IBM i A Vital Part Of This Staffing Franchise
April 20, 2015 Alex Woodie
By 2020, it is predicted that temps, freelancers, and independent contractors will compose 40 percent of the U.S. workforce, a substantial increase over today’s figures. One company ready to capitalize on that tectonic shift in employment trends is AtWork Group, a Tennessee-based franchisor that oversees dozens of independent staffing firms around the country. With the temp business booming, AtWork is counting on its IBM i platform to help its business grow.
The franchise model has been a core part of AtWork Group’s strategy since John D. Hall Jr. founded the Knoxville, Tennessee, company back in 1992. The CEO’s goal was to provide all the operational support necessary to establish and run temporary staffing businesses, while giving the franchise owner enough room to make their own decisions.
AtWork isn’t the biggest franchisor in $123 billion North American temporary staffing industry, but it’s arguably one of the faster growing ones. In 2014, the company had about 70 franchise partners from Maine to California, representing nearly 18,000 temporary employees. Those numbers are expected to grow by about 30 percent this year as the temporary staffing boom picks up steam and more franchisees come on board.
The company’s existing business, which relies heavily on a centralized staffing application from Greenfield Software running on an IBM Power 720, is ready to absorb that growth, says Mike Baumgardner, senior vice president of franchise development for AtWork Group.
AtWork has relied on the AS/400 lineage of platforms–including System i, iSeries, and now Power Systems servers–since the early 1990s. “As far as the stability of the system, man it runs like a dream,” Baumgardner tells IT Jungle. “It runs so smooth. We’ve never really had a problem where it was the machine’s fault. Whenever we’ve had a hiccup, you can either track it to something with the Internet or you can track it to something quirky with the coding.”
Aside from the legendary stability of the system, its virtualization capabilities help AtWork by enabling it to run separate application environments for each of its franchise operators. “They all have their own separate databases within in the one machine, which is great too because, come tax time, the machine knows where each file goes,” Baumgardner says.
Greenfield’s application, which is called TempServ, automates many of the day-to-day aspects of running a temporary staffing firm for AtWork’s franchises.
The application is somewhat unique in the temporary staffing software marketplace in that it combines all the so-called “front-office” functionality–such as taking applications from prospective temp workers, capturing timecard information, setting pay and bill rates, and scheduling their engagements–along with the “back-office” functionality, including managing payroll deductions, running accounts payable and accounts receivable processes, and maintaining client’s order histories. Not a lot of other packages on the market do that.
Durham, North Carolina-based Greenfield worked with AtWork years ago to modify TempServ so that it would fit AtWork’s franchise business model, where it’s essentially hosting separate TempServ instances for its franchisees, but managing the implementation as a single entity. They’ve met every requirement, Baumgardner says. “They’ve been really good with helping us to work through and fix things as we needed them fixed and tweaked. They’ve been a real solid group to work with,” he says.
Over the years, Greenfield has modernized the ILE RPG-based TempServ software to give it a graphical interface. It initially modernized its software over a decade ago using IBM’s WebFacing tools. But judging from the look of its current UIs, it’s gone through some additional refreshes, and today it features a modern-looking Web interface.
For Greenfield, which started writing its package on the System/36 way back in the 1980s, it’s all about keeping up with the times. “Unless somebody told you this was an AS/400, you’d never know the difference,” Baumgardner says. “Internally here, the users prefer green screens because they’re so much quicker for entering information. But externally, if you’re a franchisee, you’re basically seeing what you’d think is regular software. You’re seeing the nice push-button, drop-down screens, all that jazz.”
At Work with Power
The combination of the modern-looking and functionality rich TempServ application running on fast and reliable Power Systems hardware gives AtWork the confidence that it can help new staffing franchises get up and running quickly, and continue to automate the franchises’ core business processes for years on end in a secure and affordable manner.
The company has looked at what ERP vendors like SAP and Oracle can offer, but has so far stayed on the old familiar iron. “I can’t imagine us hopping to another platform right now and being just as confident in it, without having bringing in some other things to make it as stable as an AS/400,” Baumgardner says.
Sure, the underlying IBM hardware may not be the cheapest. But you when you’re warehousing information that’s vitally important, including accounting information for AtWork’s partners and the Social Security numbers of its franchisee’s staffers, what looks like the cheapest route up front may be more costly in the long run. “You’ve got to look at the overall security, and the fact that it’s so stable, and weigh that versus the upfront cost,” he says.
The size of IBM i platform’s installed base has decreased over the years as companies have moved toward open systems platforms, for various reasons. But for AtWork Group, the platform continues to deliver a competitive advantage that would be tough to match on other systems.
“I think you’d pay a whole lot more money than we do with the AS/400,” Baumgardner says. “You’d have to pull in several different computers together to be able to produce exactly what that thing produces for you. I don’t think it would be convenient for the end users either.”
Besides changing tapes and applying the occasional fix–which is domain of senior VP of MIS, Kim Baumgardner, Mike’s wife–the IBM i server just continues to run and run, without any muss or fuss.
Meanwhile, the sizes of the actual servers continue to shrink, which amuses Baumgardner to no end. “It went from being a small unit when I first got here. When they upgraded at one point it was sitting at about waist level,” he says. “Now it’s back down to where it’s a little tiny unit on the floor again, but it’s like three times more powerful. It’s amazing to see the evolution of that particular machine, in and of itself.”