profile: Support Net Rules the Road

Many vendors stage lavish conferences or special retreats for customers. However, customers of Support Net -- which are typically IBM solution providers -- get front-row seats to some of the most competitive sports car endurance races in North America. Support Net sponsors auto racing events and clinics at major raceways across the continent, from Daytona and Sebring International Raceways to Laguna Seca Raceway. Even the company's CEO participates as a driver in the events with his Mazda Hawk. But when Henry Camferdam, founder and president of Support Net, gets behind the wheel of a racecar, it's as much for fun as it is for business.

Not surprisingly, Support Net is headquartered in the auto racing capital of the world, Indianapolis. Camferdam established the company in 1982 to provide financial and accounting software to the System/38 market. The company eventually got out of direct selling, opting to work through resellers. It wasn't long before Support Net had a network of almost 300 resellers, an experience that later proved to be valuable in the business climate of the 1990s, Camferdam relates.

In fact, it wasn't long before this formula caught the attention of Big Blue, which was formulating its own business partner channel strategy. In 1992, IBM approached Support Net and asked the company to sell the AS/400 through its channel. "We thought we would be at a disadvantage because we never sold hardware before," Camferdam recalls. "It turns out that the fact that we used resellers was a real advantage."

However, distribution to the reseller channel is a fast-paced and inventory-intensive business fraught with challenges. "You have to grow the business big enough to where you have economies of scale, and your costs can be contained, while providing outstanding customer service," Camferdam says.

When IBM launched its Authorized Assembly Program for RS/6000s last year, Camferdam recognized this as the next wave in systems distribution -- he believes that AS/400s will eventually be assembled by distributors and business partners as well. But Support Net lacked the capability and financial resources to undertake product assembly. That was the impetus for Support Net's sale to large distributor Gates/Arrow Distributing (Greenville, S.C.), Camferdam says. "IBM ships components, and leaves it to distributors to assemble the products efficiently, while still maintaining margins. It's a difficult process, but Gates/Arrow broke the code on how to do that."

Support Net became a part of Gates/Arrow in December 1997, and took on all IBM sales and support for the new combined organization, including managing the AAP for Gates/Arrow's IBM line. "We couldn't afford to duplicate Gates/Arrow's distribution system," Camferdam relates. "[Gates/Arrow] is financially strong and, with their backing, our customers can be sure that we'll be here 20 years from now."

Not that Support Net is going anywhere soon, with sales exceeding $140 million a year, and a staff of 350 employees servicing more than 700 IBM solutions providers. Along with AS/400s the company handles the full range of IBM hardware and software solutions, including RS/6000s, S/390s, and as of last year, Netfinity servers. The company is also vigorously pursuing relationships with Compaq and HP resellers as well, hoping to add IBM servers to their lines.

Support Net has a number of programs to support its business partners. "We want to provide equal or better service than IBM itself," he says. The company's Partner Solutions Network provides Web access to product descriptions, availability, configuration reviews, pricing, order information, leads management, networking opportunities, strategic business planning, technical expertise, and training. Another online service, I-Track, enables partners to view inventory and place orders.

Currently, almost 25 percent of Support Net's orders come through the Internet, up from 10 percent just two years ago, says Camferdam. While the Web is being held up as the new model of commerce in the industry -- exemplified by such sites as Dell Computer -- customers of large systems such as AS/400s need more direct support. "For value-added sales, you're going to need people calling on people," Camferdam states. "You're going to need solution providers, you're going to need technical people to help install applications, and modify applications and support. That's why I always think there will be a big business in value-model selling. We have resellers with tremendous technical and industry skills."

Camferdam has always nurtured a spirit of adventure and competitiveness. After graduating from Western Illinois University in the early 1970s, he signed up as a deck hand on an oil tanker, roaming the world's oceans for a year. He joined IBM Corp. in 1974, and left in 1982 to start Support Net.

Camferdam started racing in 1987 in the Skip Barber Formula Ford Series, followed by participation in the Barber Saab Series. His hobby as driver quickly became an obsession. He formed Support Net Racing in 1989, entering major North American racing events with a Mazda RX3. In 1994, the team stepped up to the World Sports Car class with a new car and placed better in each race of the season.