Sobeys accentuates its SAP positives at Sapphire

Canadian grocery giant Sobeys Inc. shared lessons learned from its SAP implementation at the annual Sapphire user conference in Atlanta yesterday, but noticeably absent was any mention of the company’s at times rocky history with the German software company.

The grocer abandoned an SAP retail implementation in December 2000 after the system crashed, leaving many store shelves bare in the crucial pre-Christmas period and forcing Sobeys to take a $50 million write down on its earnings.

SAP was given a second chance though, and Sobeys successfully completed a regional SAP for Retail implementation in 2004. Sobeys was back at Sapphire this year as part of a panel on directions and challenges for food retailers, and rather than delve into past problems, Sobeys senior vice-president and CIO Clinton Keay said he’d rather “focus on the positives” in the company’s SAP history.

Also at the conference, SAP announced it has partnered with Hewlett-Packard to create a server appliance loaded with Duet software for working with Microsoft Office, and with Adobe for e-learning.

Sobeys has used SAP since 1996 for financials, later adding payroll, human resources and, of course, retail management.

Keay said Sobeys’ move to SAP was initially driven by Y2K compliance concerns; they had a lot of complex legacy systems that wouldn’t talk to each other, and many of the people that knew how to run the legacy systems had left the company.

“The key focus was around integration, and a single source of the truth,” said Keay, describing the situation pre-SAP. “There wasn’t a meeting that would go by where everybody had different numbers, it was very frustrating.”

Herb Kleinberger, a partner in retail distribution at IBM Business Consulting Services, said these are challenging times for traditional grocers like Sobeys, who are increasingly losing market share to new entrants like Wal-Mart and big box retailers like Costco, as well as dollar stores and corner groceries.

“The notion of the weekly stock up for your family has evaporated,” said Kleinberger. “They’re buying it more just in time, for family occasions.”

If the traditional grocers are going to compete Kleinberger said they’re going to have to play to their strengths, such as knowledge of the local market and customer insight, things that have been overlooked in the recent drive toward operational efficiency. Grocers will increasingly have to tailor their stock to the local market and develop multi-channel supply chains. And if they’re going to be successful at that, said Kleinberger, technology will play a key role.

These were some of the drivers that led Brookshire Grocery Co., a private regional food chain in the Southern U.S., to SAP. Gary Butler, Brookshire’s senior vice-president and CIO, said the company has been an SAP customer since 2003. They’re currently running the financials, payroll/human resources, point of sale and retail management applications, with upgrades underway.

“We had lots of data in our older systems but we couldn’t get the data out, we didn’t have any reporting. You had to call a programmer,” said Butler. “Our competition was innovative, and we were being held back (by our infrastructure).”

As he looks back on their SAP implementation, Butler said Brookshire really didn’t make a lot of mistakes. Key, he said, was selecting the best people in the organization to be a part of the project team and then dedicating them full time to the project.

“You can’t expect your people to be working on a project part time, it’s just not going to work,” said Butler. “You’ve got to dedicate them to the project.”

One lesson learned was around change management. Butler said at the start they really didn’t know what change management was, let alone its importance. As Brookshire completes the last phase of its implementation though there is now a dedicated change management team.

Another key, said Butler, is the integration partner. They need to be experienced, and they need to be willing to tell you when you’re wrong and gently steer you down the right path, he said.

Looking back on his SAP implementation, Sobeys’ Keay said among the lessons he learned was to get the right people on the project team, both internal staff and consultants. Also, change management is key; ensuring people know what is coming with the new system and how their jobs will be changing is crucial. He added it’s important not to put in a new software platform without the infrastructure to support it.

“We can’t forget technology is a really key enabler here,” said Keay. “You need to have a very strong infrastructure underneath to support the software.”

Keay said Sobeys is now very rich with data, and the exercise is leveraging the data to make business decisions. As a CIO though, Keay said another challenge is around consolidation, walking the tightrope between a vanilla implementation and a highly customized implementation. The fear, said Keay, is falling back into a legacy world.

“As we introduce more flexibility I need to ensure the integration remains an SAP responsibility and upgrades don’t become a lengthly challenge,” said Keay.

The server appliance, dubbed “Duet by SAP and Microsoft, powered by HP,” is an HP ProLiant server that has been pre-installed with Duet software, a joint solution from Microsoft and SAP that gives workers access to select SAP business processes and data through Microsoft Office applications.

The combo allows customers to create a “proof of concept,” enabling them to more quickly and easily evaluate Duet’s business benefits using customer-specific data. Pre-loaded scripts have been engineered to help customers to jumpstart the Duet proof-of-concept and production implementations, the companies said in a news release.

It is said to speed up deployment by shortening implementation time from setup to configuration, which both increases return on investment and enables customers to realize business benefits from Duet more quickly. The Duet appliance also can be expanded to include additional ProLiant or Integrity servers.

SAP and Adobe Systems also announced they are collaborating on a new product called SAP Enterprise Learning environment, designed to help companies drive continuous employee education more efficiently and cost effectively than with traditional in-person training.

SAP Enterprise Learning creates a learning environment through the combination of SAP Learning Solution with Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional – a customizable Web conferencing solution. SAP Enterprise Learning environment is scheduled for availability in the third quarter with the next enhancement package for SAP ERP.

The two companies have also entered into a global reseller agreement that allows SAP to market and sell Acrobat Connect Professional as a standalone solution for enterprise-class Web-conferencing and collaborative communication.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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