custom design of technology systems for clients. When COVID hit and a major customer temporarily shut down, it affected several employees who worked directly with that customer. Instead of laying off those employees, they were sent home with a laptop and a project to work on to benefit the company.
Heather Kies was given the assignment to plan several events for the company. A project manager with OEM, Kies also had a marketing background and enjoyed getting back into this area. She handled the assignment so well, Sheil promoted Kies to Marketing Manager in January and asked her to run the company’s new marketing department, which previously existed only informally as part of business development.
These days Kies is working on various company events, including preparations for a major tech conference that takes place in December.
“I’m also busy getting the word out on who we are so people understand all the services we can provide,” Kies said.
While the height of COVID brought unspeakable horrors, it also forced companies to think differently about how to stay in business and meet customer needs. Sheil is one of many who believes that making the pivot and finding new ways to get the job done is a silver lining to the dark cloud that has been with us for more than two years.
“When COVID hit we had to patch different products together because we couldn’t get the materials we wanted,” Sheil said. “As a result, our people figured out how to get clients what they need despite supply chain issues.”
One of the most profound changes since COVID is the growth in hiring people who work far away from the company’s headquarters.
“Since the pandemic, we’ve brought on new employees in Tennessee, Florida, and Texas,”
Sheil noted. “We can now hire folks out of the region to grow our reach.” Whalley won a recent contract in Pennsylvania and is seeking a salesperson for that area.
“This makes sense for us because these folks live there, they know the area and we can support them from here.”
Whalley offers clients different options to store data on the cloud. Sheil explained some clients want to store all their data remotely in the cloud, others choose to split between the cloud and on-premise servers, while other clients prefer to keep their on-premise storage. Having expertise in cloud storage has helped Whalley clients get around some supply chain issues.
“When clients order a storage device and then learn it will be up to six months before they see it, we can offer them cloud storage while they wait,” Sheil said. “When their device finally arrives, they can take it off the cloud. It gives them flexibility.”
In addition to shipping products out the door, Whalley has seen growth in its managed- services area, which Sheil explained as the first line of defense for the client.
“With remote workers logging in at all hours of the day, internal IT staffs are straight out keeping their systems going,” Sheil said. “From our data center, our managed services staff may see a problem developing before it actually becomes a problem.” Using the example of a defective hard drive, Sheil said his staff would notify the client’s IT director and immediately replace the device.
“In many cases, before the client is even aware of a potential issue, there’s an overnight envelope on its way with a new hard drive,” Sheil said. “In this way we can be an extra set of eyes for them.”
Security is an area that continues to grow and remains essential.
“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the products we sell for cyber security,” Sheil said. “We also provide knowledge to our clients so they can prevent ransomware attacks and other threats.”
When he looks to the future, Sheil admits that as a sales professional for 34 years, he always sees the glass as half full. After Whalley found success despite a pandemic and a supply chain crunch that continues, he believes the company is now poised for explosive growth.
“Before COVID you would get a quote, get a PO, order the product, it comes within a week and we can install it the next week,” Sheil said. “If we can get back to that type of normal business environment, I believe our company will experience tremendous growth.”
In seven years, the company will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Sheil said he’s excited about the upcoming anniversary while he reflected on how far Whalley has come.
“It’s good to know that we’re a company where you can stay more than 30 years and have a career,” he said. “We want to keep on growing our business while at the same time remain a great place to work in the future.” u