The following case study/profile was originally published by BI Review. For similar industry implementations and profiles please visit BI Review's Web site.

Cooperative farming is a centuries-old practice built on the idea of farmers pooling resources to create markets and manage costs for supplies and services. Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC) arose in 1936 as an aggregation of small farming co-ops and soon developed a plant in Decatur to provide fertilizer to regional farmers at a steady price. Over the years, AFC built storage facilities for fertilizer and later expanded into feed production and farm machinery parts and supplies. By the 1960s, merchandising was added for various farm, home and other goods. Today, AFC boasts 90 outlets serving 47 member associations, stocks about 10,000 SKUs and is anything but a rustic hitching post. With 2,300 employees and sales of $300 million, AFC is among the larger farmer owned, agriculture-related businesses in the U.S.

Technology had never been an afterthought at AFC; Chief Information Officer Wayne Holt had long been hard at work trying to provide consolidated reporting and manage inventory visibility across the co-op's network of outlets. "In the past we'd sit there and generate reports, pull the data off the system and give it to the users in some format which cost us development time or whatever," says Holt. The initial inventory management consisted of a hosted Web-based catalog that faced sales and product managers. "We had inventory information available but it was not working well, there were problems keeping it up to date with the Web site provider and maintaining the catalog was a nightmare as opposed to what we've deployed now," Holt says.

What AFC deploys now is a textbook example of information productivity for a small to medium-sized business: a whole series of managed, Web-based applications based on a common interface that addresses multiple information roles and requests. The interface chosen was QlikView, from Sweden-based QlikTech, an easy to configure and lightweight tool that sits on any information repository. The staffing requirement was filled by a single recent undergraduate from Auburn. She was tasked by Holt to develop a variety of applications for financial reporting at AFC. "She has put probably a dozen nice apps together for us since then, she just walked in and did this with an accounting degree, no IT background," Holt says.

Web-based financial applications at AFC allow analysis of the ongoing business, look at trend analysis regarding net worth or working capital. Holt has net sales, days AR, inventory, profit margins etc. all available in a dashboard display. "We're also able to track debt from various banks and lending institutions," easing credit applications and accounting for cash flows.

On the non-financial product side of the business, a revamped online catalog /inventory application now provides pictures and support documents for about 3000 of AFC's SKUs. Users can search the list, pull up a diagram or picture along with parts, warranty and other documents in Excel spreadsheets. The same screen updates inventory availability every two hours based on Microsoft Dynamic SL. The data is linked across all of AFC's retail outlets each night so that stock-outs can be managed by "borrowing" inventory from nearby stores.

QlikView is the actual presentation layer used in house and at the retail outlets, and is available on the Web for sales managers and product managers as well. Holt says AFC became aware of the product at a Gartner conference, bought a 10-seat license about a year ago but did very little with it until recently. Most of the applications mentioned above were delivered in the last four months. "IT endorsed it, but now that the business side has seen what it can do they're now asking for apps and using QlikView more and more," Holt says.

Productivity and rapid availability of data are the primary benefits at AFC according to Holt. A great deal of analysis still needs to be done on the retail side. The next project is to pull point-of-sale (POS) data from all 90 retail stores each night and "do a tremendous amount of analysis to bring it down to their customer level, who they're selling what to," in Holt's words. "We have a manager services group responsible to the stores and we'll work with them to develop this also show them how they compare to neighboring stores." Holt expects the application will lead and motivate store managers to watch data more closely and intercede in shorter time frames.

Overall, Holt testifies that QlikTech helped AFC address long-term issues in a short amount of time and expects that progress to extend well into the future. "We have 10 licenses now but I can see it growing," he says. "We got good answers at that conference and like the product."

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