Fuller's revamps IT system

Brewer Fuller's is meeting new business challenges by revitalising its IT systems to reduce complexity and increase flexibility across the organisation

Hospitality group Fuller Smith & Turner is upgrading its technology systems to better address the business challenges faced by the UK brewing industry.

Fuller's sells a growing variety of wines, owns and manages about 160 pubs and has more than 200 pubs with tenants. It also has two large hotels and four smaller inns. The company has just reported record profits of £29m on sales of £178m.

Mid-sized brewers such as Fuller's face challenges that include changing customer tastes and habits, competition from well-funded overseas competitors, a declining market and government regulations.

At a technology level, Fuller's wants to reduce complexity, improve administration and responsiveness to changes in the market, as well as control costs. To this end the company is implementing virtualisation technology to imitate a mainframe environment.

"We like the mainframe approach; we like centralisation," said Colin Simpson, group systems manager at Fuller's.

To align the IT infrastructure to address business challenges, Simpson's first step is to slim Fuller's complement of more than 40 Microsoft NT servers to about eight running VMware virtualisation software.

The mainframe-like set-up will increase server capacity utilisation from about 4% in one case to closer to 60%, he said. "This will reduce running costs and the administrative overhead."

At the same time, he will set up a storage area network (San) to look after the company's 1.5Tbytes of data and allow for future data expansion. Pubs presently have thin-client access to Microsoft Office and other applications under Fuller's Citrix environment. "It is a pain to back-up 40 servers, and it was eating into our operational time," Simpson said.

The second step is to replace a 20-year-old Siemens iSDX voice system with a voice over IP system from Alcatel. Simpson said, "We sweated that asset. The reliability was OK, but we were finding it difficult to find replacement parts when things went wrong. And we were running out of capacity."

Fuller's selected Alcatel after a thorough review of the market. It ripped out the old system and put in the new one - including uninterruptible power supplies to power the voice servers - over a single weekend. "Everything went fine. We spent the second day testing and fine-tuning. Now we are expecting real cost savings from VoIP," Simpson said.

In the future Fuller's plans to provide the company's 160 managed pubs with broadband data and telephony links for online transactions.

Fuller's will supplement this with a network of pub-based Wi-Fi hotspots controlled from its Chiswick headquarters. The company's larger hotels currently provide Wi-Fi services to customers via a system from OnSite Telecoms, but the smaller inns have an outsourced service from The Cloud.

The brewer hopes the Wi-Fi service will attract new, young drinkers to the pubs. It will also let the pubs convert to mobile tills. "This is in keeping with our intention to continue to focus more on food, in part a response to the coming smoking ban," Simpson said.

Customers will no longer have to hand over their credit cards when they pay their bills, which should help allay fears about ID theft.

This customer focus extends to Simpson's plans to enhance Fuller's existing Strategix enterprise resource planning system, which runs on an RS/6000 server under AIX, IBM's Unix implementation.

The enhancement will add a "dashboard" layer that integrates live customer and business data to provide role and transaction-dependent insights into the underlying data. These include accounts, distribution, sales and purchasing transactions.

"The aim is to provide users with an accurate real-time picture of what is happening in the business, and to alert them when an exception occurs," Simpson said.

Simpson also plans to set up a product catalogue on an as-yet unnamed trading exchange. This will establish an e-commerce system for online orders, invoicing and settlement for its managed pubs.

The aim is to consolidate purchases as much as possible to take advantage of volume discounts available from suppliers. "We used to have about 3,000 suppliers, but we halved that," Simpson said. "If we can improve our margins on food by 1%, the system will pay for itself in months."

Information from this system will be integrated with the ERP system and dashboard so that the brewer can pay invoices online. "Pubs will place orders via the exchange and check their invoices against delivery. Once they are happy, we will pay. In practice it amounts to the pubs self-invoicing," Simpson said.

The system will simplify administration of Fuller's purchasing, but it is also flexible enough to allow pub chefs to add favourite local suppliers. This will help Fuller's satisfy two aspects of good corporate citizenship, to support local producers and open up new markets for them, and to reduce "food miles" and the associated carbon footprint.

While these projects take care of the brewer's business systems, Simpson is keen to see if there is value in linking the business side to the industrial control systems that run the brewery's operations.

"Other brewers are doing it, and we want to see if we are missing something," Simpson said.

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