He's spent more than four decades pushing computers to out-of-this-world and down-to-earth places.

If he had done nothing else with his life, it would be worth writing about Winston McCleery Sr., for his contributions to the wholesale-distribution field. Since 1969, he has been a consultant helping government agencies, wholesalers and other businesses meld computer technology with distribution systems. A company he founded in 1982, known since 2002 as Management Software Systems, Inc. (MSS), is both a turnkey and application service provider (ASP) of computer systems geared to small wholesaler-distributors.

For the last couple of years McCleery has been a guest lecturer at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), whose Department of Management, Marketing and Industrial Distribution specializes in the study of distribution via small and medium-size companies. UAB's program also draws upon anonymous data generated by MSS to test theories of inventory management.

An impressive resumé already. But it's sort of like describing Thomas Edison as a guy who started an electric company. McCleery has spent a fascinating career at the cutting edge of computer technology touching some of the nation's most important military and space programs as well. Heck, this is a guy who built a computer from scratch out of spare parts!

Nukes & Missiles

McCleery graduated from Spring Hill College in his hometown and current residence of Mobile, AL, with a B.S. degree in industrial management in 1957. He followed it up with advanced studies in physics and mathematics at the University of Alabama, but his academic career took a back seat to fulfilling the terms of an ROTC commission. In 1958, 2nd Lt. McCleery was assigned to teach electronics at the U.S. Army Artillery and Missile School at Fort Sill, OK.

Artillery units at the time used slide rules to calculate trajectories. Accuracy was more important than ever, because the U.S. Army of the late 1950s had nuclear artillery rounds in its arsenal, and nobody wanted to see them drift off target. (None has ever been fired in actual combat.) The Army was developing an analog computer to replace manual calculations, and selected McCleery to work with the prototype model. “I was always more interested in practical rather than theoretical physics,” he says, “and computers played right into that interest.”

That first prototype was the M-35 fire direction computer system. To teach his students about these newfangled computer contraptions, he built a simple analog computer using spare parts left over from the M-35 program.

M-35 was on the verge of obsolescence even before it was finished. Research was underway on a new digital computer called FADAC. (Analog computers calculated by measuring minute fluctuations in electrical currents, and were accurate to about three decimals. They were superceded by digital computers that use binary code to achieve far greater accuracy.) McCleery participated in the design of the FADAC system that became the backbone of artillery fire direction control for many years. After FADAC, he joined the development team responsible for an inertial guidance computer called VERDAN (Versatile Digital Differential Analyzer). VERDAN became the basis for the Air Force's first air-to-ground missile system known as GAM-77. The same technology was later adapted to guidance systems for the first generation of nuclear submarines and the Minuteman ICBM.

McCleery then went to work for North American Aviation in the early 1960s as part of a team of computer engineers assigned to solve a problem for NASA that had been plaguing the CENTAUR rocket program. CENTAUR was a missile developed to launch Surveyor, the first unmanned spacecraft to land on the moon. At the time scientists feared the moon might be covered in dust thick enough to bury astronauts and their craft. So it was crucial to pay an unmanned lunar visit before going too far into the manned exploration program. During development of CENTAUR, several missions had to be aborted due to loss of computer memory in the inertial guidance system. The engineering team solved the problem, and along the way McCleery devised a way to reduce the time required to reload the computer's memory from more than seven hours to less than 45 seconds. It was one of the crowning achievements of his career.

“Working for NASA was the most intellectually stimulating experience of my life,” says McCleery. “People involved with the space program were the smartest, most dedicated individuals I've ever known. I was just a small part of it, but it was a privilege to be around all those brilliant scientists and engineers.”

He recalls one lunchroom discussion in which he and some colleagues were brainstorming the problem of heat dissipation with CENTAUR's guidance system. It was packed into a box just a few feet square, and the 1960s electronic circuitry built up too much heat inside. They had tried various unsatisfactory solutions, until over lunch one of the engineers chimed in almost jokingly that they ought to make the panels out of gold, one of the best heat-diffusing metals. Soon thereafter Brinks trucks were delivering gold-plated panels to NASA. “It was expensive, but we never had any more trouble with heat build-up,” says McCleery.

After the NASA contract, he took a position from 1965-69 at the Ingall's Shipbuilding Division of Litton Industries as manager of business systems. There his duties turned from hardware to software development, laying the groundwork for his subsequent business career.

Distribution Expertise

Winston McCleery and I spoke in his home study surrounded by pictures and artifacts from his career. Hundreds of brainy tomes occupy three bookshelves categorized roughly along the lines of technology/business, history and religion. The technology section includes bound copies of his own systems analysis papers produced in consulting assignments over the years. It also includes a signed copy of a book authored by the late rocket pioneer Werner von Braun, whom McCleery encountered from time to time while working at NASA.

McCleery is an excitable person whose conversation takes stream-of-consciousness twists and turns, though never losing coherence. He shows as much passion for his work in the mundane field of distribution as he does the more glamorous assignments with NASA and the military.

“Distribution is the untold secret of our economic success,” he remarks. “Many countries make things as well as we do, but very few of them have anything like our system of getting those goods to everyone that needs them.”

Many companies specialize in distribution software, but MSS fills a market niche few of them pay much attention to. Almost all clients are distributors with under $30 million in sales, and many are mom-and-pop operations in the low seven-figure range. McCleery doesn't consider the big distribution software firms as competitors in any meaningful way. According to him, he enjoys good relationships with many of their sales personnel, and they sometimes refer potential clients to one another.

The computer engineer has gained a lot of insight into the distribution business. “The biggest problem I see with most wholesaler computer systems has nothing to do with the hardware and software,” says McCleery. “What's lacking is good systems analysis. If the paper and information flows don't mesh, even the best system won't help.”

MSS's clients include many seat-of-the-pants operators who still generate manual invoices and have a gut-level resistance to modern technology. McCleery wins many over with his product's simplicity and ease of use. MSS's system, called e-Distac, was named the top software product on display at the inaugural ISH North America 2002 in Toronto.

Ultimately, though, it's money that talks. Inventory management is the soul of MSS, and McCleery can produce many testimonials from wholesalers who have saved big bucks by cutting their inventory investments with no negative side effects.

“Instant-Time” is a phrase coined by McCleery to describe what he considers to be MSS's most outstanding feature. It's coupled with seamless integration, which means as soon as data is entered into any function, all databases on all workstations get updated immediately. If a wholesaler has 100 widgets on hand, as soon as a sales invoice gets entered for 10 widgets, a person accessing the widget inventory from another station a split second later will see 90 on hand. Payables, receivables, general ledger and all other programs get updated simultaneously in “Instant-Time.”

“Wholesalers have to get away from batch processing,” he says. “They can't wait till the end of the month to get accurate financial data. They need to know what happened five minutes ago.

“Also, most wholesalers shuffle data too many times,” says McCleery. “We tell our customers the time spent entering data cuts into selling time, and selling is what makes them money. Recording data is overhead.

“Multiple data entry also leads to more mistakes,” he adds. “Every mistake in inventory management creates two errors. If I input an incorrect stock number, that item gets reduced when it shouldn't, and the item I really sold shows up as still there. That's why at the end of the year wholesalers can't figure out why they have so many wide discrepancies.”

To make full use of modern technology, McCleery often recommends that clients take a cue from the big boxes and open up their warehouses to self-service operation. That enables them to make full use of bar codes and other labor-saving techniques. But he acknowledges that not many listen to him.

Part of the reason is that many of the small wholesalers he deals with are prospering even with backward operations. “Small companies in the boondocks often get good markups. I visited an HVAC wholesaler the other day with margins between 40-50%.”

Those kinds of margins will support a lot of inefficiencies. “Customers pay a little more but come back because they like the service,” he says. “So even if they don't do everything the way I would, there are a lot of business reasons why the mom-and-pop wholesalers won't vanish from the scene.”

Sidebar: Debunking Y2K

Remember all those folks who spent 1999 stashing food, water and cash in homemade bunkers? While the news media bleated warnings about blackouts, airplane crashes, financial collapse and even accidental nuclear war, Winston McCleery Sr. was waging a one-man counter-crusade telling people to chill out.

McCleery started debunking Y2K predictions when his doctor kept asking him about the reliability of computerized medical equipment, and invited him to address colleagues about it. Then calls started coming from media people. In the feverish atmosphere of 1999, a levelheaded individual saying the world was not coming to an end qualified as a man-bites-dog story.

McCleery spread the word in scores of radio talk shows and print articles. To keep up with demands on his time, he produced a 55-minute videotape and sent it to radio and TV stations across the land, as well as selling some on amazon.com.

“I believe history will record this Y2K problem as the greatest hoax that's ever been played on the world,” he said in a magazine article published in December 1999. Maybe a bit of an overstatement, but not as exaggerated as the hogwash numerous fearmongerers were putting out.

Y2K hysteria turned out to be exactly that, of course. McCleery saw it coming based in part on his detailed knowledge of computer programs, coupled with large doses of common sense. For instance, in response to doomsayers predicting collapse of the banking system, he pointed out the simple truth that banks for many years had been writing loans that extended past the year 2000 and surely had a handle on the millennial digit issue.

“I felt I had an obligation to society to speak out on this thing,” he explained.

Sidebar: Why Winston McCleery Hates PCs

Winston McCleery's home office houses a series of mainframe computers that back up MSS's application service business. McCleery's computer room also contains bound volumes filled with tens of thousands of pages of computer code pertaining to MSS systems.

Curiously, one thing that cannot be found is a PC. His employees, including son Winston Jr. and daughter-in-law Diane, use them at the headquarters facility, but Winston Sr. doesn't hang around there much. The only computer screen in his home office belongs to an ancient “dumb” terminal that works in conjunction with the HP mainframes that serve as the heart of MSS's operations.

“I despise PCs,” he declares. “I only use them when I have to.”

This struck me like Sammy Sosa saying he hates baseball bats. But it wouldn't be unreasonable for him to prefer certain types of bats. So it is that Winston McCleery Sr. prefers to work with mainframe computers rather than PCs.

“I just don't have any faith in the integrity of the PC system,” he says. “They're called 'personal computers,' and were designed with that specific purpose in mind. They work fine for that purpose. But now they're tied together in networks and used to run big corporations, and they're just too unreliable for that purpose. Systems are always crashing, they lose data and viruses are a major problem.

“We ran into many of the same problems 40 years ago with mainframes, but we didn't just shrug our shoulders and accept them as inevitable,” McCleery notes. “Computer engineers aimed to fix the errors and strove for perfection. As a result, mainframes grew steadily more reliable over time. That's not happening with PCs. Everybody sees their flaws but accepts them as 'that's the way it goes.'”

McCleery claims it's been about 10 years since any user reported an error in MSS software. “I'm not saying we're perfect, because there might be errors we haven't heard about, but I've been working on this system for over two decades and have identified and corrected errors along the way. That's the advantage of a mainframe system. Plus, we're virtually immune to viruses, because there are so few systems out there nobody's going to go to the trouble of writing one just for us.

“Another pet peeve is updated operating systems that can't read older data,” he continues. “I've got some programs running here that I wrote in 1980. I've developed many improvements since then, and the earlier versions can't do some of the things the newer ones do, but I can come forward in time and still access old data.

“With PCs, you have a lot of small business owners trying to run a business, and every few years they have to spend great amounts of time and money revamping their systems because of software updates. That's unacceptable.”

Many MSS clients use PCS, of course, and McCleery accommodates them from a technical standpoint. But he chuckles in noting that some of his customers prefer to use the old-fashioned “dumb” terminals like he has in his home office. “The reason is they don't want their employees wasting time playing all those games that you can load on a PC. You can't do that with these old terminals.”

Contact Winston McCleery at Management Software Systems (MSS) at 800-486-9247, or visit www.e-distac.com for more information.