Escaping a Data Sand Trap

HTML interface gets Lesco back on course.

Back in 1997, ordering golf course maintenance equipment from Cleveland-based Lesco Inc. was as difficult as trimming the courses themselves.

When supplies ran low, customers—landscapers at more than 7,000 courses across the country—were forced to call one of the companys retail stores, where sales associates used IBM AS/400 green-screen terminals to dial in to the company network and check inventory.

These screens were tiny and hard to read, and slow modems made the process interminable. To make matters worse, Sales Manager Clifford Reedy said that once he checked inventory, he had to use the phone to order products.

It was a situation that couldnt last, but the search for a solution turned out to be as painful for Lesco as getting out of a wet sand trap.

With employees complaining frequently and help desk phones ringing off the hook, Lesco CEO Wayne Murawski initially searched for salvation through a customized solution from Jacada Ltd., an Atlanta-based e-business software company.

Jacadas first attempt to use Java to tie in to the companys legacy system failed due to unforeseen incompatibilities between Lescos brand of Unix running on the AS/400 and Jacadas Java implementation.

But Lesco remained undaunted, demanding results until Jacada, after two years, finally transformed its IT fossil into a Web-enabled gem without breaking the bank on a costly new database.

The turning point came when Lesco finally decided to go with an HTML interface—a decision that has saved the company an estimated $12 million in productivity improvements.

Today, employees are happy, and fertilizer is selling as never before. Help desk calls are down, and sales have skyrocketed like a booming tee shot.

"The switch has allowed me to take mission-critical systems and deploy them out to remote sites without any major effort at all," Murawski said. "In our business, judging from the way things had been for years, thats a pretty major accomplishment."

The nitty-gritty

Lesco installed its AS/400 system in the early 1990s, back when such technologies were state of the art. Over time, however, employees grew weary of its green screens because the system was slow and did not enable managers, once online, to order.

In 1997, after a group of employees cornered Murawski at a sales meeting to complain, the CEO knew a change was inevitable. He assembled a team of IT managers to discuss the problem.

The group decided to move the system onto the Internet, connecting inventory with order processing in one easy-to-use interface.

With a $500,000 budget, they couldnt afford a system that required an expensive new database, so they considered proposals to move the AS/400 system online.

After a two-month request-for-proposals process that included bids from four major companies, team members opted for Jacada to handle the switch. Jacada dispatched a band of programmers to Web-enable Lesco using Java to create graphical, Web-based client applications that would link into the AS/400 systems.

First, the technologists analyzed the green screens, associating each entry field with different graphical representations.

Next, by applying rules in a proprietary artificial intelligence application, they customized a program that would populate the GUI with information from the AS/400 on the fly, generating up-to-the-minute, user-friendly interfaces one inquiry at a time.

In theory, the new system was prepared to do just that. In practice, however, Murawski quickly learned that using Java was a grave mistake. Because Lescos AS/400s ran SCL Unix—an obscure version that supported only Netscape Communications Corp. browsers—the technology never worked the way it should have, causing massive compatibility problems across the board.

Jacada programmers hadnt foreseen this glitch, although Java was their core competency at the time. Instead of facilitating the order process, the Java system wreaked havoc, and malfunctioning controls forced a number of associates to return to the green screens and the phones. Jacada programmers termed the problems "incompatibility" and fruitlessly tried to fix them for nearly two years.

Finally, in early 1999, Jacada suggested that Lesco transform its system from Java to HTML and offered to perform the conversion at a discount. Murawski reluctantly agreed, saying that he "had come so far there was no way I could turn back."

The HTML system debuted toward the end of 1999 and worked the way everyone originally had in mind. Today, through a password-protected Web site, employees at all of the companys 400 retail centers are able to check inventory, place orders and download agronomic information online, performing their jobs in a fraction of the time they once did.

According to Reedy, this new interface works in any environment, from any computer, and reduces the number of entry screens from a few dozen to fewer than 10 per order, making even the most complicated purchases a cinch.

As noted by Dale Vecchio, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn., plugging into legacy data using a Web-based interface can pay off even if, as in Lescos case, getting there is painful. Statistics prove this point as well. Since the solution went live, Lesco revenues have grown from $166 million to more than $350 million.

Murawski estimated that hes saved more than $12 million in overall operating expenses and said that with help desk calls fewer than theyve been in years, logistical productivity has increased by roughly 300 percent. Also, the companys number of transactions is four times what it was in 1998, representing more efficient system use.

Best of all, Murawski said that for the first time ever, sales associates enjoy the technology they use and talk about it as if its something to be proud of.

"I dont think Ive ever heard our people say things like This is great, but they are certainly saying it now," he said. "Maximizing supply chain efficiency is one thing; managing communication costs is another. But hearing that kind of feedback is what really makes something like this worthwhile."

Whats next

Murawski brags about Lescos new infrastructure as a parent brags about a child, but he insists that the system is far from finished. Despite the Java debacle, Murawski plans to stick with Jacada because hes pleased with the HTML system.

He said that hes already signed on to have the company employ its Extensible Markup Language solutions to enable Lesco for wireless applications.

Jacada Senior Vice President of Marketing David Holmes suggested this transformation could be completed by next year and hinted that it will enable golf course superintendents to order fertilizer and other products directly from the fairways, avoiding retail stores entirely by using e-commerce engines on Web-enabled Palm devices and cellular phones.

Gartners Vecchio said that these changes can only enhance the system.

"Wireless will improve efficiency more than anything to date," Vecchio said. "From a business perspective, no matter how you look at it, thats a hole in one."