Fisher Scientific UK

The most sophisticated e-businesses still grapple with vestiges of the past. Consider Fisher Scientific UK Ltd. (FSH ), Britain's largest seller of laboratory supplies and a unit of $2.6 billion U.S.-based Fisher Scientific International Inc. Like its parent, the British company makes extensive use of the Web, distributing electronic catalogs every month to its 40,000 customers and selling 75,000 products online. Still, it sends and receives more than half a million paper bills every year. For business-to-business sales, paper still rules.

Enter a cheap solution. Starting last month, Fisher Scientific became the second customer for a new Web-invoicing system from London startup Open Business Exchange (OBE). The technology promises to slash Fisher's payment-processing costs by 80% within two years. The OBE system, which launched last July in the U.S. and Britain, acts as an electronic hub between buyers and sellers. It converts digital invoices from suppliers into a common template and then zaps the information directly into purchasing companies' accounting systems.

The savings already are showing up for Fisher Scientific. The company spent less than $50,000 to sign up with OBE and tweak its computers to talk to the network. A pilot test this summer generated high accuracy rates and positive responses from suppliers. Now, says project manager Paul Owen, Fisher expects to pare its cost of handling incoming invoices--already a slim $4.35 per bill--by 25% within a few months. Before using OBE, Fisher spent $370,000 a year processing bills from suppliers. The OBE system "will pay for itself in six months," Owen says. As more suppliers join up, the results will get even better.

Fisher's suppliers are making the switch because it will save them big bucks, too. Nickel-Electro Ltd., for instance, used to spend every Friday afternoon printing and mailing bills to Fisher. Now, says operations director Adrian Ross, "I can use that time to do something more productive than processing invoices." If Fisher Scientific later persuades its customers to accept electronic invoices as well, the savings could pile on, and paper bills would be a thing of the past.

By Andy Reinhardt in Paris

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