Rooted in Data, Business Blooms
Metrolina Greenhouses integrates ERP and customized, industry-specific tools to improve order, shipping and billing management.
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Ever wonder how all those plants you see in Walmart, Lowe's, and Home Depot get there? Metrolina Greenhouses thinks about that every day, and even more during the peak months of March, April, and May when approximately 1,000 trucks leave its facilities every week to fill orders at big-box stores along the U.S. East Coast.
Software tools from Practical Software Solutions has made that job easier and helped Metrolina Greenhouses improve order processing, grow sales, and realize 99.98-percent billing accuracy.
A Budding Business
Family-run Metrolina Greenhouses is rooted in humble beginnings. In 1972, Tom and Vickie VanWingerden, immigrants from the Netherlands, moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, with their family, and soon after rented a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse. When business picked up, the VanWingerdens bought a small tract of land in 1973 in Huntersville, North Carolina, where they sold Mother's Day plants and Christmas poinsettias to customers such as Woolworth and other local retailers.
Today, the company, now co-owned by the VanWingerden's four sons, operates 170 acres of heated greenhouse space, the equivalent of about 7 million square feet. And after acquiring another North Carolina greenhouse company five years ago, Metrolina Greenhouses has more than 15 million square feet of indoor and outdoor growing space.
The company grows about 70 million plant cuttings annually, and triple to quadruple that number from seeds. Sales have climbed to more than $200 million annually, says Art VanWingerden, CEO and head of operations.
In the busy spring season, about 1,000 tractor trailers weekly leave the company's Huntersville and York, North Carolina, locations and make their way around the East Coast, delivering plants and flowers to Metrolina's main customers—Home Depot, Lowe's, and Walmart.
"A high volume of product comes in and out, especially during our busy season," VanWingerden says. "And we have a lot of people on site." During the high season, there are upwards of 5,000 employees in total at all locations.
The way SKUs are identified, and how primary customers change their supply chain requirements, further complicate the business. This complexity weaves into the company's existing 1,000 or so SKUs.
"One of our main products is a six-pack of plants," VanWingerden explains. "Lowe's wants them broken down by variety, so we have 20 different SKUs just under that category. Next year, Lowe's wants them to be organized by color, which will probably make it closer to 100 SKUs."
Automate or Stagnate
With their father's words "automate or stagnate" echoing in their heads, the VanWingerden brothers have managed much of this growth and the related order, shipping, and billing work by integrating its Sage ERP platform with industry-specific tools developed by Practical Software Solutions, based in Concord, North Carolina.
Metrolina, which has been using the Sage ERP line since the early 1990s, was looking for more flexible options and horticulture-specific features that it could integrate across various departments.
In 2006, through a recommendation by its then-IT director, Metrolina's team met with Practical and embarked on an 18-month re-evaluation of its software systems. It upgraded to the Sage 500 ERP (formerly known as the Sage ERP Mas 500) and worked with Practical to develop what eventually became the Grower Vertical solution, a suite Practical sells to other greenhouses and related businesses in the horticultural industry. The customized features, along with the ERP backbone, link Metrolina's sales, receiving, accounts payables, inventory, and warehouse management.
In 2011, Metrolina heard that Young's Plant Farm in Alabama was working with Practical on Grower Vertical modifications. That renewed its interest in further automating parts of its operation. The new warehouse automation module helped the Alabama greenhouse company improve order fulfilment, UPC syncing, and shipping requirements from one of its big-box customers.
Metrolina sent a team to Alabama to see how the Grower Vertical add-on module, Scan by Cart, could help them resolve similar issues.
Shipping Accuracy in Bloom
The Scan by Cart module leverages data collected by RFID-powered handheld barcode readers, automates the shipping system, and generates shipping order information.
"The module gives users all the information they need about what products are going on which trucks," explains Dylan Fulk, a sales executive at Practical. "The barcode technology allows them to rebuild the sales order and automatically repopulate the ERP system. It generates shipping labels and documents, too.
"All of this improves shipping and delivery accuracy because they are scanning shipping labels and documents as the products are loaded onto the truck," he adds. "They have extremely accurate information in the system when the trucks leave."
Tracking what was going where and when, and managing the related billing process, were the biggest issues Metrolina addressed with Practical's Scan by Cart.
"The software has helped us make sure that what we send to the store is what's on the invoice," says VanWingerden. "We scan every cart before it goes out to make sure every store gets what it is supposed to get. Because we scan every shelf, we know that the billing we do is correct."
"Our orders are broken down into kits so it's easier to pull, but not all the kits are exactly alike all the time," explains Michael VanWingerden, Metrolina's co-owner and head of transportation and logistics. "We stage the orders after they are pulled, and we scan the front of the rack or cart. Then we scan each shelf. In a few seconds, we can verify how many plants are on each shelf and on the cart.
"We can see both what's on the sales order and what was scanned," he adds. "Sometimes we add or change something, but the scanning data lets us see that and match what's on the sales order with what is going on the truck. This is why our billing goes out 99.98-percent correct."
The scanning capabilities, which are integrated with ERP features, has sped up the outbound shipping and billing process; allowed the company to reallocate manpower and resources; improve workflow by seeing which routes and docks are ready for loading; and book more sales.
The company is also able to catch on-the-fly changes in product availability before the trucks are loaded. It's not uncommon in the greenhouse industry for product availability and inventory to shift as multiple orders are being pulled and inventory levels fluctuate.
Driver Time is Money
The RFID-enabled scanning, instantly updated data, and back-end financial settlement also has reduced the amount of time trucks spend delivering products. Truck drivers no longer have to spend 45 minutes to one hour at each stop counting what was dropped off, getting the proper signatures, and later, in Metrolina's back offices, reconciling what was ordered, delivered, and billed.
If between 200 and 300 trucks go out daily four times per week during the peak months, and each truck makes about three stops, the time that scanning accuracy saves multiplies quickly.
Though it's hard to quantify all the hard and soft savings, a noticeable difference has been the number of people involved in order processing. Where 52 people once handled this work, Metrolina now can process orders with about 30 people during the company's busiest times, Michael VanWingerden says.
"It was a continual nightmare before," says Michael VanWingerden of the tedious manual process previously in place. "The scanning has not only improved our billing, but it has also vastly improved our shipping accuracy rates. The whole process is so much faster from start to finish."
Plans to Flourish
To keep up with its growing business needs, Metrolina is planning to implement the latest Sage ERP upgrade, the X3, in the next year. To prepare for that leap, Metrolina and Practical have spent the past year examining how to make existing tools compatible.
"It's a large upgrade from the 500 to the X3; it's a full new implementation," Fulk says, adding that Practical's solutions will be ready to migrate when Metrolina brings the X3 online.
"Since it's still a Sage platform, the company will be familiar with many of the interfaces and it will be easier for them than starting from scratch," he adds. "But it is a large project. Anything that big takes time."
The companies have been conducting quarterly meetings for the past year to prepare for the next phase and get everyone aligned to the coming changes. Practical, which is also a Sage authorized partner, is adding new features to its tools to complement the ERP shift.
A main characteristic will be the development of mobile-based tools and ways for Metrolina and other growers to collect more real-time in-the-field data. "The X3 will be all web-based, which has allowed us to develop more mobile apps that will help growers better utilize their time out in the field," Fulk says. "We will have apps on their phones and tablets. That will be the biggest advantage."
For Metrolina, the latest changes in hardware and software are already delivering improvements. Upgraded long-range handheld devices, compatible with the new software features, allow Metrolina employees to scan from farther distances and hook up faster to the Wi-Fi network. Michael VanWingerden notes the devices are scanning 25 percent faster than last year.
Metrolina expects similar gains in other areas as new features sprout up.