Why the Future is Today: Mark Harrop, Founder/CEO of WhichPLM
In the retail and fashion industry, product lifecycle management (PLM) refers to the process of managing a product’s lifecycle, from beginning to end, through the integration of data, people, and business systems. It is the backbone of product information and with so many PLM software out there today, it can be hard to know exactly which is right for your company.
This is where WhichPLM steps in, as it is an online magazine dedicated to providing the most up to date and accurate information on product lifecycle management, for the retail and the fashion industry at large.
With a career spanning over four decades, at the helm of the company is Mark Harrop, the founder and Managing Director of WhichPLM. He is a man who has worked every year of his long career providing key advice to many of the world’s best-known retailers, brands and manufacturers. Through his knowledge and information, companies have been able to become much more efficient across their entire supply chain by making smarter informed decisions on technological investments.
PLM is more than just software, it’s a methodology linked to a growing universe of digital solutions — Mark Harrop
Struggles and humble beginnings
Since the early age of 16, Harrop has known nothing but hard work, coming from a children’s home, he started his working life at an umbrella manufacturer named Lawtex, to make end’s meet. Born in Manchester in the heart of the industrial revolution, Harrop remained as one of the many children who laboured in the factories that in previous generations had been home to the cotton mills. Starting from literally the ground up, Harrop’s financial status did not give him the luxury to attend university back in the early 1970s.
As a simple factory worker during his teens, he knew, in order to make more out of his life, he needed to climb the ladder within the business he was in. And so, with a fire to survive and improve, he was always looking for every opportunity during his working days to study the ins-and-outs of the textile and garment making industry, Harrop asserted himself into every aspect of the business, hoping to one day help transform it from within.
Whether this meant trying to help increase the efficiency of the machinists who sewed hundreds of sleeves per day – or becoming a cutting room manager, Harrop approached every challenge and area of textile and garment-making with a can-do attitude for change. One example of this was when he sought to improve operations by re-engineering machines or seeing how fast or slow the electric motors and attachments might improve the sewing operations. At every corner, he carefully observed how people grasped or handled materials with their hands and fingers and spent his spare time studying elements of re-engineering the factory floor to make things more efficient, using MTM (Motion Time Measurement) skills.
A journey toward technology
In the following years, Harrop’s appetite for change moved from mechanical machinery, pneumatics, and electronic attachments to computers. Over the next three decades, Harrop helped to introduce the first personalized computers to the factory floor, starting with the Commodore Pet in the late ’70s. From there, as the mid-‘80s approached, he took the decision to leave the world of manufacturing and embraced the digital age of computers all the way to Dallas Texas, USA, working at Microdynamics.
It’s during this time, he worked with the team to establish the first Apparel CAD/CAM systems, which was then followed by the first Apparel PDM (product data management) system. By the time the late ‘90s came around, with the Internet being commercialized, Harrop and the Freeborders Inc team developed the worlds first CPM (collaborative product management) – the forerunner to today’s modern fashion PLM solutions.
The road to building WhichPLM
It wasn’t until 2007, during his time working together with the Benetton Group, that Harrop gained his inspiration for what would later become WhichPLM. At that time, the Benetton company aimed to bring a specific product to market but were stuck as to how to most effectively do so. With the future looking toward software – specifically the new product lifecycle management solutions – the team searched for something to replace their in-house developed PDM system.
Yet, with very little information in the public domain, they found it very difficult to decide on which PLM solution to choose. Scratching their heads, unsure of which PLM to choose moving forward, they eventually looked to Harrop to support the team’s research. With several suggestions coming from the team to help the industry, he took the lead to create a platform to share his knowledge and expertise, Harrop eventually established the business “WhichPLM” in late 2007.
Overcoming the humps and hurdles
When reflecting on the challenges faced when building WhichPLM to what it is today, Harrop looks back at the times before social media platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook existed. Much like many websites then, the primary challenge was reaching an audience, pushing news out to the media and at the same time providing free-of-charge content.
Moreover, just as any modern company may feel when talking to companies that have been operating in a specific way, Harrop has found that one of the bigger frustrations moving forward has been dealing with owners and c-level management who are unable to see beyond their existing business models. Often times, he has found that big profit-driven groups operate more or less as merchants, that was focused on fixing a better price, selling fast, and moving on to the next item.
It’s not about what we did, but what we are going to do.
Even with its difficulties in reaching a new audience, after only a few weeks in operation, WhichPLM found roughly 3000 visitors frequenting the site from around the world, even without any advertisement or marketing. With proof that people were interested to learn more, he put his entire attention into the business and before long, the number grew to 3,500+ visitors every week, with roughly 6-10 new companies signing up to WhichPLM on a weekly basis.
Before long, Harrop began to create an experts network from around the globe, where he’d reach out to other experts in the industry to share their thoughts, passions and ideas. Perhaps due to his upbringing, Harrop has always sought to foster a community. And it is with this at heart, he always made it a point to ensure the content he was creating or bringing to the WhichPLM platform was beneficial, useful, interesting and futuristic. But more than anything, what he hoped for was to make it easily accessible and free of charge for all. A mission that he’s succeeded in delivering through all these years.
The future and beyond
In his forty-five years of working with multiple companies and dealing with a variety of clients, the fact has never changed: companies are always focused on ROI (return on investment). Yet, what he finds quite interesting is the dawn of a new chapter where the primary driver isn’t solely about money itself anymore. Instead, Harrop notes that he believes the ‘new ROI’ is in building a smarter world, a fairer one of all and one that is ultimately sustainable.
The driver is no longer just profit alone, but profit for the world. Now it’s about a mindset change. We are at the last stage of fast fashion and there is a noise coming from the world about sustainability. When you know you can make that change, it gets you out of bed and puts a big grin on your face.
In today’s landscape, we’ve arrived at a time where you can learn almost anything from a credible source online, set up e-tail-shop in a matter of hours using platforms like WooCommerce and Shopify, and establish a business at the snap of a finger. With things being far different than they were even ten years ago, Harrop believes that with the right drive, anyone can get what they desire.
Stay curious and hungry: keeping up with change
Even after four decades of being in the industry, and being in a place in his life where he can sit back and let his passion project of WhichPLM move forward without his supervision, Harrop continues to keep himself updated on the latest trends in technology that can add value to the fashion & textiles industry. He’s also a keynote speaker and enthusiastic writer on the subject of fashion-tech.
Regardless of how fast things are changing with technology in the mix, Harrop’s interest in what he does and the never-ending thirst for technology and process best-practice education, he continues to keep himself well-informed more than most! As one of the technology and process thought leaders in the fashion industry, Harrop attributes his knowledge and awareness of the technological trends to the habit of hunting for news, dreaming of new ideas and visiting the latest lectures, exhibitions or conferences whenever he has time.
These days, reading any articles on how AI is changing the fashion industry or knowing how predictive analytics will change the supply chain help to stay informed, thereby remaining ahead.
Fashion and tech are two areas that change in the blink of an eye. There is always something happening and more to learn. The world is far different than the one he grew up in, and having watched so many transformative shifts in the industry throughout the decades he’s been in it, Harrop ends the interview off with some key advice to those who seek to do more, just as he had sought for many years ago.
Don’t let people of the older generation prevent you from making a difference. Go over them, under them, be bold and believe you can make a change. If there is an obstacle, never give up. If you have an itch, go do it and be adventurous. Don’t just accept the status quo as it is.