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Ahead of the Curve


From a management buyout to preserving an engaged company culture during a global pandemic, we speak to Keith McMurtrie about MIS supplier Tharstern’s journey over the past four decades

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Having an engaged company culture is at the core of Tharstern’s operations

Busier than ever

Thastern (recently acquired by eProductivity Software), producer of MIS software for printers and converters, is easily recognised by its vibrant green branding and forward-thinking marketing and initiatives such as the launch of its ‘Sustainability Show’ TharsternTV series. Regular frequenters of industry trade shows and events may even have spotted one or two ‘Tharbots’ lurking around – a sure-fire way to get people talking about your brand.

Founded back in 1984, the company’s inception came about when founder Keith Harrison was working as a financial director within a local printing company. After noticing the pain of working out quotes and re-quotes, he identified a gap in the market in the form of automation of estimating.

Roping in the help of his son-in-law who created a prototype of an estimating package on a Commodore PET computer written in BASIC, the feedback from the estimating team was extremely positive. With the prototype being so well received, Harrison decided to extend his vision to the whole industry to enable it to work faster and smarter.

To do this, he bought an off-the-shelf company called Tharstern, and deciding to keep the original name, the company was launched from Harrison’s home, subsidised with his accounting consultancy fees.

In order to be taken to market, the product needed to run on an IBM PC so Harrison employed a ‘YTS lad’ to re-engineer the software in Microsoft C to operate on the MS DOS platform. The pair worked from the back of a coal shed which they were allowed free use of in return for collecting coal money.

Seven years later and the two-man band had grown to a team of six with the company occupying a 1,000sq ft unit on Crownest Industrial Estate in Barnoldswick. A sign on Harrison’s door read ‘Customer is King’ and the founder is said to have pointed at this regularly when emphasising the importance of customer service to his team. This ethos stuck and Tharstern is still known for its customer service today.

Changes at the Helm

Over the years that followed the company experienced a number of industry firsts from moving to a native 16-bit Windows version of the original DOS-based solution; to later moving to an SQL platform which allowed customers to write their own reports. In 1991 Keith McMurtrie, current managing director of Tharstern also joined as a core member of the team, sharing Harrison’s passion for customer service and bringing the technological vision and ability needed to oversee the growth of Tharstern.

Keith McMurtrie, managing director of Tharstern joined the company in 1991

In 1998, Harrison retired and handed over the business to his other son-in-law, Richard Bannister, owner of the Boundary Mill retail chain. With this, the team moved to new facilities at RB House and this is where the well-known bottle green branding came into play – Bannister’s ‘signature colour’.

The same year the company launched a 32-bit version of the software and made the move from a proprietary database to the SQL server platform which until this time wasn’t available to the SME market. This is described as a real turning point for Tharstern.

Another 15 years passed with many innovations, growth, and success along the way and in 2012 Bannister revealed plans to sell the business. Amidst fears the Tharstern name would be lost if bought by a competitor, the management team secured backing from private equity house Mobeus Equity Partners and made a bid for the company themselves. This saw managing director Keith McMurtrie, technical director Antony Lord, and sales director Lee Ward complete a management buyout of Tharstern.

Over the next few years, the management team worked with Mobeus to create a three-year plan for significant growth and 2015 saw a major rebrand for the company’s visual identity and logo. Tharstern also successfully launched its MIS in the US.

Almost 40 years since it was founded and Tharstern has grown to a team of 66 and now operates from an 8,000sq ft building however the company is in the process of moving to a 4,000sq ft premises to reflect its move to hybrid working and to reduce its carbon footprint.

Engaged Company Culture

Describing what the company offers the print industry today, McMurtrie says: “Our main product is Tharstern Desktop which is a comprehensive business workflow solution designed for print professionals who want to make their company run faster, better, and smarter.

Tharstern’s main product is Tharstern Desktop which is a comprehensive business workflow solution  

“It’s for PSPs who want to speed up print jobs so they flow swiftly through each department with little intervention, and free up their team so they can provide the exceptional customer experience and fast delivery times that the modern print buyer demands.”

McMurtrie adds: “On top of this we have a team of print technology experts who are always on hand to guide our customers. We have great relationships with all the leading vendors and have many established integrations, as well as a comprehensive API which allows new integrations to be easily developed.”

Since the pandemic, the company has had a flexible approach to working with most of the team working from home and the office is always open should they choose to come in. “It’s crucial that we keep up communication while people work from home so our teams have regular stand-up meetings within their own team and weekly cross-departmental stand-ups,” McMurtrie explains.

“We’ve always had field-based staff who visit our customers on-site and while this went 100% virtual during the pandemic, we’re now operating a hybrid approach to this too. Customers mainly want a virtual session because they can just have an hour here or there, instead of the usual half day or full day that used to happen. But sometimes they want us on-site, which is fine too.”

Maintaining an engaged company culture whilst working from home is something McMurtrie says has been a big challenge for Thartstern. Prior to the pandemic, the company had a long-standing employee engagement programme which was very successful in creating an engaged culture. In fact, Tharstern actually won an award for this. However, the pandemic and working remotely understandably made this much more difficult.

McMurtrie explains how the team tried switching its activities to virtual ones for a while but people were fed up with sitting at their desks staring at their screen all day and didn’t want to continue to do so in the evening. “We tried lots of different ways to solve this, before coming to the conclusion that the most effective approach was to have bi-annual staff conferences where everyone attends, no matter where they’re based, and we have lots of updates from the CEO and the leadership team, along with various social activities too.

“In addition to the existing activities such as monthly staff newsletters, culture-driven inductions, and employee engagement survey software, we’ve managed to successfully maintain our engaged culture and I’m proud to say that we have a company full of very happy people.”

It’s this company full of happy people that McMurtrie says is his favourite thing about Tharstern. He explains that there is a lot of talk of creating what he calls a ‘Bionic Business’ which centres around three things that create a successful business: Technology, Processes, and People.

“Each member of staff needs to be knowledgeable and driven, but also a team player. At Tharstern we’re very lucky to have that. I like to think that we have a very open way of working and communicating so all the Tharstern team feel comfortable bringing ideas forward, offering their opinions, and ultimately creating the best product and service for our customers.”

20 Years of Growth

On the same breath, we asked McMurtrie what he is most proud of, having seen the company evolve and grow for over 20 years. He says: “All the cool things that my team have achieved with our software. I used to be very hands-on with the development of our MIS, but these days I’m only involved in the product vision and roadmap, not so much in the finer details.

“And I so often find myself in meetings involving my colleagues and customers, where a customer asks if our software can help with a particularly challenging workflow, and I’m blown away when my colleagues excitedly say, ‘Yes, absolutely! Let me show you!’. I’m left feeling very proud of everyone that works for us, and what they do every day.”

I so often find myself in meetings involving my colleagues and customers, where a customer asks if our software can help with a particularly challenging workflow, and I’m blown away when my colleagues excitedly say, ‘Yes, absolutely! Let me show you!’

This investment in its team was demonstrated at the end of 2022 when Tharstern expanded its team with five new hires across two months after reporting a period of significant growth. Laura Woodward was one of two implementation specialists hired to help deliver customer onboarding and training. Having been in the print industry since her teenage years, Woodward ran the implementation of Tharstern at her previous company.