Seneca Food Corporation

Sowing the seeds of growth through IP communications

One of the largest food processing companies in the US takes to cloud-based communications to bring about agility, mobility, efficiency and productivity gains, as well as cost reductions that are, quite literally, not small potatoes

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Having a seasonal business is nothing out of the ordinary. In the food industry, seasonality is the whole essence of activity. Seeds are planted, they grow, and food is harvested in strict season. Yet what if the answer to growing business meant growing seasons had to be extended beyond norms or even new seasons invented?

This is indeed the strategy deployed by Seneca Food Corporation, and in supporting its novel and advanced methods of food cultivation, the company has also taken an innovative approach to the advanced communications that underpin its organisation.

The Fairport, New York-based company began life in 1949, and describes itself as an integrated fruit and vegetable processing company. It manages many – and in some cases, all – aspects of production. It produces seeds, harvests and crops, and manufactures its own containers to provide a wide range of fruit and vegetable products. The company’s produce is sourced from more than 1,400 American farms, typically family farmers it has done business with for many years, or even generations.

The company processes over 50 different types of fruits and vegetables, and has a variety of capabilities and packaging options in the frozen and shelf-stable markets. Processing plants are strategically located close to growers so that crops are freshly harvested and processed at peak freshness, locking in nutrients and minimising environmental impact.

Seneca manages over eight million square feet of warehousing, and has its own network of articulated lorries. Strategically located distribution centres are designed to maximise service and reduce freight costs. The company’s inventory management systems have been tailored to the business to maximise year-round supply availability and cost savings due to scale and geographic diversity, and it has 100,000ft2 warehouses with 24/7 vertical integration of operations from sowing and harvesting to canning and shipping.

The company believes its success depends on solid relationships between growers, employees, customers and local communities. It currently has 31 manufacturing locations contracts with approximately 1,600 growers for over 200,000 acres of produce. With locations coast-to-coast across the US, Seneca claims to have more geographical crop diversity for vegetables than most other processors.

Seneca’s enterprise network manager Tim Eddinger says he has been to every one of the company’s locations across the US, describing the scientists as “superheroes” who are involved in cutting-edge techniques such as trying to establish a bean that will grow in six weeks and have new development characteristics to boost yields. “We can only process so much intake,” he says. “What if we could have a second growing season? We could double the process or get a few seasons out of it. That could be a game-changer.”

This diverse firm uses Avaya communications and contact centre technology managed by a department that Eddinger says is an anomaly for a very large business. “We’re dealing with other large companies and entities,” he says. “We don’t really have call centres [but we see what] we can do with auto attendants and interactive voice response systems [IVRs]. The features in the phones [enable] our sales staff to work anywhere in the world.”

Outcome-based approach

Eddinger has been at Seneca for six years, and from the outset, he’s attempted to have an outcome-based approach to improving processes. Coming from a consulting background, before he joined, he talked with Seneca about process improvement. “When I came on board, I asked how much an hour’s downtime was,” he says. “‘How about our biggest plant and processing centre? How much is an hour?’”

In the first two years, he learned about the business and developed a strategic plan to introduce automation to make the business more efficient or reduce the areas where employees suffer fatigue and stress such as repetitive motion.

“I’m like, ‘What are our biggest issues? What are our biggest problems?’ Old technology. Because with razor-thin margins, we’re going to be using the technology until it tells us it’s done, which, in this day and age, is especially a security issue,” he says. “You have to worry about a patch – is someone going to hack in? We had to have a strategy for upgrading our wireless throughout the plants because, again, that feeds our business. Everyone’s using scan guns. We had to look at the scan gun technology.”

This challenge is made harder by the sheer scale of the business. Avaya has been the company’s comms provider of choice for the past nine years, three years before Eddinger took up his role there. A colleague, boasting as much as 22 years with the firm, was key to making sure communications infrastructure upgrade projects took place. Indeed, Eddinger says he hadn’t so much as touched Avaya before he came on board.

“The company was spending $5,000-$6,000 a month on networking … and about the time I got involved, I converted that to go away,” he said. “Now, we’ve completely wiped out that monthly cost. It was about savings, but we are now also more knowledgeable on the system. Our Avaya team has been great for supporting us. The plan was then to move to session initiation protocol (SIP) to reduce costs, because who doesn’t want to reduce costs? Who doesn’t want to improve efficiencies? We had 15% AT&T MPLS [based networking] and at the other locations VPN [for comms]. For the same cost of what we paid for half our locations beyond MPLS with AT&T, we ended up with a reduced cost at all our locations, and not just MPLS.”

For most firms these days, transitioning out of MPLS is a key strategy. Seneca first got on the MPLS off-ramp two years ago, and still has a small number of locations in which to make the switch. Network operations are now based out of an established, secure, datacentre in Rochester, New York, with a backup facility in the same state. Eddinger says that over the next three years, the company will be looking for a better geographic location for its backup system. In its business, geography is crucial.

“We’re talking about farmers in the rural middle of nowhere where fibre wasn’t always available,” he says. “We’re still using some copper MPLS. But technology has advanced, and we’re getting a lot more fibre over here, especially at the rural [locations]. But the goal was to go to SIP eventually.

“We then looked at [the required infrastructure and realised that] we needed SD-WAN [software-defined wide-area networking] on top. That’s because there are parts of the business that were failing to work and we had four hours of downtime on copper-like internet circuit. I built that MPLS with a diverse internet carrier, whether it’s DSL or whether it’s fibre. I can put SIP anywhere, but I still didn’t trust voice over the internet.”

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That was in 2021, when Eddinger first considered the idea of Avaya Cloud Office and all the features it brings. Despite the hype and massive pull of gravity to all things cloud, he said cloud works for Seneca just where it makes sense, and not because of some sense of having religion about cloud communications.

“We have a home-grown manufacturing application that our business is built on, at our core, and that will never leave our datacentre,” he says. “We control that. And that’s the reason for having an MPLS and all the things we do for the SD-WAN. I am a proponent of where cloud makes sense, and in the voice area, for me, it does, because we built this redundancy.

“The only thing that affects our business during our pack season is that we’re taking vegetables in, and we swell to about 11,000-12,000 employees. Normally, we’re about 5,000. The demand on the business increases, but last year, we had the most uptime because we had SD-WAN in place, so I’m like, ‘Okay, well how do we do redundancy with the phone if, say, the power is out?’ We have penalties for missed shipments.”

Akin, and allied, to the geographic considerations Seneca’s network team has to take into consideration is climate. The bulk of the firm’s operations are concentrated in the hurricane alley that is the mid-west of the US. Having a reliable redundant phone network is crucial.

To address this need, Avaya supplied its RingCentral and Cloud Office services to build a SIP trunk between locations and then to support the decision to move corporate offices in February 2024. For Eddinger, this provided the opportunity to create a proof of concept at one of the locations.

“We loved the features of [Cloud Office] and the self-management of things,” he says. “I can manage this from a mobile device. And now, we are set to migrate the entire 1,200 routes and almost 1,300 users in the 31 locations.”

The potential savings to the business run into the tens of thousands of dollars, as much as $13,000 per month just on the technology side. Not small potatoes, in any regard.

But with the Avaya communications platform, Seneca envisages more than numbers and rationalised costs. Indeed, the company is looking at innovation, but without disruption to the core activities of the business at large. And given upgrading comms has been a two-year project, a time over which so many enabling and essential technologies have been introduced and indeed flourished, it’s interesting to consider what has caught the eye of Seneca and how it is seen as being part of driving the business forward.

No disruption

The evolution of the deployment will put Seneca fully on Cloud Office and no disruption to operations is envisaged. For example, converting to the new handsets used with the Avaya comms offering is calculated to be a two-minute process. The application and its interface, and its ease of use, is said to be head and shoulders above what was used in the past.

In completing his mission, Eddinger says he has had no real pushback from senior management. Nor has the job of making the business case for what he has deployed become more complex, even if he has had to examine closely the business model used for running the Avaya services.

“I know how the leadership thinks and works, and what was key for me was to do demos and have people touch and feel the [new comms system],” he says. “We own perpetual licences, so [the thinking was], ‘Why would we go to a subscription?’ Two years ago, we had a five-year adoption [plan] to go to the cloud. That’s been expedited a little bit. Two years in, and we have moved some applications to the cloud. And [we are] seeing the benefits of that [in terms of] efficiency.

“We are now using a trucker app for shipping, and that [process] was a little bit clunky, so we moved, and then Chronos for payroll, which we were using on-premise, and we went to a cloud model. It’s more robust and always-available options. If a plant’s power goes down, people can pull up a cell phone and [carry on]. In our business, our overtime costs and shipping penalties create expensive hours of downtime.”

There are a number of areas in which Eddinger now believes the company is able to gain benefits that hitherto were not possible. What were once discreet on-premise offerings are now bolt-on, add-on applications to the cloud comms infrastructure.

“We are looking at what we do with SAP, and what we do with human resources, integrating our health apps for people. In our largest corporate office in Wisconsin, which is driving the HR department, they love the new Cloud Office, voicemail, email, textual email and [voice messages] with a WAV file. That’s huge for them,” says Eddinger.

“For example, we have people throughout the business who can speak Spanish. So, to be able to send a WAV file to somebody that says, ‘This is what they’re asking, this is what we’re doing,’ through the applications that bolt onto the Cloud Office [and then translate], helps us integrate our business.”

Usage and access

The business has also become more efficient, encompassing gains in terms of telephony, contact centre, agents and business processes in general. In all, the new cloud comms infrastructure has made application usage and access easier, with the net result of the business being more mobile and agile. Looking to new areas where technology can be deployed to make even further gains, Seneca is now actively looking at artificial intelligence (AI).

Among the potential scenarios and uses, once again, supporting multi-language communications comes to the fore. That is to say, supporting communications among trucking firms that may hire staff that speak different languages. AI is seen as being able to help bridge any gaps in communications between, and help improve processes with employees and the rest of the business. The company is also considering the use of video applications where appropriate. This may be seen through a partnership with Microsoft and the use of the Teams collaboration system.

The bottom line, Eddinger stresses, is that “everyone’s analogue is going away” despite having to manage and streamline an estate that still has substantial volumes of analogue technologies, very much including phones, that have to be ripped out and replaced.

In the short term, or indeed over the next 12 months, the plan is that around 80% of the business will have converted to using the cloud comms offering. This figure stood at 20% in June 2023. The ambition is that all communications systems will be seamless with Avaya.

Yet as ever, given the fundamental nature of Seneca’s business, converting locations between July and September 2023 was made more complicated as this was during the firm’s busy season, and the focus was not on making process changes. Eddinger reveals a great example of this involved the humble pumpkin.

“I’m dealing with a plant in Washington, and all they do is process pumpkin,” he says. “It is having trouble with outbound calling. We can look at it and see how AI is further advanced to maybe work with the business, plus some other applications that will help streamline our [operations]. But with pumpkin, you can have two growing seasons or just one big season. It’s not pumpkin season yet, so I can have a window after this and convert [communications systems] because they’re not in their busy season. And I have other plans to do different things. By contrast, I also have sales offices that I can pretty much do anytime.”

Eddinger says the cost of supporting on-premise technology through Avaya clearly isn’t going down. “When I renewed this year, it’s about 20% higher than what we just got off our three-year contract,” he says. “That helps me pitch to my C-level people.”

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