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Real business story

We’re having to ask customers for a forecast because we need to understand their needs

Allsee Technologies are specialists in digital signage, and while the business weathered the coronavirus pandemic reasonably well, a global parts shorting is now playing havoc with future planning. Follow the company's evolving story as we check in each month to track progress and improvement efforts.
Allsee Technologies innovation

Allsee Technologies produces a range of digital signage, including touchscreen displays for retail environments

An alumnus of Saïd Business School, Baoli Zhao founded digital signage company Allsee Technologies in 2007 and quickly expanded internationally.

Since then, the Birmingham-based firm has gone on to become a Queen’s Award for Enterprise recipient, while also collecting other respected accreditations.

Baoli, along with six other UK businesses, will be providing monthly updates as he looks to steer his business through the next year and hit what he has laid out as his "definition of success" after leading his company through the coronavirus pandemic.

Follow the six other stories here:

You can navigate to different monthly updates from Baoli using the links at the top of this page. He'll be updating on the company's efforts to hit his five top improvement targets. But first, let's find out about the company and Baoli a little more.

How Allsee Technologies started looking forward

In the middle of April 2021, we sat down with Baoli to get a download on where Allsee Technologies currently stood ahead of the new financial year.

Having faced numerous challenges throughout 2021, from issues with Brexit to a dip in sales during lockdown, Baoli was excited to report a strong start to the new year.

Baoli believes there were two general reasons behind the increase in sales. Firstly, March represents the end of tax year for many businesses – which then choose to spend leftover budget – and, secondly, retail businesses in particular were preparing to reopen following months of lockdown.

There had also been some surprises within the figures – one of the reasons behind the boost in sales was due to a major increase in demand from mainland Europe, which had successfully balanced a slight dip in UK figures for the month.

Unfortunately, with much of Europe in a worse place than the UK when it came to managing the pandemic, he expected that the business would see around half as many sales for the next quarter.

Baoli also recognised that there were challenges ahead for the business, not least when it came to the issue surrounding the supply chain and the global central processing unit (CPU) shortage.

Baoli explained that, prior to the CPU shortage, Allsee Technologies had always pre-produced products as much as possible so that there was no need to closely monitor what customers were requesting for the coming months.

“Now, we’re having to ask customers to give us a forecast because we need a clear understanding of their product needs for the next quarter,” he went on.

“We don’t want to over-manufacture one product when another customer might not have enough stock. We're having to talk with customers more to understand what the market really needs; it’s the only way we can make our job easier.”

As a result of the shortage, the cost from suppliers has increased and is still rising, and Baoli reported that other manufacturer costs are rising as well. In the long-term, he didn’t believe that the situation would resolve before June, and felt that the next three months would continue to be a challenge.

Setting the scene and defining success

With all that he and the business have been through during the coronavirus pandemic, we asked Baoli to set a one year from now success statement – a situation the business would be in that would represent both recovery progress and setting it up as well as possible for the future. We then got him to identify the five individual targets that would be most important in making that success statement a reality. See what he set out for Allsee Technologies below.

Time for some targets

Update one: June 2021 – "We have now defined what our company culture is all about"

Baoli Zhao is already making good progress on some of the targets that he says will help him to achieve his 2021/22 success statement. Here's a short video update from the Allsee Technologies founder.

Put Baoli's ideas into action

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Update two: July 2021 – "What's becoming clear is that there are different cultures for different teams – and I am OK with that"

When working out his success statement for 2021/22, drilling down into the culture of his organisation was a key goal for Baoli Zhao, MD and founder of Allsee Technologies. He has an update on this and all four of his other goals right here.

Business growth

"Lots of updates this month, the first being on business growth, which was number one on our list of five targets to hit that would help us to achieve our success statement. We've just got our first half-year figure, and it's fantastic. We had a 21 per cent growth compared to the first half of 2019, which was pre-coronavirus, and compared to last year it's 36 per cent. Our efforts have paid off.

Culture

"The second on my list was to develop the business culture within Allsee: this is an ongoing process, and is something we're all talking about. We have a board full of words that we're asking people to add to so that I can see what our culture means to them. What's becoming clear is that there are different cultures for different teams – and I am OK with that. I don't see how we can have just one culture because each department has a different focus, although the common theme is about teamwork and family.

Leadership

"Another of my goals is to improve the leadership of middle management. It used to be that I would manage everything, but I am creating a new structure with five middle managers – people who have been promoted from within the team. While they are great workers, very skilled, they haven't had leadership responsibilities before, so we now have to train them and help them understand the meaning of leadership. I am heavily involved in this and I'm passing on what I have learned as a manager. It will take some time because they're all pretty young, but I know it must be working because I now have fewer day-to-day jobs to do.

Improving leadership is also on the agenda for law firm Slater Heelis. Read more about what managing partner Chris Bishop has planned.

Supply chain

"As I've mentioned before, our supply chains have been hit by coronavirus. Prices to get a container delivered from the Far East have risen from $2,500 per 40ft container to $15,500. We're getting better at managing the problems within the supply chain and have set up a process where we have regular meetings with our main suppliers to discuss common problems and the future of the market.

"Supply chains are a complex issue and there's a bit of a 'balancing act' involved: we need to balance loyalty with our suppliers with over-dependence – if you become too loyal you risk ending up with just one supplier. But you don't want too many firms competing for your business because you might not be able to get the best parts on a project because they've given them to their most loyal customers.

New products

"Finally, new product development was one of our five goals, and things are going well on that front. Just the other week we launched a new display for shop windows which is our brightest ever panel, ten times brighter than a TV, and it has a second screen that can be seen from inside the store. Hopefully, this will help give us some strong growth over the next few years."

Baoli is thinking about how he can provide most value, are you?

See how your role could evolve

Update three: August 2021 – "My team is even helping suppliers in China to track down the components they need"

Supply chain issues continue to be a source of concern for Baoli Zhao, founder and MD of digital signage firm Allsee Technologies, but his Chinese-speaking employees are pulling out all the stops to ensure a steady flow of widgets. We caught up with Baoli to discuss this and the other areas he has identified as ripe for improvement in 2021-22.

Business growth

"Sales are still very strong. If we compare July 2021 to July 2019, which was pre-pandemic, we're up 60 per cent, and that is amazing. From Jan-July we're looking at 26 per cent growth compared to 2019, so I'm pretty happy with that."

Competitors

"There are two reasons we've been able to grow. One is that during the pandemic a lot of our competitors slowed down, laying off staff or closing down completely. By comparison, we were really active during that period, and actually took staff on. The second is to do with new products and pricing. Because we were so active, we were able to bring some innovative new products to market, and because we had a large, new warehouse – and strong relationships with our suppliers – we weren't as affected by the rising prices of raw materials as other firms, so we didn't need to push up our prices. Most of our competitors had to increase prices two or three times in the past 18 months."

Culture

"The company culture is developing really well. We've settled on four key words for each of the teams [that define what they stand for], and the plan is to have these on display in prominent positions where the teams will see them. They won't look at them all the time, of course, but they should be an occasional reminder of what they voted on during the 'thinking' part of the process. It will be an ongoing process, though – it doesn't end with the four words. And those key words could be changed, of course, as circumstances change."

Manager training

"We now have regular meetings with the new middle management team, and we talk about the meaning of leadership. It's about helping them not just to do tasks well, but to really lead a team and influence the people around them in order to achieve a goal. When the teams meet, something I've found that works well is for each team leader to talk about one good thing and one bad thing: something they've done or one of the other teams has done. But there's no particular agenda, and I don't even speak until the end. From next month, though, I'm thinking of not chairing the meeting because I think I automatically add pressure when I do that."

Supply chain

"The price of shipping containers is still going up. Last month it was a record high of $15,500 for a 40ft container; it's gone up another $1,000 since then. There's still a real problem with the supply chain, but we're better equipped to deal with it than many firms because we have lots of Chinese employees who have developed some great relationships with our suppliers in China, and they work wonders in sourcing materials and parts in the supply chain – even tracking down components for some of our suppliers! The one bit of good news is that the price of LCD panels – we call it LCD glass – has stabilised."

Reviewing new products

"We were so active last year, with several launches that hadn't really been planned, that I think we pushed ourselves too hard. We launched some products in a much shorter time frame than usual, and I think that perhaps something was missed. We weren't focused enough, and for the next few months we're going to review those products' functionality and quality, and really improve on that."

Allsee Technologies

After launching products in quick succession last year, Allsee Technologies founder Baoli Zhao now has the focus to review their functionality

Update four: September 2021 – "Headhunters are after my team!"

An unexpected turn of events for Baoli Zhao, founder of AllSee Technologies, this month. A red-hot labour market – in the tech sector especially – is causing ripples among the team, and Baoli's immediate concern is to calm things down, while keeping an eye on future growth...

New products in the wings

"A mixture of the good and not so good this month. On the positive side, and hopefully something that will be able to add to the long-term growth of the business, I have two new products in the wings. I can't say too much about them yet, but one is a screen that uses some amazing screen technology to deliver an image that is almost exactly like paper. It's perfect for showing art, and I am hoping that I can develop software that runs it all smoothly and that we can even work with up-and-coming artists to sell their art. I'm thinking of launching this for consumers, rather than business customers, under a separate brand, although it will all feed back into Allsee's bottom line.

"The other good news this month is that I am teaming up with two renowned AI experts to start on a new platform that will enable people to create 3D interactive videos from just a few photographs of the item they want to model. At the moment, doing this is a pretty complex process that can cost thousands because of the time involved and the rendering. We started a first angel round of fundraising for this and were able to secure the £500k we needed in a day. By the end of the week, we had £1m, which was pretty incredible and is definitely very encouraging."

Dealing with headhunters

"While all of this is great for the future of the business, I have some more immediate, pressing concerns when it comes to the team. My head of sales is leaving us after seven years, and there's been lots of incoming calls to the rest of the team from headhunters. It's creating a bit of a buzz around the office, and where once the employees wouldn't generally have been interested, talk of the possibility of new jobs and pay rises is making people talk. We normally have pay reviews at Allsee in December, but I can't wait that long. I need to see people now to make sure they're happy, and that we can all feel confident about their future here."

The talent drain

"The problem, I think, is partly due to Brexit and the talent drain it created, but it's also partly because of the furlough scheme and the money that was pumped into the economy during Covid. That led to inflation, and people leaving furlough are now in demand and wanting higher salaries to cover the extra cost of petrol, groceries and so on. The labour market is hot right now, and it's causing a bit of an issue for me because it's leading to gossip within the team – just at a time when I'm trying to build up and establish some strong middle management, which would enable me to look into other projects, like the new art screen and the 3D modelling platform.

"It's just something that I will have to manage and work through. Yes, it's slightly unexpected, but there were warning signs and I'm sure we'll survive."

Update five: October 2021 – "Our new digital canvas is coming soon!"

In pursuit of growing the business – one of his key goals for 2021-22 – Baoli Zhao of Allsee Technologies has decided to try something completely different. Here, the company's founder and MD gives us an exclusive sneak preview of his first ever product aimed at the consumer market.

Where to go next

Baoli isn't the only leader sharing his journey this year. Six other businesses across the UK are providing monthly updates as they emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and work to achieve their "definition of success" statements.

Follow their progress so far:

  • location: West Midlands (England)
  • business size: 10-49 People
  • business type: Manufacturing

Lessons learnt

Baoli is making sure he is not deciding upon improvement ideas in isolation or with a small management team – he's involving the wider business

With a company of his size, Baoli knows any change needs to reflect differing personalities, ambitions and resilience

As outlined in his set of targets, Baoli has acknowledged what needs more of his focus and is happy to wait longer to target other areas