ST. LOUIS -- A corporate acquisition that added 18% to the annual sales of Bunzl Distribution USA here brought with it a huge information systems challenge: integrating a variety of disparate computer systems to a common platform in a short span of time.
Bunzl's acquisition of the Grocery Supply Systems division of Unisource Worldwide, Berwyn, Pa., late last year involved converting numerous distribution centers, which had used computers operating on a variety of different systems, to Bunzl's own multiple-site computer network and uniform software system technology.
"The computer systems handle distribution functions at the warehouses, customer service, purchasing, sales and marketing as well as financial operations," said Ken Aull, director of management information systems at Bunzl, which offers a variety of store supplies to retailers around the country. "It's everything that has to do with running the key elements of our business."
Bunzl has mainframe-based systems at 10 data centers throughout the country, each supporting five to 11 remote warehouse distribution centers, as well as the headquarters here. All the regional data centers and corporate headquarters are connected via a high-speed communications network.
In contrast, at the 14 distribution centers that had been owned by Unisource, four different host computer platforms had been in use, said Aull. And at 35 other facilities where Unisource was not the owner but conducted business, systems for activities such as customer and inventory tracking were automated in some cases and manual in others.
Quick integration of this variety of computer systems was essential for Bunzl, which employs the same software in all its U.S. distribution centers.
"This is one of our major strengths," said Aull. Each distribution center "deals locally with customers, but we can consolidate orders or provide information on a national basis. This is why it's important for us to bring acquisitions in as rapidly as possible."
Consistency in its computer support systems is also crucial to Bunzl because it uses a variety of distribution methods, depending on customers' needs. "We can do warehouse delivery, direct-store-delivery or cross docking," Aull noted.
Bunzl also prefers to communicate, internally and with customers, using electronic data interchange wherever possible. "We do a tremendous amount of EDI," said Aull. "We use it for orders, invoices and advance ship notices."
The acquisition forced Bunzl to assess Unisource's customers' capabilities in the EDI area. "Typically, we'll sit down with the 'sending side' to get a feel for the data on their system, and then relate what they do to what we do.
"We want to know what data we can convert to electronic formats, especially in areas like costs, price and customer history," he added. "I'm averse to doing things manually."
In the case of this acquisition, there was a sharp difference between the 14 Unisource-owned distribution centers and the 35 where the company conducted business. "At the 14 centers, about 90% of communications were done electronically, but at the others, only about 5% were done electronically," said Aull.
In addition, there were several different areas where Unisource's data-organization parameters did not match up with Bunzl's. "For example, some of the geographic areas didn't match up -- what we called the Northeast region might not agree with what they had, so we were feeding two different data sets," he said.
"The toughest areas were in basic item descriptions and vendors," Aull added. "There's always a question of whether [both parties] are really talking about the same items."
The conversion process had both a wide scope and a tight time frame. "We needed to bring a number of the facilities under the Bunzl umbrella, because some of them didn't have any information systems people or support," he noted. Aull has a 20-person IS staff at Bunzl.
The acquisition deal was completed in mid-October 1997, "and we converted a few locations on the first weekend after the deal was done," said Aull. The entire conversion process was completed by April, he added.
"As much as we pride ourselves on planning, with something this big you need to take planning to another level," he said. "There are so many variations coming out with this scenario -- there are a lot of common denominators but also a lot of different things that pop up."