December 14, 2012, 10:58 AM — When Ferguson Enterprises decided to upgrade mobile phones for thousands of employees, the plumbing supplies distributor opted for a chunky, 12-ounce handset with a 3.7-inch screen, running a version of Microsoft Windows Mobile, and able to stand up to repeated 6-foot drops to polished concrete. Hadn't they heard of the iPhone? Or the Samsung Galaxy S III?
In fact, iOS devices are the corporate standard, for some employees. But the phone upgrade was for Ferguson's army of truck drivers, who deliver plumbing and other building supplies to industrial customers or outdoor construction sites, often in rain, snow, sleet or hail, and all stuff that goes with them.
"We've been very hard on our devices," says Joseph Zanette, solutions manager at Ferguson's Newport News, Va., headquarters. "There is a huge difference between a consumer device and a commercial ruggedized device, especially when you are working within our environment."
The company has long been using rugged handhelds, from Psion, (as of Oct. 1, a unit of Motorola Solutions) in its warehouse operations where the handhelds are routinely dropped, banged, hit, and sometimes run over by forklifts. The industry average for repairs of such devices is 19%, says Zanette. "We have historically always exceeded this number, so we know we're rough on them. We assume our truck drivers will as well."
Ferguson, a subsidiary of U.K.-based Wolseley PLC, was founded in 1953. It's the largest wholesale distributor of plumbing supplies in the U.S., with 1,300 locations and $9.5 billion in sales last year. It has a fleet of 3,400 trucks, whose drivers had been outfitted for years with Nextel mobile phones, to keep them in voice communications with dispatchers. The trucks, in a sense, were filing cabinets on wheels: Department of Transportation manuals, delivery tickets, routing documents, and a host of other forms and paraphernalia, including maps.