Supply Chain Tightened

Unilever, Clarkston link on massive order-to-cash project.

For global manufacturers, the distance between the business and the customer can seem ever-expanding. Unilever Home and Personal Care, North America, part of the Unilever Group, is no exception. The more the maker of such food and personal consumer goods as Hellmans mayonnaise and Dove soaps expanded the business, the more strained time to market and order fulfillment became.

At the heart of Unilevers problem, which crystallized after the companys 1996 acquisition of Helene Curtis Industries Inc., was an antiquated infrastructure built around a 20-year-old mainframe. After the buyout, Unilever decided to combine its now three personal care divisions but found it both time-consuming and costly from an IT point of view.

"It was expensive to make changes to, and it was too slow of a lead time to work things through the system," said Albert Marshall, director of supply chain integration at Unilever, in Trumbull, Conn. "It was a high-touch system and required longer lead time to make changes than we wanted. So we knew we had to move to a different platform to get to where we wanted to be in the future."

For Unilever, the future held an across-the-board, order-to-cash supply chain system and a move from a mainframe to a client/server environment, among other things. But how to achieve these goals was the next challenge: Go with a top-tier software supplier or turn to a systems integrator that knows its business, as well as supply chain software?

Although Unilever considered SAP AGs services arm for implementation assistance, it chose instead a Durham, N.C., company called Clarkston Consulting, which specializes in both SAP implementations and the consumer packaged goods industry. Clarkston is primarily an SAP implementer, but it also partners with about 25 other vendors to provide enterprise resource planning implementations.

"In some cases, we did use SAP—we put up the deduction module and that was fairly new, and we brought them in—but I just thought we would get better assistance through Clarkston. ... They are more experienced with the consumer products industry versus really just understanding their product from a technical standpoint."

Together, Unilever and Clarkston implemented the bulk of an SAP R/3 suite, which streamlined Unilevers common business practices across the organization by automating the entire order-to-cash process.

All told, Clarkston helped Unilever replace 15 legacy systems and migrate its retail order management process from a mainframe to an integrated client/server platform. The migration required the integration of multiple warehouse management systems, supply chain planning systems, pricing and promotion applications, and reporting database systems.

"We were able to get 80 percent of what we had on the mainframe off to the client/server version, and shortly well be off the mainframe completely," said Marshall, who was also the lead on the order-to-cash project.

Even though the transition was a fast-track project—which started in the spring of 2002 and culminated a year later (at 8 percent under budget)—the ramifications will be felt for some time at Unilever. Because of the efficiencies gained with the development of different process capabilities, the company is implementing an organizational review to revise all its processes.

Clarkston, for its part, prides itself on having in-depth, industry-specific expertise, which it brings to bear on each project—and on the fact that its not a software reseller.

"We have an arms-length relationship with the software itself, and our focus is on achieving the business results regardless of the technology," said James Stefan, regional managing partner at Clarkston. "So there may be some things we need to do in the implementation that the software does not provide, and that gives us objectivity."

For example, in stepping through the process-mapping phase, Clarkston held workshops with a Unilever team of stakeholders from the IT and business sides of the house. Once processes were simplified and mapped, Clarkston developed white papers and sent them to Unilever team members for approval before moving on to the next phase.

Clarkston sent out about 25 white papers, which were later prototyped to ensure that what was mapped actually worked. Once that was completed, the business users—the people actually using the order-to-cash process—came in for a three-day walk-through to ensure nothing was missed in the development process.

Unilever also insisted on testing the process before going live with customers. In the end, Unilever and Clarkston spent three months on production simulation, with users daily running electronic data interchange into the system, running orders through and doing simulated deliveries.