Grower Vertical

This is an excerpt from the article Software Savvy from the October 2010 issue of Greenhouse Grower Magazine. Excerpt reprinted with permission by Meister Media, Inc.

Considering a Conversion?

Growers who have invested in new software solutions share the following bits of advice based on their experiences:

  • Be open minded about your current business processes and to improving them.
  • Don't force bad habits into a new system. Once the basics are mastered, the new way can be faster and better than the old way.
  • Put a lot of thought into the information you want to get out of the system.
  • Make sure you ask a lot of questions and talk to others who are using the system.
  • The learning curve may be steep at first, but becomes much easier after six months of use.
  • Take advantage of all the training that's available, and once you understand the system, follow up with more training.

Software Savvy

More growers are streamlining business functions while integrating production planning with software solutions.

By Delilah Onofrey
Greenhouse Grower Magazine

While growers with simple operations are getting by using basic spreadsheets to document accounting functions and production plans, those with more employees making decisions as management teams have found they need to centralize access to vital information for daily business functions, as well as planning.

The past five years, we've seen growers moving toward comprehensive Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems and consolidating all business operations into a uniform computing platform. Information flows from plant orders generated by the sales department, which generates a production schedule, reserves space in the greenhouse and orders the inputs needed to produce those plants. The systems can be designed to interface with vendors, customers and contract growers.

ERP systems debuted 20 years ago in manufacturing indus-tries as an extension of Material Requirements Planning/Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP). But these systems designed for manufacturing do not mesh well with horticultural enterprises. For instance, if you produce a widget in March, the timing is the same if you produce it in April or May. Not so for living plants in the greenhouse world. And while a hard goods manufacturer can run extra shifts to meet unexpected orders, plants can't be produced fast enough to meet an order that ships in two weeks.

Pioneering growers have partnered with software developers to tailor these programs to meet their needs and offer them to other growers. The newest on the market is the Sage ERP MAS 500 Grower Vertical developed by Sage and enhanced by Practical Software Solutions with Metrolina Greenhouses in North Carolina.

At its core, the MAS 500 is all about managing business, says Greg Lafferty of Practical Software Solutions. Some problems growers have are not unlike other industries — managing inventory, buying in raw materials and production plans. We had to tweak the core tools for the uniqueness of grow times, machine capacities, carts, shelves and the needs of big box retailers.

Working with growers, Practical Software Solutions observed:

  • Systems are disjointed. The financials are in a different system than the sales, inventory and production information, which is kept on paper or in Excel. Running a business with older, disjointed systems frequently results in inaccurate or delayed information.
  • Getting the information out of these systems or doing simple reports is too complicated because these systems are not fully integrated or implemented.
  • The current state of these systems has hampered industry growth and has limited growers' abilities to be competitive in the marketplace.

The goal of the Sage ERP MAS 500 is to provide a 360-degree view of the business. Features include: real-time replenishment support; mass-change of sales orders and work orders; logistics interface to plan delivery routes and drop sequences; electronic data interchange support; cart analysis; ISO week grow cycles; facility capacity planning and item attributes (genus, color, variety, pot size, etc.).

Another advantage is being part of the Sage family. Based in the United Kingdom, Sage is a $2 billion, publicly traded software development company. Sage ERP MAS 500 has more than 5,000 installations in the North America. We're underpinned by a large organization and big support dollars, Lafferty says. It's so much more expensive for a small software company to keep up with changes. If the government changes the 1099 form, Sage makes those changes. We focus on the needs of growers, not underlying technology or regulations.

Lafferty acknowledges the system is not for everyone. Our typical customer has $15 million in revenue. A $1-2 million business is not a good fit. The last thing we want is a company running a system that's too big for them.

Bryan Young of Young's Plant Farm in Alabama led his organization's conversion to the Sage ERP MAS 500 system a year ago. Ranked at No. 48 on our Top 100 Growers, Young's decided to upgrade because, We had an increasing level of detail in the company we needed to keep up with, for instance, UPC codes by variety and by color and the order-entry piece, he says. It's a challenge to manage that many items. It helped us get a lot more organized. Before, we were still using Excel spreadsheets and it was hard for all the management positions to be on the same page. Now everybody knows instantaneously and can get on the same page earlier.

Retrieving information is so much more efficient, he adds. Little details that used to take an hour to look up and figure out, we can find within a couple of minutes now.

Another benefit is accuracy during shipping. We scan all our orders when we load the trucks, Young says. Before, we had a lot of errors and substitutions due to not getting the paperwork right. Now we scan as we load the truck and know exactly what ships.