Supporting the entrepreneurial spirit

Success Story: The Sumner Group

E-automate® service business software brings internal productivity gains

Testimony for ECi by The Sumner Group in St. Louis, Missouri

The Sumner Group

St. Louis, Missouri

When Mary Sumner joined Sumner Group as its chief information officer in 2010, it didn't take her long to realize some major changes were needed. The dealership had been using the same enterprise software for close to 20 years and, while it had done yeoman service, it was clearly time to explore new options.

Changing software is never easy and, for Sumner Group, it would be a high stakes move. The dealership has a proud history that goes all the way back to 1956 when founder E. G. "Bud" Sumner purchased the St. Louis, Missouri, A.B. Dick distributorship. Since then, the dealership has been on a steady growth curve, both in terms of markets served and products carried.

Today, Sumner Group is one of the top privately-held dealerships in the country, with close to 310 employees and operations in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia, Missouri.

Selecting a new ERP is a business decision

While business in recent years has been challenging, the Sumner team has proved more than equal to those challenges. They have maintained market share despite a generally uncertain economy and increased competition, particularly from direct selling manufacturers.

As CIO, Sumner knew the decisions the company was about to make on the selection and implementation of its new software would play a major role in shaping its future growth. Fortunately, while new to the dealership, she brought with her some 35 years' experience in the IT world and an impressive track record of successful enterprise systems project management.

"One thing I have always believed is that the choice of an enterprise system for any organization is not a technology decision," she says. "It's a business decision that has fundamental implications for the company's overall business processes and that provides an opportunity to re-engineer business processes to 'fit' the best practices supported by the enterprise system's software."

Step one in the search for a new system was the formation of a dedicated software selection committee, co-chaired by Sumner and CFO Fred Weaver, to drive the process. Committee members were selected to involve virtually all aspects of the organization, including sales, service, and administration, and individuals serving on the committee represented each of the dealership's five different divisions as well as senior corporate management.

The committee started by identifying key business requirements and creating a scorecard, complete with a point system it would use to evaluate different possible vendors.

"We wanted software that would support our core business processes as a dealer—sales and order processing, contract set up and billing and, most important of all, service management," explains Sumner. "It needed to be developed by people who understood our industry and come with features and functionality that would enable us to improve our current business processes."

Reflecting the importance of the final decision, the committee spent three to four months analyzing its options before making its choice: the e-automate business management software solution from ECi.

"The people at e-automate understand our industry"

"We really liked the fact that the people at e-automate clearly understood our industry," said Sumner. "e-automate is software specifically designed for a dealership like ours. We looked at other solutions but they were generic packages that would have required a lot of customization to fit our needs. That can be very, very expensive. "With e-automate, we weren't just buying software; we were buying a series of best practices for doing business that offered significant opportunities to reduce operating costs, improve our workflows and take our customer service to the next level."

Just nine short months after implementation, Sumner is already starting to see some significant benefits from e-automate. "With e-automate, we now have the opportunity to standardize and simplify our business processes across the organization," says Sumner. "We can also eliminate the additional costs that were being generated by having different procedures and other inconsistencies."

The program is also having an impact on customer-facing aspects of the dealer's operations. "With e-automate and its e-Info utility, we can now enable our customers to enter meter read's via the Web," Sumner explains. "We are also implementing the e-Info processes which enable customers to order supplies on-line and to place service calls on-line."

Before e-automate, the dealership would mail out up to 1,700 invoices a night. Now, some of these invoices go out electronically, eliminating time-consuming handling and paperwork processing, not only for the dealership but also for its customers.

"There isn't a customer out there who isn't looking at the same issues we are relative to improving workflow and taking costs out of their business," Sumner contends. "If they get an invoice from us by email, that's one less envelope they have to open and one less piece of paper they have to process."

E-automate business management software gets kudos for its reporting capabilities

"E-automate has given our managers the information they need to do their job in a way that they really didn't have before," she says. "Under the old system, our managers could get reports but they would have to go through a help desk and, depending on what they were asking for, the process could take days." e-automate, she says, has made information accessible. "With e-automate and its e-views component, we now have reporting capabilities on virtually any aspect of the business literally at our fingertips and our managers have been finding all sorts of new data that they never had access to before."

Custom reports that have become routine at Sumner Group with e-automate include Parts Usage by Technician and Parts Warranty and the list continues to grow, with the dealership anticipating using a suite of Contract Profitability Reports in the not-too-distant future.

E-automate integrates processes, suppliers, and customers

Also generating high praise is the way in which e-automate handles the valuable third-party applications that play a key role in the dealership's technology portfolio. "We make extensive use of programs like CEO Juice, a reporting toolkit, and Compass, a CRM system. E-automate integrates seamlessly with these software tools and that is a major plus for us," Sumner says. "When you put in a new enterprise system, you basically have two choices," says Sumner. "You can either re-engineer your own business processes around the best practices supported by the new software or you can take the software and try to customize it to match the way you have always done things."

The Sumner Group team chose the first approach because they believed adopting the processes embedded in e-automate would make their dealership stronger and more productive. It's an approach that calls for realistic expectations and a certain amount of patience. "The benefits of implementing a new enterprise system are never immediate," Sumner contends. "There's a process of change and that takes time."

But nine months after the dealership went live on e-automate, Sumner's confidence in its ability to take it to where it needs to be comes through loud and clear. "E-automate has given us the foundation for a stronger, more profitable organization and now it's up to us to work hard to streamline our processes and take advantage of all the efficiencies and integration opportunities—both with our customers and with our own suppliers."

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