African + Eastern owns and manages 26 retail stores in the UAE and Oman, and is the largest importer and exporter of alcoholic beverages in the Middle East and Arabian Gulf. With over 300 employees and countless brands and customers to please, there are a lot of moving parts to this picture. The job of Samir Khan, Regional IS Manager, African + Eastern, task is to provide African + Eastern employees, the brands they support and their customers the IT tools to keep it all running smoothly.
What does it take to keep a company that imports almost seven million cases of product per year on track to keep happy hours going? Quite a lot, it would seem, and IT is the backbone of the operation. “For example,” says Khan, “there are taps in many bars in the UAE. African + Eastern maintains a large number of those taps. They need to be serviced and cleaned, and waiting staff need to be trained on how to pour the product and how to serve it. In the past the department in charge of, for instance, maintaining those taps, would keep track of what needed to be serviced via a large white board – literally updating each task by hand.”
African + Eastern knew they had to move on from this antiquated system. Now, teams can go out to the distributors, service equipment such as taps, and record that service using a tablet. The service dates and types are then shared on the system and all team members are updated. Employees can even take pictures of products or equipment, and maintenance dates are automatically generated. In this way, African + Eastern can keep track of what needs to be done where and on what date.
“This system started feeding us important data to confirm that our products were visible in the points we wanted to be in the right quantity and temperature. We find this helps us make decisions on brand strategy,” says Khan. This mobile system was developed totally in-house at African + Eastern and was the result of a collaborative effort between a number of different departments. The system is unique to the region, and is in fact, the only mobile system of its kind in the world. The benefit of a system that automatically generates maintenance schedules is clear, and it is likely only a matter of time before other businesses begin following in the footsteps of African + Eastern.
Indeed, it is not just maintenance of taps and equipment that has been updated and modernised by African + Eastern. One of the most important applications running in the company’s IT infrastructure is, of course, the ERP system. “We knew before we moved beyond ERP, we had to get the basics right,” recalls Khan, “If the information is not right our teams cannot make the right decisions, so accuracy and availability are paramount for our ERP systems.” With a robust ERP system, African + Eastern is able to monitor both their inventory and their point of sales in all of their stores around the region. The data generated by the ERP system, allows the company to move forward and make sound decisions on future marketing and sales efforts.
With CIOs everywhere buzzing about “moving beyond ERP,” African + Eastern is actually taking steps to do just that. “Undeniably, our ERP is the most important system – it is where we run all of our revenues. But having said that, to get real value you need to move beyond ERP – now that we have our basics right, we are now looking beyond ERP,” says Khan. African + Eastern has developed a platform aptly named “Enabling Working Out of Office.” Using this platform, the company has been developing a suite of mobile applications that allow it to support a mobile workforce. Soon, they will also be launching a new, agile CRM program that can be accessed on the cloud and integrate with social media. This will be a nimble and extremely useful tool for the African + Eastern sales and marketing team.
Indeed, African + Eastern strives to go beyond just maintaining the IT systems that keeps the business running. Khan and his team are always looking for and developing new innovations, some of which have changed the face of product distribution in the region. The company, for instance, had a hand in streamlining the UAE licensing procedures. “Just a few years back,” recalls Khan, “licensing records were kept by pen and paper in enormous books.” Working with the UAE government, African + Eastern helped to develop the smart chip card that is in use today. “Now we can collect data on license applications, card usage and limits in real-time at the point of sale.” Though the license procedure may be unique to the region, the concept of real-time point of sale data tracking could be used globally in any number of retail outlets. “As we sell out products we take the data into our system – licenses, product sales, even inventory. It is all updated into our virtual private network. In the past it wasn’t live, but now we can received data in real time, or in a once per day update. We have applied robust VPN systems to ensure that all our stores are live. This helps us secure our end-points.”
Of course, with all the data being generated by the applications created by African + Eastern, Big Data is on Khan’s mind. Khan maintains that the biggest issue in dealing with all this data, is to determine what information is important for the company. “It isn’t really about mining unstructured data, but looking at the structured data that is created by our applications in a new and useful way.”
In the past, Business Intelligence was about looking at the data on spreadsheets and programs and asking it specific questions. Now, CIOs everywhere, including African + Eastern, are working with various departments to work out what the data is revealing about business. “The IT department can create the tools to mine this data, but the most important thing is to be able to put the leads in other departments in control of viewing and manipulating the data.” African + Eastern has, to this end, partnered with some of the lead data visualisation firms to be sure that the data can be presented in a way that is useful to each department. “Business Intelligence should be driven more by the business itself than by the IT department. Right now what we need to do is unlock our structured data that we produce in our systems and make it available in a clear manner to those who need it. We are going beyond canned reporting. We want the people that need it to be able to use and visualise the data they need rather than mining through sets of data,” says Khan. Giving the business control over its own data, and allowing the various departments to manipulate that data for their own ends is the goal of the African + Eastern IT department.
Far from just a place to top up on supplies, African + Eastern has positioned itself as a leader in innovative sales technology. Through collaborative efforts within the company, and partnerships with government and other firms, African + Eastern is constantly innovating and researching new ways to leverage IT to do business more efficiently. “The backbone of this whole operation is IT, which is making it tick,” says Khan, “This is especially true when it comes to our import operations because we need to always be up and running. This IT department is always working with our branding, marketing and sales teams to ensure everything is running as smoothly as possible.”