One of the biggest missing pieces in modern ERP? Industry (cloud) customer stories. Modernizing ERP systems is one way to push ahead with business transformation - but how do you pull it off?
What we need are the field lessons. What are the benefits? And what are the roadblocks?
When I had the chance to talk to Infor customer Portwest about their recent upgrade to Infor CloudSuite Fashion, "Cloud" means too many things these days. The term is watered down to the point of uselessness. But I agree with the use of "cloud" in this case: CloudSuite Fashion is a multi-tenant industry ERP solution. And how has it worked out for Portwest?
Soon, I was on video chat, across the pond with Paul Forry, who is Head of Information Technology at Portwest. Despite pandemic adversities, Portwest has good numbers to back up their moves: Portwest has grown at 24% per annum over the past two years. They currently manufacture and distribute more than 1,800 products and 35,000 SKUs, with facilities across the UK, US, Ireland, Poland, Dubai, Australia, Myanmar, China, Bangladesh, Italy, and Albania.
"We've moved just about everything to the cloud"
I knew Portwest had recently done an EDI integration with CloudSuite. But there was plenty more to learn. My top question? How does Forry explain the success of Portwest in such a challenging economy? He responded:
We've moved pretty much everything lock, stock and barrel to the cloud. All our systems, file servers, our basic web servers - we put everything on either AWS or some other localized web hosting system.
Portwest's international expansion has been crucial for growth. Forry continued:
When I joined ten years ago, we were very much a small, family-owned business. We were doing well, but we were mostly in the UK. Then we started to branch into Europe... Now, we're in every country in Europe. After that, we moved into the US and Australia. Now we're concentrating on the Middle East and North African markets - and South America as well.
Building their own factories was another key:
A decade ago, we were reliant on Chinese suppliers for nearly everything. But in the last ten years, we've also built our own two factories. They now account for 60% of our output.
I'm no clothing expert, but one thing jumped out at me from the Portwest web site: lots of handsome, heavy-duty workwear, along with a lot of flame-resistant gear, and PPE-compatible outfits.
Our CEO has two simple models. The first one is: keep it simple... He likes everything simple, and easy to manufacture, easy to get on the market. His other [mantra] is that he wants us to be the best PPE gear and company in the world, not necessarily the biggest, but the best - with the best attention to detail and quality of the product we actually sell. It's very important.
How is growth tied to IT modernization?
But none of this could happen without a parallel investment in IT. Forry:
I've been head of IT for about three years now (I've been with the company ten years). I suppose the main contribution that I've made in the last four years has been those moves to the cloud. Four years ago, there were only three of us in the entirety of the IT department in Portwest. Now, we split into two, the digital side and the IT side. There's about 16 of us in total between the two departments. That's the kind of growth that's needed to drive the company forward.
Portwest's 20-percent-a-year growth strategy means one thing: Forry and team must be on their game.
We've achieved that goal for each of the last ten years, and exceeded it in most cases. We needed better infrastructure, we needed better systems in the cloud; we needed a better ERP system... I've concentrated on making sure it was delivered.
Why multi-tenant ERP?
Now that Portwest is moving from older Infor releases to the multi-tenant CloudSuite, I get to grind an axe of my own: why multi-tenant ERP matters (some vendors are still in denial about this). So, I asked Forry: why the move? He told me:
We moved to single-tenant [ERP] in about 2013. From 2016 onwards, Infor has always dangled that carrot of multi-tenant in front of us. We resisted initially, but as the company grew, we [reconsidered].
One motivating factor? Forry explained: all the way back to their first ERP environment in 1999, they made an cost-of-goods configuration mistake, Over the years, they found some workarounds, "but it was messy," recalls Forry. Then it got worse:
As we grew and expanded, it did become a much bigger problem. When we were talking to Infor in 2018, we were wondering how we could correct this problem. It soon became clear that we were never going to be able to correct it with single tenant. But that we could correct it if we moved to multi-tenant, because we'd be taking our data out. We could use SQL to correct it, and then put it back in the multi-tenant environment.
But that wasn't the only factor behind the CloudSuite Fashion move:
The other driving force was that because we're on single-tenant, the version we were on was always going to be the version we were on. We would never be able to upgrade because we're on single-tenant, to the latest version.
In a fast-moving industry, access to new features is non-negotiable:
There were just so many more features available in multi-tenant that we needed to take advantage of, because of the way we were growing. So that was the second key thing.
When you make the ERP business case pitch, you need more than bug fixes. Access to new features sealed the deal:
That's what really sold it to the board of directors when we took the project to them, after several months of discussions with Infor. When I was able to demonstrate that we were going to be able to do all of this, that we weren't able to do up to now, that just made it so much easier.
What types of functionality sealed the deal?
Intercompany invoicing, moving away from a very unstable kind of stream server environment to use an IDM, and much more control over our documents, etc.
Forry's team also wanted access to CloudSuite's workflow automation (I've delved into Infor workflow automation before, see: Not your typical ERP upgrade story - how Midwest Wheel uses Infor CloudSuite to build workflows on the fly.). So, with those benefits in mind, and the business case approved, the project kicked off in November 2020. The project went live in September 2021. The timing was tight - if the project had spilled into the peak of Portwest's fall season, they would have had to postpone it for a year, but Forry's team got it done. And how did the go-live go?
In general, it was very successful. We had some issues initially in the beginning, you don't make a move or transition to a system like that without some issues. But thankfully, we have good people to help us, and support from Infor was excellent at the time. So we got through them relatively painlessly.
The wrap - Portwest's keys to a successful cloud ERP go-live
When I asked Forry for the key to a successful cloud ERP go-live, his answer didn't surprise:
The key to it for us was having the right people, the right partners, and testing, testing, testing, - and then more testing.
And how did they nail that testing down? By involving the business users and domain experts:
It was having people in each department who knew what they were doing, and knew what had to be tested. And: identifying those people and sitting down in a room with them, and coming up with a project plan, and what we were going to test, how we were going to test it, and how we were going to deal with any issues we came across.
Of Portwest's 4,500 employees, about 300 of them will actively use the new global CloudSuite system. So far, so good, says Forry.
When I evaluate a new ERP system, one of my gut checks is: how is it helping the business compete? We can't settle for back office efficiencies anymore. As Forry told Infor:
This move to multi-tenant Infor CloudSuite also helps us address issues in the movement of our stock, and forms a foundation for plans in the coming months to ensure standardized processes in our acquisition targets. We have aggressive plans to become a £1 billion company by 2025, and acquisitions and increasing our salesforce are going to be the main engines of that growth. We are also undertaking a deep examination of our customer profiles and looking at how we can diversify to sustain our double-digit growth. Infor CloudSuite will be at the heart of all of these initiatives.
If your ERP system is "at the heart" of your business initiatives, you've passed my move-beyond-the-back-office ERP test. And how is absorbing new product features going? After all, that was a key driver to all of this. Forry says he's glad to get the monthly rundown of what's coming down the line for CloudSuite fashion. He says that they haven't gotten into the new functionality yet, but they definitely will:
We're still in the infancy of multi-tenant, but yes, it is nice to know that we're always getting those updates, and those additional features.
Forry's team isn't stopping there. Plans for this year include integrating factories in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Portwest will also onboard an Albanian facility - part of a recent acquisition in Italy. A central goal: get a standard template in place across these facilities. After that, as Infor reports, Portwest will deploy integrated business intelligence and analytics, and begin the full automation of a UK warehouse.
Yes, that should keep Forry's team busy. We'll definitely look to get an update on this one.
Updated February 26, 2022, 9am UK time, with several tweaks and links for reading clarity - audio version also added.