Macs in Business: “Homebrewed Solutions on Vintage Macs”
By Michael Gemar (email@example.com, 19 January 2001)
Wholesale distributor to homemade wine and beer stores runs a 100% Mac business
Michel Contant and his companies, Distrivin Ltd. and VINEXPERT, not only provide wholesale products to the homemade wine and beer business, but have also taken the home-brewed principle to heart in the approach to software solutions.
Although the companies have customers across half of Canada, from Ontario to the Maritimes on the Atlantic coast, the twenty-employee operations are run from just two locations. One is in Longeuil, Quebec (near Montreal), and serves about 200 wine and beermaking stores in that province. The other, smaller office is located at Stony Creek, Ontario, in the heart of the Niagara Peninsula wine country. Michel manages the two companies and acts as their accountant from the Longeuil office.
Macs are ubiquitous throughout the business. As Michel puts it, “Each person has a Mac in front of them, from the sales rep to the warehouse shipper.” They use a wide variety of model vintages, from slot-loading iMacs and Beige G3s, to older PowerMacs (5200 and 7200), right down to several 68LC040-based LC 475s. Also on hand are a number of Apple printers, including several ImageWriters.
Except for the ImageWriters everything is networked. The businesses use both AppleTalk (to support older printers) and Ethernet, with an Asante hub for the Ethernet and one LC 475 (at both locations) for a bridge (using the venerable Liasion bridge software). An LC475 also acts as an email server, using QuickMail 3.6. Both of their locations are linked, with the Stoney Creek site calling into Longeuil to transfer email. Michel also uses Timbuktu between the two locations, both to transfer files and also to troubleshoot the Stoney Creek site, “since support knowledge at that site is limited.”
FileMaker to the rescue
The mission-critical software for Distrivin/VINEXPERT is Great Plains Software Accounting 7.25 – which is four years old and no longer supported. Over the years, Michel has developed a number of custom solutions in FileMaker Pro (version 4) to get around the limitations of the accounting package and provide tools to evaluate their customers’ needs.
One area that Michel has concentrated on is territory management, as each store they supply has its own assigned sales region. Using the custom tools, it is possible to get extremely detailed information on sales within these areas. For example, the companies mail out quarterly four to eight-page color flyers to individuals who purchase from the stores they supply. By tracking the postal code of those receiving the flyers, and using Statistics Canada information on the population, languages spoken, etc. of that postal code, the companies can monitor the penetration of each store in a given territory.
The purchases that each store makes are also tracked, going back at least 6 years, so that sales representatives can monitor trends for individual stores. In addition, because the companies give volume discounts every quarter based on the total store purchases, the developed solution calculates and prints reports so that stores can be appropriately credited. Site visits by sales reps are also computerized, with PowerBook G3s used in the field to enter information about what brands the stores are selling, the look of the location, and other information that can be brought back to the home office for analysis.
Overall sales are also monitored at a very precise level, with each invoice line entered into a custom application. Using these data, the companies can search by customer, date, category, supplier, etc. and determine, for example, which items are selling at 10% less this year compared to last, or how many of a particular item are likely to be sold in the next six months (important information to have when there can be delays of three to four months from overseas suppliers). The handling of returned goods also benefits from this invoice-line level of detail. The Returned Merchandise Authorization solution allows a quick lookup of any purchase, including date, quantity, and price, which eliminates the need to flip through paper invoices.
Shipping is another area where a custom FileMaker database has been invaluable, allowing the companies to efficiently use a variety of carriers with different fee schedules. Waybills are automatically created within FileMaker, which calculates the total weight of items shipped for each order, and based on weight, city, and carrier used determines the customer shipping cost.
In addition to these FileMaker-based software solutions, Michel’s businesses use a variety of standard Mac applications, such as Word, Excel, QuickMail, FaxSTF Pro, and Retrospect. The companies’ websites are managed with GoLive (and reside on a B&W G3 co-located at their ISP).
Why Macs? Because of the Savings
Why are Distrivin and VINEXPERT fully Mac-oriented? Primarily, it’s a matter of cost. As Michel notes, the simplicity of the MacOS means lower cost-of-ownership. “Basically my boss doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on maintenance, set up, etc. As I often say, the Mac lets a simple bean counter be the IT guy.” One example Michel cites is personal filesharing – the company can exchange data throughout its mixed AppleTalk/Ethernet network without worrying about configuring NT or Novell servers.
Savings are also realized through the continued utility of what might seem to be obsolete hardware. It’s a common adage that Macs have a longer useful life than Wintel machines, and Distrivin/VINEXPERT proves that amply. “The fact that we can still have on the same network without any problem some LC 475s and an iMac SE is a plus,” according to Michel. Although their seven-year old “pizza-box” LC 475s run their pre-PowerPC chips at only 25 MHz, that hasn’t prevented them from acting as mail servers: “Sometimes speed is not what you need and some good old LC can still do the job. Exchanging email between our two main locations is not something that needs to be done in milliseconds.”
Michel doesn’t feel there are any significant downsides to being a Mac-only company in a predominantly Windows world. ”Basically we are able to do whatever we want. From time to time we have to go to Virtual PC in order to run a CD or software that is PC only, but not often.” Indeed, Michel says that one of the strengths of the Mac is that it plays well with Wintel, as highlighted by the company’s experience with helping its PC-based wholesale customers arrange for mailouts of store ad fliers. “We often act as the middle man between a customer and mailing service. Sometimes the mailing service can’t read a database (sent by the store on an old format) so the customer on PC sends it to us, we convert it, then send it to the mailing service company.”
More Macs in Future...
Future computing plans are all Mac. In the works are more custom FileMaker solutions, as well as a probable replacement of their no-longer-supported accounting software to a package that can link up with FileMaker. As well, some of their machines are no longer up to the jobs they do – especially their Beige G3 used for order entry. (Even though he’s just a “bean counter”, Michel enjoys the upgrade privileges of an IT person: “Whenever we change a computer the fastest one goes to me!”)
But the X Factor is Unclear...
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As far as Mac OS X goes, Michel is still unsure how it will integrate with the legacy hardware and software his company has. One critical factor will be if the new OS can handle their 4-year old (and now unsupported) accounting software. He expects that things might be in flux for a while, saying, “I’ll bet we will have a mixed-system platform, some [computers] on X, some on 9, and even some on 8.”
Michel Contant, Chartered Accountant