by Carol Hildebrand
For FinishMaster, taking the customer experience into the digital age is vital to the ability to satisfy rising customer expectations for fast, responsive service. But in order to implement its plan—a business model designed to speed decision-making by extending information access to field workers via tablets and smartphones—the Indianapolis, Indiana–based company needed to modernize its infrastructure and systems to support the ambitious new project.
Headquarters: Indianapolis, Indiana
Oracle products: JD Edwards EnterpriseOne 9.1, Oracle WebLogic, Oracle User Productivity Kit
Director of IT
Length of tenure: 10 years
Education: BS in chemistry, University of Illinois; MBA, St. Ambrose University
A national distributor of automotive paints, coatings, and related accessories with about 170 distribution locations across the United States, FinishMaster services the US$2.5 billion US automotive paint refinishing market, a highly competitive industry with fluctuating customer requirements. Large national repair chains expect instant online ordering capabilities, whereas the local auto-body shop around the corner might prefer face-to-face interactions. But no matter what the size of the customer, they all expect fast, responsive customer service.
“When I came to work for FinishMaster, they said that this industry was different than any other industry, and they were right,” says Bruce May, director of application development at FinishMaster. “The mentality is really built around custom-tailored service. I’d hear all the time, ‘If we don’t do this, if we don’t give the customer this price, if we don’t deliver it when the customer wants it, then we’re going to lose the business.’”
Bringing that old-school, customer-first mentality into the digital age was a natural step, and the project involved not only new applications but an upgrade to the company’s infrastructure and systems. But rather than embarking on a drawn-out, “big bang” implementation that simultaneously tackled both the technical and business sides of the house, the company decided to break the project in two. The company just completed the first phase, a technical upgrade to Oracle’s JD Edwards EnterpriseOne 9.1 that allows the company to build a solid, scalable infrastructure for future business projects.
Although it means that the mobile project will be implemented later in the process, Tom Smith, director of IT at FinishMaster, believes that the company will derive better business value in the long run. “If you can concentrate on the task at hand instead of trying to make changes in both areas, you can build a stable environment before you involve the business side,” he says.
Smith expects significant benefits in terms of lower total cost of ownership (TCO), minimal impact on the business users, and shorter implementation cycles. Most importantly, the company will have an infrastructure and system in place that will easily support future innovations.Learning from History
FinishMaster has grown by acquiring paint distributors, a market historically inhabited by small, local mom-and-pop businesses. The company’s mergers and acquisitions activity left them with a patchwork quilt of disparate systems, says May. “We had five point-of-sale systems and three general ledger systems when I started,” he says. The company standardized on Oracle’s JD Edwards EnterpriseOne solutions, upgrading several times over the past decade and a half. The most recent was in 2008, when the company upgraded to JD Edwards EnterpriseOne 8.12, a complicated project that effected major technical changes as well as a large overhaul of business processes, allowing the company to modernize and consolidate many customer-facing functions such as order entry and other processes.
The company replaced the previous ordering system built around a paper-based system run out of each branch with a consolidated order platform that combines a call center, online ordering, and electronic data interchange (EDI). “It used to be that body shops would call their order in to the branch, and service representatives would scribble the order on a piece of paper and pull the order from inventory before billing,” says May. Now, customers can call or fax orders to a centralized call center, as well as use an online ordering system.
The larger chains, such as Maaco and Service King, use EDI, which lets them send orders in real time. “Two years ago, we had no EDI orders from customers, and now we do have a significant amount of EDI,” says Smith. “The company has evolved from branch people talking to the customers directly to more than half of our revenue coming in from EDI, the contact center, and online channels.”
While successful, the project cost more than budgeted, and taught Smith and May a few lessons along the way. “There were a lot of complications,” says Smith. “We didn’t have the technical staff to run the system or do technical documentation of modifications and test scripts. We just needed a lot more handholding at that point in our maturity.”
And because the company made significant changes to the business processes, the user impact also lasted longer.
With the newer [JD Edwards] technology, we were able to put in new hardware in a two-day period, and nobody on the front end even knew, because there was no downtime. We were able to do that on the fly.”–Tom Smith, Director of IT, FinishMasterNew Challenges
This time, the company faced different requirements:
A slow-growth market. FinishMaster needed to be cost-efficient to deal with a sluggish market. According to a Frost & Sullivan report entitled “Global Analysis of the Automotive Refinish Coatings Market,” the refinish paint market is driven by car sales, vehicles in operation, accident rates, and age of the car. “Recessionary effects, along with reduced accident rates due to enhanced road safety and speed management systems in vehicles, have contributed to the restrained growth in the automotive refinish coatings market in Europe and North America,” says the report.
Reducing TCO. In 2011, the company was acquired by Uni-Select, an automotive hard parts company that was undergoing a lengthy enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation. At the beginning, FinishMaster expected to be moved to the new platform, but the company was able to sell the new owners on the cost-effectiveness of staying with JD Edwards EnterpriseOne versus migrating to the other company’s system. “We wanted to show our parent company that we could execute an upgrade in a short period of time at a relatively small expense,” says Smith.
Lifecycle management. JD Edwards EnterpriseOne 8.12 could not run the new tools being released, and FinishMaster did not want to extend their current support license for a system that prevented them from implementing important new capabilities such as mobile applications.
Minimizing user impact. Smith wanted to keep the project away from the business side of the house as much as possible until the company had the infrastructure in place to react to changing business requirements more quickly. “We can make changes later on, but we want to be able to make changes in a more incremental fashion,” he says.
By decoupling the technical upgrade from business process changes, Smith was able to keep costs low and shorten project scope and implementation time. “We tried to change as little as possible and quickly get to a live and stable environment,” says Marcelo Tamassia, partner at EmeraldCube Solutions, the Oracle partner that worked with Smith’s team to implement the project. “Even so, there were plenty of benefits just from the technical upgrade.”
The project, which kicked off around mid-June, was finished by mid-November—on time and under budget. “During the go-live, Uni-Select was surprised at how smoothly everything went, when it was just me and another person supporting the go-live,” says Tamassia. “If they had migrated to the other ERP solution, it would have required a bigger team.”
More importantly, the technical upgrade allowed them to build a solid infrastructure to support the company’s digital projects without affecting the business users. For example, the company was able to modernize the infrastructure by switching to virtualized servers, something that was not feasible with the older JD Edwards EnterpriseOne system. “With the newer technology, we were able to put in new hardware in a two-day period, and nobody on the front end even knew, because there was no downtime. We were able to do that on the fly,” says Smith.FinishMaster Stats
|Number of users concurrently on FinishMaster’s JD Edwards EnterpriseOne installation|
|Number of FinishMaster branch locations across the country|
|Size of US automotive paint refinishing market|
Now, with the new release running smoothly, company executives are excited to start leveraging the new functionality available in Release 9.1 to reinvent their customer experience with digital services. “For future growth, I think our real opportunity is in the mobile space,” says Smith. For example, the company has started to give account managers iPads when they visit clients. Using JD Edwards EnterpriseOne mobile enterprise applications to extend JD Edwards EnterpriseOne to smartphones and tablets will give far greater access to information on the fly.
May says that the upgrade will help FinishMaster users to make real-time decisions and accelerate business execution by allowing them to access a lot more information from mobile devices. For example, they’ll be able to look up customer balances, see what inventory a branch has on a particular item, check pricing, and review the order status and history of a customer. “Today, our account managers depend a lot on branch locations for that information,” says May. “Short of running some SQL reports, they can’t see inventory information, so this should really help make them more self-sufficient,” he says.
Smith is also looking forward to the ability to use Café One, a powerful feature that allows users to pull information from multiple sources such as maps, barcode data, charts, web applications, and data tables into one screen, and custom-tailor the information based on their job. This approach enables the end user to create a single screen with all the specific functionality required to do their job. “For example, an accounts receivable person could select a customer from the address book and aggregate all the pertinent information into one page, such as sales history or accounts receivable balances,” says May. “It gives you more information without having to pop around between screens.”
The company is in the process of building a roadmap to deliver the new functionality, starting with a tools release in July 2014 to enable the mobile apps. And because the environment is stable, the IT team will be able to focus solely on the smooth implementation of these important new business tools without having to worry about concurrent technology upgrades.
Smith hopes that doing so will result in a shorter, more responsive project cycle for the business applications projects, which will help ensure that project deliverables are not outdated and reflect current business needs. And that, in turn, will help FinishMaster deliver the customized service necessary to survive and thrive in a competitive market.
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