Impro Technologies has its roots in a company that was founded in South Africa in the early 1980s as a supplier of fuel control products. In 1987 the company registered as Impro, a concern that designs and manufactures access control systems. Today it develops a range of proximity access control systems from single-door standalone systems to multisite enterprise solutions, incorporating RFID, integrated CCTV, time and attendance applications, digital video recording and biometrics.
Initially Impro served the South African market, but in 1991 it introduced its products to the international market with resounding success. It now exports to over 57 countries around the world including into Europe, Japan, Korea and the USA. In addition to its export activities, it has also opened its own offices in Europe and the USA, supported and managed by the South Africa operation.
Impro's focus on developing technologically superior products has led to its products being awarded the E.I.F. and TOMA awards. To comply with international standards, the products meet SABS and European CE standards as well as recognised British, European, American and German manufacturing marks. The company is also proud of the fact that it has attained ISO 9001 certification.
Errol East, director and one of the original founders of the company, explains that Impro is not simply a distributor of access control products, but designs, develops and distributes its own solutions from its offices in Durban.
"Impro was one of the first companies in the world to design its own integrated circuits for access control and to productise this successfully into a global customer base. We build and program our own circuits as well as the applications users need to manage their access control environments. In fact, Impro is responsible for everything from packaging and the look-and-feel of our products down to the circuits. For every piece of technology we develop, we also develop the appropriate testing systems that enable our staff to put every product through a thorough testing scenario before they land in customers' hands.
"World-leading design and manufacturing methodologies, as well as our testing programme ensure we remain at the forefront of our industry, with many well-known brand names reselling Impro products or selling our systems under their own brand. Our largest export customer, for example, is a Japanese company listed on the Nikkei index. This organisation discontinued manufacturing its own products in favour of Impro products rebranded as its own."
Committed to South Africa
With so much focus being placed on issues like outsourcing non-core activities to China or other emerging markets, Impro has not been immune to the temptation to 'offshore' its manufacturing. East says the issue has been considered in the past as a lower-cost option for Impro; however, the directors have always rejected it.
"It may be cheaper to outsource some of our manufacturing, but that would have consequences in terms of our intellectual capital as well as in other areas," says East. "Impro goes to extreme lengths to build our staff over the long term. In this spirit, we have taken many previously disadvantaged people and brought them into the company at a certain level and built them up over the years.
"We believe in long-term commitment, even the original directors who started the company are still working here and still growing the company. We have had offers of a buyout in the past, but we have turned them all down to ensure Impro remains a South African company."
Over the years the company has naturally been faced with opportunities to make use of its core knowledge and experience to enter new markets. Instead of diluting the focus of Impro, the directors have started new companies to address new business areas.
One of the new companies that has proven very successful focuses on the fuelling industry, where its fuel control products have found a receptive market. Its largest client is active in the German market where the Impro brand is well known. Another company is active in the animal tracking industry.
"If a company has more than one focus, we find it loses focus and the determination to serve its market optimally," East adds. "Spinning off separate companies is therefore the best option to ensure we address each market area as effectively as possible."
Convergence is a reality
The access control industry (and the security industry in general) has recently been faced with substantial changes in the way the market works and what users are expecting. The integration of the old physical security world and the technology world has forced many companies to abandon age-old business methodologies and products in favour of newer, converged systems.
East says that Impro realised as early as 1999 that standalone products would not be classified as leading the field for much longer and started working on designing products that were fully integrated. The result was the company's IXP range of access control systems, released in 2001 that were designed for connectivity.
"Not only do we support open standards, but every protocol Impro uses is published on the company's website to ensure anybody can integrate our systems with their own," East notes. "With the appropriate security authorisation, our customers and third parties can do everything with our products that we can."
There are three ways in which Impro has enabled other parties to link its products to the world:
* Via the corporate database.
* With Microsoft's socket interconnect functionality.
* Through Impro's Third Party Interface. The company's Third Party Validator allows software developers to integrate their own applications with Impro's devices.
Through these mechanisms, Impro products can easily form part of an organisation's broader security ecosystem, whether it means integrating Impro with burglar alarms, fire panels or even CCTV and IP cameras.
Keeping ahead of the pack
Years of experience have taught Impro's directors that hard work is a necessity if the company is to retain its hard-won industry leadership. The many patents the company has filed are proof of its leadership position and its drive to remain ahead of the pack. What is more, Impro's in-house developed software is more than a match for any other development projects worldwide.
Impro's presence in the market extends far beyond its own brand, however. Many local and international companies resell the company's products, and in some cases organisations buy Impro kit to resell under their own brand names. Impro's real impact on the industry is therefore difficult to measure. Needless to say, when counting unit sales, tens of thousands of Impro units have been installed around the world every year for two decades, making the company one of the leaders and one of the most recognisable brands in access control today.
In the September 2005 10th Anniversary issue of Hi-Tech Security Solutions, HSS published the results of its first end-user orientated Top Security Brands survey. Based, as it was on the A&S Asian Top Security Brands survey, HSS polled the visitor base to South Africa's biggest security expo, Securex 2005, as well as its own database of system integrators, distributors, wholesalers, designers and agents. With its questions limited to Brand Awareness (an indication of market position, and basic knowledge and recognition of the brand), it was astonishing how closely the A&S and HSS Brand Surveys related to each other. The message was clear. Global brands are global brands for very simple reasons. They marry price, quality, features, customer service and technical support in a compelling package, and then commit R&D, procurement, marketing and promotional budgets in support of their sales and distributions networks ... and ... and...
However, not everyone was happy with HSS's published opinions of end-users, given that the survey was based only on Brand Awareness, and therefore its results did not necessarily correlate with the actual market position of leading companies in the industry. Does this mean we should discount the views of end-users, who are surely entitled to their opinions? Of course not. But clearly there is more to be said of market-leading companies, than simple surveys might reveal. And Impro is one of them.
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