Purolator boosts business and customer outreach with online service

When you’re getting ready to ship that Christmas present to a relative across the country you might go to Purolator’s Web site and punch in two postal codes – yours and Uncle Bob’s, say – to get a shipping estimate and a list of available add-on services.

The tool makes sending a package a simple process, but its development was part of a larger project to transform the business of Canada’s largest courier company. Mississauga, Ont.-based Purolator Courier Ltd.

Purolator is witnessing the dramatic impact of its decision to shed its legacy IT systems in favour of new applications and a trimmer infrastructure that allows the courier company to offer more services and reach out to more customers. One key piece to that puzzle was Microsoft’s BizTalk Server 2006 R2.

The scope of the project was pretty big. An IT department overhaul, saw 40 applications reduced down to just three. The decade-old systems that were replaced had become staggering monstrosities of ad-hoc code – the billing system alone had thousands of Cobol modules, says Jim McDade, CIO of Purolator. Such archaic systems weren’t really meeting changing customer needs.

“Customers wanted new products and services,” he says. “We [sought to] harmonize what they wanted [multiple] points of contact.”

The courier moves a whopping 1.1 million packages a day and interacts with over 20,000 customers through various shipping channels. That includes the Web site, electronic data interchange (EDI) link-ups with businesses, desktop-based software, and face-to-face transactions.

Since going live with its online service in Sept. 2007, Purolator has boosted its volume by 20 per cent per day, says Laura Dobson, architectural advisor at Innovapost. The Mississauga-based company services the IT needs of both Purolator and Canada Post.

Dobson credits BizTalk, in part, for making her job easier.

“With this technology we were able to take a huge leap,” she says. “By the time we went live, we had reduced the risk so we weren’t talking about technology [anymore]. It was really looking at the online channel and how to move more volume than we did before.”

Microsoft’s integration server is a product that aims to help companies needing to exchange data between many different parties. This was the case with Purolator with its multiple sales channels that live both in the consumer space and business space. BizTalk acts as a compatibility layer that works out all of the differences between the way Purolator’s systems understand data, and the way its customers’ systems understand data.

A good metaphor for it is that of an interpreter brokering a dialogue between delegates all speaking different languages, says Chris Brakel, product manager for eBusiness at Microsoft Canada Co.

“The English language is like .Net – a highly adopted programming language around the world,” he says. “BizTalk works in that language, and it also understands the languages of many different servers.”

The software works through its various adaptors that can plug into the ERP system or CRM system that a company needs. Microsoft includes these adaptors so that BizTalk is ready to go out-of-the-box. It’s a cog in the larger machine of a service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach to IT.

Companies adopting SOA use words like “agility” and “flexibility” to describe what they’ll be able to accomplish it, and Purolator’s McDade is no different. What he means is that the service allows Purolator to make changes to the backend system to add new services or change existing ones, while the front-end system used by customers remains the same.

For example, the old system on Purolator’s Web site may have asked you for your postal code and Uncle Bob’s, but it really only calculated the fee and services available based on the regional area. Now it can take that same information and literally calculate it from postal code to postal code.

“In our old world, we had zoned pricing – we defined pricing based on the region you were in and the area you’re sending to,” McDade says. “What we do no is point to point pricing – every postal code in Canada to every other postal code in Canada and globally. We get much more sophisticated about coming up with good offerings for our customers now.”

Purolator may be one of the first large Canadian companies to adopt SOA as an IT model, according to Kevin Restivo, senior analyst with Toronto-based IDC Canada.

“It’s still early days in Canada for these SOA success stories,” he says. “Any kind of business that needs to ensure its data is accurate and wants faster processing times may want to consider SOA.”

But BizTalk in itself isn’t a broader solution that facilitates a business process transformation, he adds. It’s often the range of other complementary software deployed along with it that makes the system work.

Purolator also rolled out Microsoft’s Visual Studio Team System alongside BizTalk. The courier company is a member of Microsoft’s Technology Adoption Program (TAP).

That early adopter program meant excellent access to Microsoft’s team while the implementation was being done. It also allowed Purolator to give feedback and request specific features they needed, Dobson says.

“It gave us access to engineers, developers, to the point that we wanted to have something included in the program and enhanced for us, and that was actually included in the product before it was released,” she says.

Those enhancement made was a way to make setting up new customers easier for Purolator. Instead of multiple configurations, Dobson asked for a shared configuration that could be used by multiple customers.

The IT project was part of a larger effort to reposition Purolator as a business, McDade emphasizes. The company had its vice-president of marketing design the products it wanted to offer in future and the information systems were built to support that vision. Around 40 staff were dedicated to the re-shaping for about a year’s time. Customer focus groups were organized to tweak the final services offered.

The change over didn’t all come at once. In fact, it is still a work in progress. About 80 per cent of Purolator’s customers have been moved to the new BizTalk system and off of the old legacy systems. The switchover is slated to be completed by the end of first quarter 2009, after an 18-month implementation.

“We couldn’t go over big bang because of the nature of the changes we were making,” McDade says.

And that, IDC Canada’s Restivo says, is not unusual for an SOA transition. “[Such projects] are often done on a piecemeal basis. Many older organizations have a legacy codebase, and you don’t just throw that out the window.”

The Web site service has been covered, so you can count on that point-to-point service being available to you when you go to ship that present to Uncle Bob – even if you live in Tiny, Ont. and he lives in False Bay, B.C.

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