Horticulture Companies Grow With the System i5
July 24, 2006 Mary Lou Roberts
I phoned Doreen Anderson, manager of platforms for Ball Horticultural from my patio, on one of the far-too-few gorgeous days (no thunderstorms, and a comfortable temperature in the mid-80s) in the past two weeks here in the Northeast. The planters around my patio are filled with impatiens, begonias, and geraniums, and the plants were lush and flush with color. It seemed like the perfect setting to talk about the important role that the System i plays in making all that beauty available.
Ball Horticultural is a 100-year-old family business located in west Chicago that supplies seeds, plugs, young plants, and cuttings to companies in the United States and 18 other countries around the world. The company has a staff of plant breeders, seed physiologists, and plant pathologists who develop product traits like improved seed quality, unique flower colors, weather tolerance, and disease resistance, and then produce the seeds and cuttings.
Greenhouse wholesale distribution is Ball Horticultural’s market niche, Anderson explains. “We sell to the people who sell to the people you and I would buy from. They are doing the growing. You don’t see our name too much at the retail level. We’re pretty low profile.”
Behind all of this, helping to get the job done, is the System i. Anderson reports that the choice of platform hasn’t changed since she joined the company 11 years ago. But today, the company has two System i5 570s running i5/OS V5R3. One is a 10-way running its production environment, and the other is a five-way, running quality assurance and replicating its data.
Ball Horticultural is a dedicated SAP shop for all of its business applications, including order-to-cash applications, production for its European locations, and its pick/pack/ship systems. Anderson explains, “On the seed end of the business, we receive a seed order that comes in from our customer (a greenhouse), and we then pick the seed packets going out to that greenhouse.” She points out that these orders are high volume–not single packets such as those end consumers purchase. The company then packages these orders and ships them out, according to their “in by 5, out by 7” policy; that is, if an order comes in before 5 p.m., it will be shipped by 7 p.m. that same day.
But another big part of Ball Horticulture’s business is “plant and plug,” Anderson explains. “Some flowers are grown from seeds and some are grown from cuttings. Where the greenhouse doesn’t want to start with a seed because it takes so long to germinate and grow, some of them choose to start with a plug–a germinated seed that has about a half-inch of growth. So we do that.” The two sides of the business–seeds, and plant and plug–are both equally important parts of Ball Horticultural’s overall business.
The company has an IT staff of approximately 25 people, supporting the System i5, its Wintel email servers, and the SAP applications. The staff is allocated as follows: six people for desktops and infrastructure; five programmers; five business analysts who also provide front-end support; and four dedicated to support of the System i5. There are also, of course, managers in the mix. End users of the systems include the company’s sales representatives as well as suppliers and customers, who all do their order entry over the Internet.
Naturally, because Ball Horticulture is are dealing in a product that has a limited shelf life, availability of accurate inventory information, which is posted to the Internet and which customers order against, is extremely important to Ball Horticultural. And availability is one of the reasons they are on the System i, says Anderson. “It’s also why we have the replication machine and a contract for disaster recovery. When we were just U.S.-based, we could afford a window of time to do backups. But when we deployed into Holland in 2001, we couldn’t afford to come down at midnight for a half hour, so that’s when we put the backup machine in.” Since then, the company had one small problem that brought the system down for four hours during an upgrade, Anderson reports, and it was able to switch over easily to the backup machine. However, prior to that, the system was stable for years, and that kind of reliability is extremely important to the company.
Ball Horticultural reassesses its commitment to the i5/OS and OS/400 platform all the time, says Anderson. “We are an SAP shop and that drives what we do. But SAP can run on anything, so every time we do an upgrade, we ask ourselves if this is still the best platform for this organization–if this is where we belong. Right now, the System i is still the best solution for our company.”
What, if anything, could IBM do to make the System i5 better? Anderson responds that IBM must continue to find make more applications available on the platform so that it will be attractive to new customers. “Stay on focus of what this machine has been all about. IBM says it is working on it, but it’s broken down over the last 10 years, and it will take some time for IBM to build it back. But I’m a big advocate for the i5. It’s been successful for us, and I’m always telling people how easy it is to use.”
Another wholesale horticultural distribution company, Shemin Nurseries, has also been using the System i5 (or its forerunners) for decades.
Headquartered in Danbury, Connecticut, Shemin operates 30 landscape supply centers in 15 metropolitan areas up and down the East coast and into the Midwest. These service centers serve as a one-stop shop for landscape contractors who need to get everything from fresh nursery stock, trees, and seed to mulch, fertilizer, railroad ties, irrigation equipment, tools, and landscape lighting. Shemin serves trade contractors only, and these contractors can vary greatly in size, ranging from those with only one or two crews and a couple of trucks to larger landscaping companies with many crews.
None of the ordering for its products is done over the Web, says Donald Abramson, Shemin’s director of information technology, who likens the purchase process to buying fruit from a grocery store. Most people who are buying three peaches want to pick those peaches out themselves, looking for the size, color, and ripeness that suit them. So it is with the purchase of trees and plants, where contractors are looking for specific size, shape, and maturity that will fit into a specific landscaping plan.
Therefore, all of Shemin’s customers are walk-ins. “This is a very informal business and we know most of our customers personally,” says Abramson. “A contractor will come in with what he needs in order to complete a particular job written on a sheet of paper, and we assign a customer service representative to him. They walk around and pick out what he needs.”
Years ago, Shemin had a standalone System/36 at each of its then 24 locations, running software that was originally purchased from Harris Data about 20 years ago. When Shemin made its move to the AS/400 in the early 1980s, it consolidated the processing for all locations onto the AS/400 at its headquarters office. The company’s application software has also been heavily modified over the years to the point where Abramson now describes it as “a Shemin package,” which runs all of the company’s consolidated general accounting, order entry, purchasing, and distribution. (This is a typical situation in the IBM midrange, which was engendered by the shared source philosophy of application vendors.)
Today, Shemin has an iSeries 810 running OS/400 V5R2 as well as seven Intel servers for email, Web, and print serving. The IT staff includes Abramson and two other people: one programmer/analyst and one network administrator. When the need arises for additional staff to support new projects, Shemin works with outside partners who supply specialized skills and manpower.
In fact, over the years, Shemin has augmented its baseline business system, with software for signing, tagging, and labeling its products, as well as document archiving and signature capture. “In fact, we are now automating a whole lot of back-end processes,” says Abramson.
One of the projects currently underway is the iSeries-based “Signature Capture” project (misnamed, says Abramson, because the project entails much more than that) that’s being done in conjunction with Quadrant Software. In fact, this project is designed to move Shemin to a paperless processing environment.
Now, when a customer comes in, he will sign an electronic clipboard and product selections will be run through the system, without the need to handle pieces of paper, to apply automatically any discounts, update inventory, recognize product codes from wireless, handheld scanners, calculate totals, and create invoices that can automatically be emailed or faxed to the customer. This will cut down significantly on the administrative time necessary to process these orders, and it will drastically cut down on the time customers have to spend to check out their orders once they have made their selections. This will lead to greatly improved customer satisfaction, says Abramson, who again compares the process to the grocery store. “People don’t mind the time they spend in the grocery store walking up and down the aisles picking what they want,” he says. “It’s the time they spend waiting in line at the checkout counter that they hate.” The new system will cut down that checkout time dramatically. And internally, the ROI is fast. “The major savings are in not having to file paper invoices and having to take a lot of time to copy documents and send them out to various locations.”
What keeps people in the horticulture business awake at night? Users in many other industries respond to this question with answers that focus on system availability or data corruption. Not so for those in horticulture. Abramson’s response is short and sweet: “Weather.” Too much rain, or too little rain, or too much heat or too little heat can greatly affect Shemin’s ability to grow and provide the inventory of plants and trees that their customers want. (This year, he says, was an almost perfect spring, despite what in recent weeks has brought an over-abundance of rain to much of the country, while other regions have been experiencing drought.)
Ball Horticultural’s Anderson has a different response to that question: “How do we get people to continue to garden? What’s going to attract the next generation?” It’s no secret to people in many industries that Americans’ habits are changing, and many younger people no longer devote the time that their parents and grandparents did to the enjoyment of raising a garden or even buying and maintaining plants. Increasingly over-scheduled families are putting their time and energies elsewhere. Just drive around new development projects and you’ll see ample evidence of this.
An IT department can, of course, do little to influence the buying habits of future generations, and it certainly cannot control the weather. But one thing seems certain: Because these companies have the reliability of the System i behind them, they will be able to devote their time to solving other business problems without having to worry about the stability of their systems.