Privately owned Australian freight-forwarding and warehouse outfit Northline has warehouses in 11 cities from Perth in the west to the eastern capitals, and covers hundreds of thousands of kilometres every week. Customers in sectors as diverse as mining and perishable foods depend on their orders arriving on time and intact, and increasingly expect to be able to track the progress and status of their goods.
But Northline decided to take the idea one step further. Working with Bendigo-based software vendor Global, Northline has implemented a web-based stock-tracking and inventory management system that has in effect become a back-office data management suite for some of its largest customers.
Northline's chief financial officer, Craige Whitton, has been in charge of the project since coming into the role in 2004."We wanted to simplify the tracking and inventory process for them [our clients]," he says. They input their costs and pricings, and we run everything from their stock management to batch controls."
Yet Northline never set out to become an IT supplier. The original idea was to divest itself of IT management generally and focus on its core business.
"We are in the business of freight transport and warehousing, but the web-based inventory management and tracking system has become an important part of that service," Whitton says. "But it doesn't involve owning and running software or hardware ourselves."
One of Whitton's first decisions was to replace the company's ageing IT infrastructure with an outsourced arrangement. Already working in partnership with Global, Northline was running highly customised inventory management and freight-tracking software on a mixed in-house server farm.
"We knew that for the software to be effective, we would have to standardise and change over to an SQL platform," Whitton says."So at the same time as we changed the underlying software, we consolidated the hardware and outsourced the entire system to ExpressApps."
Northline also cut a deal with Optus to create a stable and fully redundant internet protocol network - an IP back-up - to ensure the company was able to access its externally hosted data.
"We don't have a huge team of internal IT staff to manage an internal server farm," Whitton says. "But before we switched our systems over, we had to ensure the connections would work."
Having divested itself of the hardware, Northline's internal IT team was able to focus its energies on determining the direction of the web-based software.
"We've had three or four people working on this whole data consolidation project for a number of years now, but Global builds the modules according to our specifications," Whitton says. "We provide them with the operational design, and they come back with a product for testing."
Whitton says Northline opted for a highly customised approach over off-the-shelf enterprise management tools, in order to provide both internal systems and customers with a greater degree of flexibility.
The result was web-based interfaces for its Freightrack and Storepro inventory management and tracking systems.
"We didn't want to base our systems around the requirements of the software vendor, we wanted the software to accommodate what we, and our customers, are already doing," Whitton says.
By the close of 2006, Northline had relaunched its Freightrack system, with the Webfreight front-end, enabling internal staff and external customers to follow goods all the way from pick-up through to delivery and invoicing. The company's warehousing was similarly covered by the Storepro system, which provided a full inventory management solution for Northline customers via a new web-based interface dubbed Webstore.
"Migrating data was a consideration with the freight tracking and inventory management tools, but we effectively started with a clean slate for the CRM [customer relationship management] module," Whitton says. "It was just a way to provide our sales and client services staff with access to the internal data."
Within eight months of its launch, 20 per cent of the company's customer base were logging on and using the service to manage their own inventory and their transport requirements. Internally the system has streamlined the company's operations, eliminated duplication and improved productivity.
"The web-based inventory management is now part of our service to our customers. We don't charge any extra for it, but it takes a significant cost out of their business," Whitton says. "As a result we're putting on more staff, because the online service is winning us more business."
Whitton is now considering further integrating Northline's financial data into the suite and also plans to extend the freight-tracking service to the company's international operations by the end of 2008.
"Now that we've shown it can work in Australia, we're going to take the project into our international operations and make it work in the rest of the world," he says.
Flexibility breeds staff efficiency
While his work can be frenetic and fascinating, Craige Whitton says one of the main attractions of the web-based technology he has helped develop for Northline is that it lets him spend more time with his family.
"After dinner I often log on from home and keep on working until about 11pm, but then I can get up the next morning and take my 5-year-old to school," he says.
"Spending time with my kids and my wife Justine is everything to me, it's my No. 1 priority."
With two young daughters, and another child on the way, Whitton appreciates the flexibility Northline allows its staff, especially when it comes to balancing work and family. Having lasted more than 21/2 years without a single industrial dispute, it is proud of its industrial relations record; senior managers attribute this largely to the open communication it has with staff at all levels.
"It is still a family-owned company; there are about 400 staff, but it's still got that family feel," Whitton says. "So long as you can get the outcome, it doesn't really matter where you are, or how you manage your time."
So after 5pm during the week, and on weekends, Whitton is just as likely to be found negotiating toddler swimming lessons, cleaning up after a finger-painting frenzy or gardening with his two daughters, despite his highly challenging executive role.
"Again it all comes down to time management and making it work. I'm not any different to anyone else - supporting workers and their families is an attitude which permeates the whole company.
"It's a juggle, but it helps to know you have the support of the company to get the outcome in the times that work for you, and create that balance."
Australian Financial Review
© Fairfax Business Media
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.