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Field work pays off

By Brad Howarth

The evolution of mobile data communications as a business tool has been retarded by the over-hyping of new technology and a lack of sensible reasons for business to adopt it. But by focusing on existing technology and responding to the needs of individual customers, the Sydney developer Retriever Communications is finding success in Australia and Europe.

MARY BRITTAIN-WHITE: The focus is on Europe Image: Louise Kennerley

Retriever was established in late 1996 by its chief executive officer, Mary Brittain-White. The private company develops applications for workers in the field, such as repair crews and sales staff, that enable them to exchange information with head office.

The Retriever system uses a small hand-held computer with Microsoft's PocketPC operating system, and transmits data over the global system for mobile (GSM) digital network. Although the service has been adapted for transmission on new general packet radio-switched (GPRS) networks, or for display on wireless application protocol-enabled telephone handsets, Brittain-White says using hand-held computers and GSM provides the most robust and reliable service.

To develop an application, Retriever examines the client's business processes, then copies them, right down to the format of existing paper forms.

Brittain-White says: "That means the guy in the field can see the relationship between what he used to do and what he is going to do now. We have some intellectual property that allows us to create that application in about a week-and-a-half."

The application is then linked to the client's existing business software. Retriever charges a minimum of $30,000 for consulting, development and training. Once the system is live, it is billed as a service. Clients are charged a monthly fee that starts at $140 for each user in the field.

With the Retriever approach, every application is customised for the client. Retriever has signed access agreements with Telstra, Vodafone and Optus.

Brittain-White says an important development for Retriever came in 1997 when it acquired the Centre of Excellence in Mobile Information Systems from Apple Computer for an undisclosed sum. The acquisition gave Retriever the software it needed to connect its applications to telecommunications networks.

Retriever has received $12 million in venture capital, including seed funding of $400,000 in 1997, from the Danish venture-capital fund 2M Invest. It has also received $2 million in two rounds from the Melbourne venture-capital company Momentum Ventures. Momentum's principal, Ergad Gold, says that when the company made its first investment of $1.5 million in 1999, today's hype about wireless data communications did not exist.

The extended office

  • Retriever Communications develops services that enable companies to quickly exchange information with staff in the field, using hand-held computers and the global system for mobile (GSM) digital networks.
  • All services are custom-developed for the client for an upfront fee, then charged on a per person, per month basis.
  • Although the technology was developed in Australia, the company says Europe provides the best potential for growth.

Source: BRW

"At the time, people were not really familiar with hand-held devices," Gold says. "We looked at (Retriever) and very quickly formed a view that it was of terrific interest. We knew from experience that the field-automation area was crying out for a good, tidy IT solution. Where back-office systems in enterprises had been through a very substantial IT revolution, field staff were completely untouched by that. It looked like there was an enormous need for the right sort of solution."

Retriever's Australian clients include the Perth-based air-conditioner service company BurkeAir, BOC Gases and Imperial Tobacco Australia. But Brittain-White says its main focus is Europe. "Our average customer here can range from 15 or 20 guys in a field; 150 is large," she says. "In Europe, it is more likely to be 1500 users or 6000 users."

Brittain-White says Retriever will seek to raise more capital this year to fund further expansion in Europe and to expand its United States operation (it set up an office in New York in August last year). But she says current funding will enable the company to reach break-even point in the second half of this year.

Retriever opened an office in Paris in November 2000 to develop a strategic partnership that it began with the French IT services company Groupe Bull in October of that year. Groupe Bull created a subsidiary company to distribute the Retriever products but, in December 2001, that arrangement was restructured, and control of the subsidiary was handed to Retriever. Bull also acquired an undisclosed percentage of Retriever at that time.

The company signed its first European account in November 2001, a 350-user contract with an Italian maintenance company that covered its activities in Spain, Italy and Belgium. Brittain-White says two further contracts are awaiting final approval.

As a private company, Retriever does not release revenue and profit figures.


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Contents for this issue:
BRW Vol. 24 No. 4

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Agenix taps a U.S. vein
Lake promises its first profit
Keep a lid on the little costs
Tax alerts ring alarm bells
True blue and winning
Super choice fights for its life

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From Australia's BRW Thursday, February 07, 2002.
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