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Case Study


How Global Operations Are Taking Off at Bristow Group

VP IT & CIO Steve Sidney Describes the Business's Digital Transformation Journey

by Lauren Bonneau, Senior Editor, SAPinsider | insiderPROFILES, Volume 6, Issue 2

April 1, 2015

Bristow Profile

Ride along with helicopter services company Bristow Group as the global transport company undergoes a complete digital transformation centered on replacing its outdated legacy systems with SAP Business Suite powered by SAP HANA. Learn how Bristow Group leveraged SAP HANA to become safer and more operationally excellent with standard global business processes, and see how it created a consistent global delivery model for customers and employees. Discover how its new scalable application platform will enable growth, simplification, standardization, reinvention of key business processes, increased visibility of information, reduced risk, better integration, and the ability to rapidly deploy innovation.


Bristow Group, a leading provider of helicopter services with facilities around the world, transports people and materials offshore safely and efficiently every day. The first civil helicopter transport company to work in the oil and gas industry, Bristow has provided transportation services in support of its customers’ offshore oil and gas exploration and production for more than 50 years. The Houston, Texas-based company currently has major helicopter transportation operations in the UK, Norway, Nigeria, the US Gulf of Mexico, and in most of the other major offshore oil and gas producing regions of the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Russia, and Trinidad.
Bristow provides search-and-rescue services as part of its oil and gas operations and was recently awarded a UK government search-and-rescue contract. Bristow’s history in the UK dates to 1971, with more than 7,000 people rescued in over 15,000 missions. The company also operates Bristow Academy, the world’s largest commercial helicopter training service provider.
To support its operations, Bristow and its affiliates have a fleet of close to 500 helicopters and in the last couple of years the company has expanded further by acquiring fixed-wing airlines in the UK and Australia. The acquisitions demonstrate Bristow’s commitment to offer end-to-end logistics services to its customers — to transport people safely and reliably from their homes to their place of work offshore, which often involves a fixed-wing flight to a heliport, and then a helicopter flight to an offshore platform.
Today, the company is on a journey to “operational excellence” to provide safe, high-quality, reliable, and consistent services for its customers on a global scale. To help achieve this business transformation, senior management recognized the necessity to undergo a “digital transformation.” This required a holistic review of the company’s technology systems and updating them to be enterprise-wide with enough scale to support global process reinvention and projected growth. This meant creating new platforms for innovation to enable better decision making and new ways of working by taking advantage of the technology macro trends for cloud, social, and mobile computing.
In January 2012, Bristow Group started pursuing its digital transformation. “To achieve our business transformation objectives and operational excellence aspirations to become a true global enterprise, there was recognition that a digital transformation was a necessary prerequisite,” says Steve Sidney, Vice President of Information Technology and CIO at Bristow Group. “Our legacy applications had passed the point of being able to grow, scale, and provide the company with capabilities for the future. We were going down a cul-de-sac with no way out, and we had to change.” According to Sidney, the most challenging area of the digital transformation to address was the ERP system because the finance, supply chain, and maintenance operations represent the “beating heart” of the company. Because the ERP system could not support the business processes or scale to support the future growth of the company, it had to be replaced.


To achieve our business transformation objectives and operational excellence aspirations to become a true global enterprise, there was recognition that a digital transformation was a necessary prerequisite.

— Steve Sidney, Vice President of Information Technology and CIO, Bristow Group

Deciding on the Digital Transformation Journey

Historically, Bristow was comprised of business units around the world that operated more independently, the result of both organic growth and acquisitions. This structure led to a less-than-optimal view of IT’s role in enabling the simplification and improvement of global business processes. It also resulted in a collection of legacy systems, bespoke applications, and locally managed infrastructure. Sidney says, “As senior managers’ enterprise-wide business objectives developed, so did their understanding of IT’s critical role in supporting the global business operations and enabling their future vision.”
The digital transformation has, over the past three years, already led to the successful completion of many programs — including the building of an exceptional IT leadership team and the creation of a third-party partner network for managing communications, data center services, and systems integration activities. New application platforms have been introduced for flight operations, customer relationship management, and collaboration. In addition, innovations in the form of service management for fleet support, electronic flight bags for pilots, electronic manual publication for maintenance, and digital signage for global communications have all been introduced in a remarkably short period.
Because the functions of finance, supply chain, and maintenance operations are intricately connected and also regulated within the aviation industry, Bristow had to develop a detailed deployment strategy, consisting of a technical release plan and a choreographed approach to the implementation. According to Sidney, the ERP implementation was viewed as the perfect opportunity to put the right systems and business processes in place and to properly set the business up to support and enable its future aspirations.
There were many goals set for the ERP project — from standardizing and simplifying business processes in finance, supply chain, and maintenance operations, to providing global visibility into business intelligence (BI) to understand key performance indicators and decision drivers (such as asset utilization and profitability segmented by aircraft, customer or contract). Another important driver was risk reduction and improved compliance through more consistent and automated processes in addition to reliable business continuity processes. Additional goals were to instantiate a new platform on which future benefit can be derived, an opportunity not available with the legacy system. For example, giving business users access to real-time data analytics to help with predictions can have significant benefit for aircraft maintenance, and with a modernized and simplified user experience, business users can interact with and query data directly from a mobile device.
Bristow wanted technology that could help it reach these goals, provide operational insights, and allow for more automation into key business processes. With a better handle on supply chain processes, for example, the business could ensure that the components required to service its fleet were available when needed and avoid having helicopters grounded and out of service until components arrived.
Once senior management made the decision not to update its legacy technology, but rather embark on a transformation journey, the next step was to determine what the company’s future would look like and the technology needed to enable this future.

Bristow Group Inc.

Headquarters: Houston, Texas

Revenue: $1.669 billion (Mar. 31, 2014)

Employees: 4,800 approx. (Dec. 31, 2014)

Company details:

  • Has provided transportation services for 50+ years
  • Owned or leased 369 helicopters (Dec. 31, 2014)
  • Affiliates operate 131 aircrafts (Dec. 31, 2014)
  • Operates in approx. 20 countries
  • 4 business regions (Asia Pacific, Europe Caspian, Americas, and Africa)

SAP solutions: SAP Business Suite powered by SAP HANA, SAP HANA (all enterprise licenses), SAP BW, SAP Process Integration, SAP Enterprise Portal, SAP Solution Manager, SAP solutions for GRC

Getting Everyone Onboard

To secure commitment and buy-in from those who would be responsible for executing the new processes, the project team dedicated several months to building global communities of people from around the company. Three high-level collaborative workshops held in Houston brought together the key people from management, finance, the supply chain, maintenance, and security/compliance. “During these sessions, we also included visionaries from outside the company to talk about what was possible. We had a series of brainstorming discussions about the future opportunities. We simply tried to nurture the seeds,” describes Sidney. But it didn’t end there. “We kept the communities going and had more meetings to share knowledge and experiences and define the future. As time passed, the seeds blossomed into a set of information that illustrated our current pain points and also the possibilities for our future. By the middle of 2012, we decided to go with SAP software.”
After determining that an integrated solution for finance, supply chain management, and maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) was needed (rather than a best-in-breed approach), the selection of SAP software was made for a few reasons. First, SAP’s strong focus on aviation helped ease concerns about the complexity of aviation maintenance operations. Another factor was SAP’s expertise in the oil and gas industry,  with the majority of Bristow’s large oil and gas customers and larger OEM suppliers already using SAP software. “It made the most sense from the perspective of achieving an end-to-end supply chain as we look toward complete integration for our customers and our suppliers in the future,” Sidney says.
With SAP software as the ERP platform of choice, the project team had to then determine which SAP components to license for its implementation. Following discussions with SAP senior management to gain clearer understanding of the options and assistance that would be available, Bristow decided to become an early adopter of SAP Business Suite powered by SAP HANA. “By implementing SAP Business Suite powered by SAP HANA, we won’t have to disrupt operations and spend lots of money to perform a major future upgrade to our business suite,” Sidney says. “And we are now well positioned for any new SAP developments, such as the recent announcement to simplify the database structure, as well as future planned advancements in mobility and BI capabilities. We can adopt new technology more quickly and innovate much faster if we are already on the latest platform and aligned with SAP’s future direction. Also, being a relatively ‘small fish in the big SAP pond,’ early adopter status allows us to have substantial access to the key skills and knowledge inside of SAP and access to its innovation forums where we can learn and potentially influence future direction.” Additionally, simplifying and consolidating the IT landscape onto a single platform — combining transactions and analytics into one system to allow business users to run advanced reporting directly against the transactional system — was a big attraction for Bristow, as it bought time to address longer-term business warehouse and BI needs.

Finalizing the Flight Plan

To help ensure a successful global implementation, Bristow used its systems integrator to assist with the project, including setting up the program office, running blueprint workshops, managing the realization phase, cutover, and go-live, as well as providing post go-live and now steady state support. Bristow also brought in staff with strong SAP experience who could work with the system integrator and direct the program. The project team was organized as a three-way collaboration for each business process area — the business process owner for supply chain, for example, was matched with a functional lead from the IT organization and a functional lead from the systems integrator. This structure, mirrored for each process area, enabled accountability and ongoing awareness of process-specific considerations during the implementation. 
As a result of the blueprinting phase, nearly all digital business processes were looked at. In finance, the team created an entirely new data structure and chart of accounts. It took advantage of the opportunity to redesign the cost center and profit center structures, as well as specifying the new approach to key financial business processes. In the past, some processes were completed “off-system” and the new design was able to bring these into the SAP system.

For example, inventory valuations, which because of the complications surrounding Bristow-owned versus consignment stock, previously involved considerable work to be performed in spreadsheets before reporting, and that manual process has now been eliminated.
The team also worked very hard on minimizing customization to ensure the application’s ease of upgrade and flexibility down the road, and its efforts proved successful. Out of thousands of objects in the implementation, only 237 customizations (RICEFW objects) were included in the production go-live system, and only 73 of these fell into the enhancement of transactions category. Sidney attributes this success to having a senior management team (including the CEO and the Board of Directors) and an IT team that truly understand and recognize the long-term implications of too much customization.

A company goal is to provide the safest and most reliable service to clients around the world, and Bristow’s industry-leading safety program, Target Zero, has created a culture of safety. Bristow is paving the way to advance current industry safety indicators by employing enhanced risk mitigation strategies to improve safety performance. Bristow is also instrumental in the formation of HeliOffshore, a new industry-wide collaboration effort to improve safety best practices and encourage common flight standards.

Taking Off with SAP HANA

On October 12, 2014, Bristow completed the project and went live globally with its initial release of SAP Business Suite powered by SAP HANA that supported global operations for finance and supply chain. Now five months after go-live, Bristow is working through the normal post go-live data management, business process change, and reporting issues. Some positive feedback is already coming in. “Employees have said they see more traceability and can find things more easily and can now drill down from the financial entry all the way back to the source document, which improves the analysis and auditability of the transaction,” says Sidney. “They particularly like the improved global accounts payable system processes; we used to approve invoices by signing a piece of paper and moving the paper around, but now we have a global workflow with visibility into where invoices are in the system and electronic approval, which helps with compliance and our financial reporting.” Finance also now has the ability to run financial reports across all company codes from a single integrated system with faster report output and data analysis, and the speed of financial reporting has increased using SAP HANA.

Within the supply chain, on a recent visit to Bristow’s largest operating base in Aberdeen, Scotland, the warehouseman responsible for processing the returns of high value unserviceable aircraft equipment stated that the SAP software has undoubtedly improved his ability to move the material back to vendors more rapidly by minimizing steps in the former process, resulting in quicker turnaround times for necessary repairs. From a security and compliance perspective, the single sign-on to the SAP system, role-based access controls, workflow for electronic approvals, and real-time segregation of duties exception management have been big winners with Bristow’s corporate audit and compliance teams and consistent with the operational excellence goals to introduce more automated controls.
Bristow is also seeing benefits on the IT side. “A simplified infrastructure platform has reduced database and other infrastructure management considerably, we no longer have a database administrator, and our post go-live system performance issues were non-existent,” Sidney says. “We have seen considerable improvements in performance for both analytics and transactions. For example, materials resource planning runs, purchasing report generation, and delivery due list reports run very fast, and we have effectively eliminated the immediate need for a reporting data warehouse solution because we can run reports against the transaction system in real time.”
The transformation project has also led to conversations with key suppliers about current and future possibilities for integration. “We are definitely on a journey to become more integrated from a business-to-business commerce perspective, and there is a lot of common understanding as to what we could achieve,” says Sidney. “For example, we can now initiate purchase orders electronically within our SAP application that flow directly to our helicopter and engine suppliers using SAP Process Integration. In the future, we see the potential to electronically receive, directly from our suppliers’ SAP systems, the ‘as delivered’ aircraft configuration when we buy an aircraft and avoid re-entering the data. We also see a future where maintenance programs, technical directives, service bulletins, and many other data types will arrive electronically and flow directly into the SAP system for use. These flows are in their early days and more time is needed, but we now have the potential to realize such a future.”
As with any digital transformation, Bristow’s move to its new application was not without a few bumps in the road. For example, when the business went live with the application, it had 16,000 open purchase orders born in the legacy systems that needed to be migrated into the new application and finish there. “We had some difficulty with the migration because many purchase orders from the legacy systems had errors in them, which meant we couldn’t receive goods against them and clear invoices because of the strict SAP data and process requirements,” says Sidney. “There is a learning curve, and we are spending time working through each issue and closing everything out. We are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ready to Soar

One relatively unique aspect of the project, which Sidney says was a big plus and helped to ensure the success of the implementation, was the deliberate decision to use the term “readiness” instead of the buzzword “change management.”
“We identified three different components of readiness: getting the infrastructure ready, getting the application and processes ready to support the business, and getting the business ready to accept the new application and processes,” describes Sidney. “Each business unit was charged with setting up a readiness team. The project team met with each of these business unit teams to go through a very comprehensive readiness assessment process, which included reviewing a scorecard together to assess the status of the three components of business readiness for their respective business unit.”
According to Sidney, business readiness is similar to change management in that it involves engaging and communicating with all stakeholders, training users, and ensuring an understanding of the new roles and processes. “But the whole concept of readiness seems to put people in a more positive framework, rather than a negative one of change — because people generally do not like change and often resist it,” he says.
It is widely acknowledged that getting a business ready is the hardest part of an SAP implementation, particularly a global and transformational one. No matter how much effort is spent on getting ready, there is always lots to do after a go-live relative to data and processes. Sidney says, “This is where we are now, and thankfully we have had very few problems with the SAP and SAP HANA infrastructure.” 
But change is inevitable and is what has helped Bristow reach new heights with its new business suite. “This application will enable us to grow, simplify, and reinvent our business processes, increase visibility, reduce risk, and at the same time, enable innovation to be rapidly deployed,” Sidney says. “Our company goal, over the next five years, is to grow more than double from where we are now, and digital transformations such as this will help get us there. The SAP implementation was a key stepping stone — a prerequisite actually — for many of the operational transformational steps we want to take in the future to achieve true global operations and global excellence. And this effort has not and will not be achieved alone: I’d like to acknowledge SAP’s account management, aviation team, and its customer office and ambassador program; Bristow’s IT teams, senior management and business process owners; as well as partners in our success as it was truly a team effort.”
The next steps for Bristow, planned over the next several years, are to complete the second and third major releases of capabilities adding value to SAP Business Suite powered by SAP HANA, which will include Fixed Assets, MRO, and improvements in Bristow’s order-to-cash process through tighter SAP integration with Bristow’s flight operations systems. Sidney says, “Although the immediate need for a business warehouse has been reduced because of SAP HANA, we plan to expand the platform to support business intelligence so that data from the SAP system, flight operations, HR, and safety can combine in ways to drive safety and business performance improvements.”
There is interest to investigate new use cases for SAP HANA to help with aircraft health data analytics that may ultimately lead to improvements in predictive maintenance. At the same time, the business plans to continue to embrace SAP’s direction and innovation by adopting the SAP Business Suite 4 SAP HANA (SAP S/4HANA) application platform (slated for 2015), and investigate the potential to run SAP software as a cloud service in the future. This early adoption is a testament to Bristow’s commitment to its digital transformation and the role SAP HANA plays in that journey.

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