Auto Parts Dealers Love the iSeries
January 9, 2006 Mary Lou Roberts
As much as any industry I’ve encountered, folks in the auto parts business are quick to disclaim any notion that they are “IT people.” And they appear to have no desire to take on that role, either. Their business is fast, competitive, and requires a lot of physical labor (moving all that stuff around in warehouses and onto trucks), distribution, and, in general, heavy lifting to get all those windshields, wiper blades, batteries, plugs, gaskets, and hoses where they need to go.
Their ability to remain competitive depends largely on having the right parts in the right places at the right times. If you’ve ever taken your car in for repair, only to have the mechanic tell you, “We’re waiting to get the part in,” you can understand how unavailability of parts can hurt the both the dealers and the distributors.
In an environment, then, that doesn’t want to hire and be bothered with large IT staffs and that puts a premium on speed and reliability, it’s no surprise that the iSeries has taken hold in this rough and tumble vertical segment. As John Hamminga, marketing director for DST, an ISV that provides turnkey solutions for the auto parts industry, notes, users care most about “lowest cost of ownership, reliability, configurability, and adaptability. Many of our most successful customers have specified the use of the iSeries as their platform of choice. The iSeries was designed to be a transaction machine, and auto parts, with its high number is SKUs and high volume daily transactions, is the perfect environment.”
That certainly is the case for long-time iSeries user, Burlington Foreign Car Parts (BFCP), based in Shelburne, Vermont. This company was started back in 1973 when its founder and president, Tom Glaser, who kept Volkswagen parts in the back of an air-conditioned Dodge van, began developing a wholesale business at VW garage repair specialists. The first store opened in 1979, delivering parts around the state of Vermont, and adding a retail counter. The company has expanded from there, and now handles parts for both foreign and domestic cars and trucks. Today it has five locations in Vermont, and offers delivery service to shops in Vermont, Western New Hampshire, and Eastern New York state.
Jon Anderson, BFCP’s general manager, started with the company in 1981 as a driver. At that time, its inventory system was a deck of plastic-tabbed cards, and pricing was done with a calculator; the company installed a Data General system for inventory control, and that system was in place until 1991, when its first AS/400 was installed with software offered by a now-defunct software supplier. But it worked well, and served BFCP’s needs for many years.
As Y2K approached, BFCP was concerned that its software would not handle the switch to the new millennium, so the companies managers took another look at their system and in 1998, they decided to look for a new application provider. They selected DSTWare from DST, based partly on their desire to stay with the AS/400 because of its reliability and partly on the fact that, as Anderson says, “Their software encompasses all of our basic business applications–sales, inventory, point of sale, general ledger–pretty much everything.” Of key importance is the inventory management–a critical component that helps to avoid both understocking and overstocking and manages the transfer of inventory from one location to another. Pricing is also key in an industry as highly competitive as this.
When asked for specifics on his current iSeries configuration, Jon offers what many would consider one of the most compelling sales pitches for the iSeries. Indeed, it is actually reminiscent of one of the iSeries television ads (that I personally haven’t seen on my own TV set, bit I did see previewed at COMMON. John says, “Configuration? I told you when I agreed to talk with you that I’m an auto parts guy, not an IT guy. That’s just a box up here that we don’t have to worry about.” When asked about the size of his IT shop, he replies, “We don’t have any IT shop. The IT staff? That would be me.”
But don’t conclude that the iSeries is not a critical component of BFCP. Anderson points out that the company has six different locations and about 80 employees, all of whom “touch” the iSeries with the exception of the drivers.
The only non-iSeries application in its shop is a cataloging program that runs on a PC and accesses the iSeries. This program, offered by Activant, provides a way for counter and sales people to look up parts on the computer, giving them a series of prompts that helps to identify the right part, tells whether or not its in stock, and then allows one to take that part and put it right on an invoice. Anderson explains, “It was an add-on that we put in about two years ago. Cataloguing is tough. We have to talk to about 1,000 vendors who are listed in this catalog and then take all that information and put it in a format that’s usable for everybody.”
Anderson sees no major changes on the horizon, other than a upgrade to DSTWare when the new version that “looks more like Window” (non-green screen) is released. Other than that, he does not plan to add any new applications–and certainly doesn’t plan to reconsider the use of the iSeries as the company’s platform of choice. “The biggest reason I like this machine,” he says, “is its reliability. It does its job down the hall, and that allows us to stay busy doing what we need to do.
Equally delighted with the iSeries is Rusty Perry, senior manager of information systems for TBDN Tennessee Company. TBDN, which has approximately 400 employees, engineers, manufactures, and distributes air filter elements, air induction systems, oil filters, and fuel system filters and other components for the automotive industry. Its customers include both automobile manufacturers and aftermarket distributors.
Perry reports that the company installed its first AS/400 D35 when the company started operation in 1989. It was selected for both its reputation for stability and the availability of applications. The company currently has a an iSeries 800, with 2 GB of main memory and 122 GB of disk storage. TBDN’s primary manufacturing and distribution business applications are based on MAPICS/XA from Infor. In addition, TBDN runs Trusted Link/400 EDI business process automation and data management software from Inovis, SMMS Maintenance Management from Silverlake Associates, and WebSmart from BCD Software. Also running in the TBDN environment are Intel servers running IBM’s Domino, Novell NetWare, Microsoft Sharepoint, ADP Etime time and labor management, and HighJump Software‘s DCS Advantage (supply chain execution software) for data collection on the plant floor. Timeclock information is transferred from Etime to TBDN’s payroll application on the iSeries, and plant floor transactions are captured in DCS Advantage and passed to MAPICS on the iSeries.
All this is maintained and managed by the IT staff of three–and that includes Perry, who reports that “there is one programmer/analyst on the iSeries, one network administrator, and I go back and forth, based on need.”
Does TBDN have any plans to re-evaluate its commitment to the iSeries? Not likely, says Perry. “The iSeries is an excellent platform because of its reliability and availability of the hardware. It’s also important to us that there is a large number of available applications and development tools available on the iSeries. There are many options to develop and maintain the application, whether it is a GUI client/server application or a Web-based application. We will continue to upgrade and expand our MAPICS/XA application base, and we are very committed to the iSeries as a platform. It has served us well for the past 16 years. IBM has done a good job of keeping the iSeries up to date with both hardware and software advances.”
Stone Truck Parts, based in Garner, North Carolina, is a newcomer to the iSeries. A start-up that just opened its doors in the fall of 2003, the company delivers heavy-duty replacement truck, trailer, and bus parts to customers in its regional market.
The competition Stone faces is stiff, coming mostly from large, national mega-distributors, so agility, uptime, and reliability were important to them when it came to selection of computer hardware and software. Like Burlington Foreign Car Parts, Stone chose DSTWare from DST for its business systems. “The iSeries just came along with it,” says Keith McLamore, the company’s co-owner and manager, as the only system the company has had since its inception. All of its business applications–accounting, inventory, pricing, and distribution, run on the iSeries. They are currently implementing Internet-based parts ordering that will interface back to the business systems. “This will let our customers get back to the iSeries to see what in inventory so they can place the right orders.” Like many OS/400 shops, McLamore has no idea about what the iSeries configuration is, and he doesn’t care. “The beauty of this is the stability of the iSeries box. It’s just been phenomenal. We’re not a bunch of techies around here.”
Stone has approximately 50 employees, and all except the drivers, touch the iSeries in one way or another. But they don’t have time or need or desire for an IT staff. “Nobody maintains the box,” says McLamore, “except me. Someone changes the tape every morning–that’s about it.”
McLamore is impressed. “The stability of the box is just amazing to me. We had a hard drive issue one time in two years, and the system told us the drive had failed and IBM came out and replaced it. In the old company we used to work for, we constantly had problems with hardware (an old DEC system). But just this morning, we had to cut power to the building to install a new circuit breaker. I just decided last night that the iSeries will shut itself down and power itself back up, so I wasn’t going to worry about it. When I came in this morning, it had shut itself down properly and booted itself right back up, and it was ready to go when we all got here. It was humming just like nothing had happened.”
In my time as a writer in the iSeries community, I’ve talked to a lot of iSeries users, and have been a convert to the iSeries cult; I wave my banners as high as anyone else. But I must say that talking with this small group of users in the auto parts industry has impressed me perhaps more than any other. Here are three small companies (that often-neglected “S” part of SMB market)– including one brand new customer–all of which have little time for or desire to be “IT people.” The iSeries works for them and they love it. This gives me great hope that, if IBM has the will, it can penetrate markets like this.