Petro-Canada pumps supply chain data through AX

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – Two Canadian companies say they have saved money by adopting a Microsoft product that promotes user-friendliness through mimicking popular interfaces like Office and Outlook.

Microsoft Dynamics AX, formerly known as Axapta, is being positioned by Microsoft as a sort of everyman enterprise management tool to provide information about supply chain, customers and financials. It presents this information via other products like Microsoft Word and Excel or through a customizable interface that’s reminiscent of those and other Microsoft applications.

Petro-Canada completed its rollout of AX version 3 earlier this year. Seven hundred retail locations received the software, replacing what the company’s manager of IT strategy and support Ken McLaughlin called “a bit of a hodge-podge” of three different applications – a mix of off-the-shelf and custom-built modules, which were hard to use and even harder to maintain.

Ease of use was important for McLaughlin. Employee turnover is high in retail, so software training is best kept to a minimum to avoid unnecessary time and expense, he said.

The AX interface has been “dumbed down” to make it more intuitive, he said. “Our store managers are not accountants.”

It used to take up to 20 days for locations to file their monthly profit and loss statements to head office, said McLaughlin. Now it takes less than seven days – often just two or three.

The software is integrated into Petro-Canada’s existing point-of-sale solution via Microsoft BizTalk. Financials and inventory information are batch-collected overnight. The software also feeds into Petro-Canada’s SAP ERP system at its headquarters in Calgary.

“If need be, I could tell how many Oh Henry chocolate bars the store down the street has at any given moment,” said McLaughlin.

It took approximately five months to test the software and another five months to roll it out, he said. About 80 per cent of it worked out of the box; the rest had to be customized to fit the company’s particular retail needs like special promotional offers and its Petro-Points loyalty card.

“We needed a system that was flexible enough . . . to handle changes to our business,” he said. Collectively the Petro-Canada retailers process 1.5 million transactions a day.

Canadian General Tower, which makes vinyl products like swimming pool liners and car seats, also adopted AX to improve its flexibility. Like Petro-Canada, General Tower opted to replace several older applications with a suite that was easier to use.

The situation was dire, according to vice-president of corporate systems Tim Armstrong. “I joined General Tire about two years ago,” he said, “and it was like walking into a time warp.” The company employed three full-time COBOL programmers to keep its legacy applications up and running. “It was a scary environment.”

Armstrong said the IT department was able to “hold to company hostage” since they alone possessed the knowledge to keep the company’s systems alive. By moving to AX, General Tower was able to simplify these processes, he said, and reduce its IT staff.

The software has been deployed from the CEO’s office down to the shop floor, said Armstrong, and has been received well by users, many of whom are close to retirement age.

“They’re not afraid of it because it looks like the Office environment they’re used to,” he said.

The software is easy to use and install, but that can be a double-edged sword, he cautioned. “You can get trapped in modifying it too quickly. Don’t get trapped in the customization game.”

General Tower hasn’t finished rolling out AX yet, but Armstrong estimates it will save about $3 million a year by using the software. Help desk calls have already been reduced from 30 or more a day to two a month.

“We run our business on the theory of constraints. I don’t think I could do that with any other software.”

Microsoft released version 4 of Dynamics AX in June. The software is more customizable than its predecessor, said general manager of marketing James Utzschneider, and is available in 61 different desktop configurations based on the role of the end user. Version 4.1 will be available next year and will look more like Microsoft’s Office 2007/Vista products, which will be launched later this month.

Both McLaughlin and Armstrong said they would be interested in upgrading to version 4, particularly to take advantage of its advanced reporting capabilities.


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