These days, when businesses start to run low on important office supplies, they simply order online from their preferred vendors, and the supplies can arrive on the office doorstep the next day. The pressure is on the office supply vendors to stock and deliver necessary items quickly.
“Our business provides a one-stop shop for the offices of our customers,” says Garry Whatley, Vice President of IT and Business Services at Corporate Express Australia. “We target large corporate and midmarket customers, and our competitive advantage is the size and breadth of products that we provide. Supplying everything a company needs through one source ultimately saves our customers money.”
To remain both competitive and profitable in a rapidly moving industry, Corporate Express — a business that offers a wide variety of office supplies such as stationary, furniture, print management services, promotional marketing, liquor, IT solutions, and janitorial products — needs to manage inventory closely, adjust pricing quickly, and ultimately be as efficient as possible while operating with tight margins. Retaining existing customers and attracting new ones means that executives need high-speed access to data to ensure the inventory is right and new products are added quickly. To achieve this goal, the company relies on business intelligence — and the faster and more accurate the reports, the more competitive and efficient the business can be.
Corporate Express, which was bought by Staples, Inc. in 2008, grew extensively in the early 2000s through more than 70 acquisitions and currently has around 40 locations including sales offices, warehouses, and major distribution centers in each of the capital cities across Australia and New Zealand. The business does not have a retail presence like its parent company, Staples. According to Whatley, about 80% of the sales revenue comes from online orders, with the other 20% coming from fax and phone orders.
In his executive role, Whatley investigates how Corporate Express can best utilize or leverage its competitive advantage, technology, and processes to create more efficiencies within the business. In late 2008, he ran a large business transformation project that involved an enterprise-wide SAP implementation and a strong business intelligence initiative that was completed in August 2011.
“Our business processes and systematic procedures were inconsistent, and the transformation project was designed to standardize these core processes across the business — for example, looking at how we procure products all the way to payment or follow customer orders through to delivery.”
— Garry Whatley,
Vice President of IT
and Business Services,
Corporate Express Australia
The Road to a Better Reporting Foundation
Because of its quick growth through acquisition, Corporate Express didn’t have a high level of consistency across its 40 locations. The problem was the way the previous system was implemented and then, over time, heavily modified and configured to run very differently from site to site. There was one system supporting all the locations, with each location operating as if it were a separate business.
“Our business processes and systematic procedures were inconsistent, and the transformation project was designed to standardize these core processes across the business — for example, looking at how we procure products all the way to payment or follow customer orders through to delivery,” says Whatley.
The main goals of the transformation project, according to Whatley, were to restructure the business alignment, centralize functions where appropriate, and underpin some of those standard processes with new technology to drive more efficiency. “That’s when we chose SAP ERP 6.0 and went down that route of rolling out one instance for all of Australia and New Zealand operations,” he says. “It was quite a significant project that we’ve been driving for many years.”
As part of the transformation initiative, Corporate Express also implemented a non-SAP warehousing system for the large distribution centers — but the business runs SAP software in the smaller warehouses and for all of the core business transactions.
Because the transformation project exposed that there was no consistent single source of the truth, the business decided to improve business intelligence processes and implement SAP NetWeaver Business Warehouse (SAP NetWeaver BW).
“The BW team did a lot of project work that involved examining all of the previous reports the business generated and then looking at how we can source and map that information as part of the SAP program to standardize and consolidate reporting,” says Whatley.
The business reporting included a combination of both internal and customer-focused reports. Currently, Corporate Express provides customers with reports of quarterly business reviews and stock-holding information, but the business hopes to soon offer customers real-time analytics. “We want to provide the ability to analyze how they are working with us and to drill down into information to see where exactly they are spending,” say Whatley. “Extending that sort of information to customers is very important.”
Another significant aspect for Corporate Express to run more effectively is the ability to perform internal what-if analyses. For example, it’s beneficial to be able to analyze what’s happening in certain markets, how to best stock locations, or how to better service customers. And being able to deliver mobile devices to the salesforce would provide real-time information right when conversations with customers are happening.
“Standardizing our business reporting is the foundation of where we want to take our whole business warehouse,” he adds. “We’ll continue to address this level over the next couple of months, and then we’ll start to move into dashboards, business analytics, and mobility. That’s where we want to go, but first we need to put a foundation in place to help get us to that more mature level.”
There’s a massive source of information that Corporate Express can tap into more easily, but it will take some time to get there and start delivering a new level of enhanced reporting to customers and employees. “It will be a matter of starting down a path, looking at what’s working, and then growing from there,” Whatley says.
One path Corporate Express went down led to rolling out SAP NetWeaver BW Accelerator. Once the business started running SAP NetWeaver BW and began to review user feedback, it identified some frustration from end users with performance concerning the length of time it took to run reports, reports timing out, and so forth.
“People were quite frustrated before, and SAP NetWeaver BW Accelerator has allowed us to address performance challenges, which has really enhanced the business adoption of SAP NetWeaver BW and increased usability across the business,” says Whatley.
When selecting the hardware on which to run SAP NetWeaver BW Accelerator, Corporate Express evaluated two vendors and chose to go with Cisco. “We want a simplified environment that’s easy to manage with little complexity,” says Whatley. “We’ve had a good relationship with Cisco over the many years we’ve been using the Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) platform, as well as quite a lot of its networking products. Considering our investment and commitment with Cisco, we thought it was the best strategic decision to take.” (For more information about the Cisco UCS Platform, see the sidebar to the right.)
According to Whatley, because of SAP NetWeaver BW Accelerator, Corporate Express has removed some complexities because reports no longer have to be built using aggregations. Previously, trainings and presentations had to contain mock ups of earlier data, but now that the data is in real time, training is much improved and more effective.
There was also a reduction in the load time of taking information out of SAP ERP and loading it into SAP NetWeaver BW. “It’s been a great advantage to move a lot of information more quickly into the data warehouse,” Whatley says. “We’ve also seen a significant increase in performance with SAP NetWeaver BW Accelerator providing fantastic response times. In some cases, responses went from 15 to 16 seconds down to 2 to 4 seconds on average.”
Whatley is thrilled with the improved speed from the users and loads. “Without implementing SAP NetWeaver BW Accelerator, we would have struggled to have that innovation to move forward. It’s one of those solutions that is a no-brainer.”