For nearly 50 years, UK-based Hillarys Blinds has been manufacturing and selling made-to-order window coverings, giving it a head start on a growing business trend — consumer demand for customized products and personalized service.
Each week, a network of more than 1,000 Hillarys design consultants, who are called advisors, make more than 10,000 visits to customers throughout Great Britain and Ireland to provide free consultation services and guide homeowners through their interior décor decisions. When a customer makes a purchase from an advisor, the order is custom-made to the client’s precise specifications, and that same advisor then returns to supervise the installation.
The vast number of options that can be combined for any one order is one of the reasons Hillarys turned to SAP nearly 20 years ago, when it was a much smaller company bringing in roughly a third of the $250 million in revenue that the group generates today.
“Every product is different, and so there are no stock-keeping units (SKUs),” says Julian Bond, Head of Information, Communication, and Technology at Hillarys. “That’s what primarily brought us to SAP, because we needed an ERP solution that could help us manage the complexity of transacting so many unique products each week.”
Size, color, and material barely scratch the surface for options. Advisors, armed with expert product knowledge, guide customers through an array of choices. Will a roller blind have eyelets? Braiding? What about the shape? The chain? Where is the control mechanism?
“There are roughly two million size permutations and perhaps another half million different combinations of fabric color options and all of the accessories, so you put those numbers together and you begin to understand what’s required for our systems to take an order for a unique product, manufacture it, and then supply it to the customer,” Bond says.
Business and customer needs have changed significantly over the past 20 years, however, and like most companies, Hillarys found itself needing to adapt to these changes.
The fact that heavy, mustard-colored, pleated drapes were the height of window treatment fashion when Hillarys went into business in 1971 proves that preferences change over time, and so too must businesses. Standing pat with an aging infrastructure makes it increasingly difficult to innovate, to capture opportunities for growth, and to satisfy ever-changing customer expectations.
By 2015, Hillarys reached an inflection point. After running SAP ERP 5.0 for many years, the company recognized that an upgrade was a necessity. Limited support for some SAP components was beginning to take a toll, and waiting any longer would run the risk of reaching end-of-maintenance for SAP ERP 5.0, which would then almost certainly force the company’s hand.
By upgrading to the latest version of SAP Business Suite and moving this onto SAP’s in-memory database SAP HANA, Hillarys could achieve multiple goals. From an architecture standpoint, the move would give the company greater flexibility for the future direction of its infrastructure, enabling it to easily transition to the later incarnation of SAP S/4HANA that became available during the course of its upgrade project. From the functionality side, an upgrade would translate to enhanced performance, access to newer technologies, and a chance to remodel business processes to the customer’s benefit.
“Many newer capabilities started to depend on being on the latest release and having SAP HANA, and that was a big driver for us,” says Bond. “We saw that a lot of strategic projects would rely on the performance of the in-memory SAP HANA platform.”
Those projects included making significant improvements to customer relationship management (CRM) processes, augmenting web service integration, building out a more robust ecommerce platform, enhancing existing mobile applications, and exploring SAP Fiori application development — all of which would be best served by SAP HANA.
“We had known for five or six years that we needed to upgrade,” Bond says. “It was a building crescendo, and the growing realization that finally tipped us over the line was that this pile of projects would be accomplished so much better in an SAP S/4HANA world.”
In August 2015, Hillarys kicked off an on-premise implementation of SAP Business Suite on SAP HANA, moving everything off of a non-SAP database and onto SAP HANA and upgrading to the very latest of each SAP component — SAP ERP, SAP Customer Relationship Management (SAP CRM) and SAP Business Warehouse (SAP BW). The company went live with the implementation in February 2016.
We had known for five or six years that we needed to upgrade. It was a building crescendo, and the growing realization that finally tipped us over the line was that this pile of projects would be accomplished so much better in an SAP S/4HANA world.
— Julian Bond, Head of Information, Communication, and Technology, Hillarys Blinds
Framing the View
A primary reason that Hillarys made the decision to stay with an on-premise deployment rather than transition to the cloud, according to Bond, is because of the extensive existing integrations with its other internal applications and with external vendors. “The integrations that we have are the bedrock of our business, and we weren’t ready for the change, especially at the same time as a major system upgrade,” Bond says.
Another reason for staying on premise was that the company decided to take a wait-and-see approach when it came to placing mission-critical systems in a public cloud. While Hillarys already makes extensive use of private cloud infrastructure, in the end, it was not ready for a public cloud deployment. “From a business management point of view, that seems to be the right balance of risk versus reward at the point that we needed to make the decision,” says Bond. “As public cloud matures and becomes more price competitive over the next few years, I am sure that the balance will shift.”
The decision to keep its system of record on premise was not without its challenges, however — Hillarys had to essentially change its entire technology stack. To support this change, the company started preparing early on, including training its in-house IT department on the finer details of the migration, which included attending SAP technical academies. “Investing very early on in that education yielded tangible benefits,” says Bond. “We also had the licensing conversation with SAP well in advance of starting the process or committing to the upgrade.”
For the implementation itself, rather than taking a greenfield approach, Hillarys opted to cut over to the new system using the database migration option (DMO), in which it migrated the production system to SAP Business Suite running on SAP HANA in one step. The company had trial runs for both approaches, according to Bond, and landed on DMO for the speed advantage. With this option, the company essentially rolled two projects into one.
“It’s a great option, but it’s certainly not foolproof. You definitely need to undertake extensive rehearsals. We had two significant issues that took some time to fix. One related to one large table that DMO struggled to migrate, and the other related to a low-level filesystem issue. So we weren’t able to migrate all of our SAP Business Suite components to SAP HANA by the original plan of December 2015, but comfortably completed within the timeframe that the business had set,” Bond says. “We’re a fast-changing business that can’t really afford a long change freeze; the six-month project length was a manageable time frame.”
Bond credits a cloud-based enterprise software testing partner with saving the organization a significant amount of time. This testing software automatically simulated Hillarys’ transactions and code on an upgraded system, identifying where development and testing effort was most needed as well as recommending what changes needed to be completed. “We were able to dramatically reduce the amount of testing we needed and the amount of changes,” Bond says. “It saved an inordinate amount of time that would have otherwise been spent working through testing all of our custom code.”
The rapid implementation also helped Hillarys save time during the post-migration period — compared to the last major upgrade, when the company moved to SAP ERP 5.0, Bond says the post-project ‘hypercare’ shrunk from six months to less than three weeks. Condensing the stabilization period paid dividends for the business, helping it to become acclimatized to the change quicker. “We survived a change in our entire technology stack without the risk, trauma, or disruption that the business has come to expect from migrations and upgrades of this size,” says Bond. “From that perspective, the business sees this as a real success.” The fact that the upgrade project won an SAP Quality Award seems to confirm that view.
Letting in the Light
From a functional standpoint, benefits are noticeable throughout the business. A government-required statistics report that previously took 20 minutes to run now takes just a few seconds. Business warehouse batch runs that failed to complete in the overnight window are now shorter by at least half. And one of the most valuable improvements experienced by Hillarys is the enhancements SAP HANA has brought to the organization’s CRM processes, which are so important to the company’s mission that it targeted CRM as a test case for the power of SAP HANA even before project completion.
According to Bond, calls to customer service often caused frustration for agents who scrambled to locate customer information while a customer was on the line. That, he says, is no longer the case. “The benefits to the contact center were unforgettable,” he says. “People who had worked with CRM for years were logging on for their first inquiries with the system and exclaiming how fast it was. Suddenly they had transformational speed. And once you get that, everything you tried to work around now changes, and the customer experience is quite radically different.”
To further enhance the customer experience, Bond says that the company is actively developing SAP Fiori apps to extend mobile functionality, making it easier for customers to work with advisors in the design, ordering, and installation of their custom treatments and other décor choices.
“The fact is that now we’re on a secure, supported platform and are masters of our own destiny,” says Bond. “And now we’re looking at ways to exploit additional benefits to take advantage of the simplification that we’ve brought to the business.”