An integrated, web-based parts ordering system for its caravan and after sales dealerships is increasing ABI’s efficiencies hugely. Frank Booty checks out the lessons to be learned from a firm that ramped from nothing to integrated systems within 18 months.
Major UK caravan manufacturer ABI’s implementation of an integrated web-based spares ordering facility for its 50-plus main Tourer and Leisure dealers has been an unqualified success. The firm integrated its main enterprise resource planning (ERP) system with web technology not long after going live, and dealers can now search for spare parts rapidly – also placing orders straight into ABI’s operational system.
One of the UK’s biggest and best-known caravan producers, ABI was acquired in 1998 by Klesch Capital Partners. At the time, because of booming demand and an expected increase in orders from a new generation of leisure-seeking caravan owners, extra capacity was needed. So ABI opened a third production line and increased manufacturing capacity by 40% at its factory in Yorkshire. And it bought an integrated Impact Encore ERP system – with financials, sales, manufacturing and distribution – from McGuffie Brunton.
Klesch’s head of IT Sunil Indraratne says, “When we took over ABI there was an old mainframe system and a few PCs in the company, with a large IT department producing software that didn’t support the business. We looked at shelf-based packages, including SAP and Baan, which for us would have needed a lot of IT and would have proved expensive. We chose Encore because it fitted all the roles we needed. Every module we’ve bought to date is fully implemented and working.”
Today there are more than 100 PCs running under Microsoft Windows NT. Future plans include implementing McGuffie Brunton’s time and attendance module and ultimately extending the system to cover ABI’s continental European dealer network.
“Manufacturing a caravan is equivalent to building a house,” says Indraratne. “That includes everything down to the woodwork and furnishings.” So the supply chain has to be well integrated too. At ABI the Encore system automatically emails or faxes purchase orders to suppliers, while delivery dates and times are fed back.
Hamid Ghadamian, production systems manager, was drafted into ABI by Indraratne because “ABI was not originally computer orientated”. Everything has now been put right, with Ghadamian drawing on the experience gleaned from three major implementations in South Africa and bringing in robust implementation and project management skills.
A key part of ABI’s business is after sales support, which involves keeping existing customers and dealers happy, particularly with caravans being noted for their longevity. What this means is running an after sales distribution operation, complete with a warehouse holding 6,000 spare parts, and a system recording part records of over 10,000 additional parts, going back 15 years (and which can be supplied on demand if needed).
Distribution is processed weekly. Lorries are loaded at the beginning of a week, travelling key routes to cover all dealers, resulting in a five-day turn-round of spares order-to-delivery. Hitherto the service was slow due to dealers waiting for phones to be answered and ABI staff doing manual searches for information. What was clogging up the process was growth in demand, and the subsequent making of enquiries on prices, availability, delivery due dates and placing orders. McGuffie’s web application software is seen as the answer to unclogging the situation and creating an effective after sales service for the entire dealer network.
Peter Davies, ABI after-sales service manager, says, “Dealers access a spares section of the web site through a password-protected process. They thus gain online and real-time interaction with Impact Encore’s order processing, accounting and stock control systems – and so can establish key information with one button push.”
Orders can be placed directly using the Impact system. Dealers enter details on a sales order, check prices and submit the order directly into Impact’s database. Automatic processing determines availability and delivery and ensures the company cannot over-promise stock delivery across the Internet. When the dealer confirms the order, a spares sales order is automatically created in the database, along with an audit log of the order being placed. An order confirmation email is then sent back to the dealer.
The technology behind this part of the application is McGuffie’s web application software modules, known as ‘encore applets’. “Dealers are now offered quick and easy access to all the up to date information they need,” says Davies. “They can place orders when it’s convenient for them, without having to sit waiting on the end of a phone.”
Customer service is not the only winner from this system. As more dealers start to use the online information and ordering process, so the internal efficiency of ABI’s after sales operation is also expected to increase. Pressure is being taken off sales staff as dealers check stock availability and enter their own orders. “That will save us much time and effort and allow us to concentrate on the core business of managing the warehouse and spares distribution,” says Davies.
What advice would Indraratne give to a company moving as ABI did, from an organisation with little IT skills-base into ERP and integrated web-based ordering? “We had the sales department talking to dealers – our customers – and listening to what they wanted,” says Indraratne. “We answered the question – why web-based ordering? Efficiency, customer satisfaction, concentration on more key issues, cost savings – the list goes on. We have now also implemented proactive database-driven telesales operations.”
And he adds: “The problem we had originally was that people were not computer literate. If there are no software skills present in an existing workforce there’s going to be a problem. You have to recruit the right people or person to do the job. In our case Hamid Ghadamian carried out the implementation work.”
“The hard part is to train people. You have to do a lot of hand-holding work,” says Ghadamian. “There was one man in his late 50s who was scared to use the mouse. We showed him the functions, how easy it was – and now he’s an advanced user.” As is often the case, people in established positions see computers as a threat rather than as tools to make existing jobs more efficient.
“Once you teach people how to use IT, and computers in particular, and the web and Internet, you will see the advantages and gain the efficiencies,” says Indraratne. “There’s nothing to fear – as we’re proving.”
Author: Frank Booty