Wholesalers and distributors must oversee a multitude of moving parts to ensure all operations run smoothly. Processing customer requests and overseeing order, inventory and warehouse management are just a few of the many tasks that must be executed on a daily basis.
One such organization that faces these challenges is Jacksonville, FL-based Predator Group, a distributor of high-end pool cues. The company, whose cues are used by over half of the nation’s top-ranked male billiard professionals, has three product lines: two lines of cues, Poison Billiards and Predator Cues, and a line of cue joints, Uni-Loc.
Predator Group’s unique selling point lies in the technical expertise and precision used to create their products. Cues are crafted from exotic types of wood, such as ebony, maple and burl, and feature uniquely engineered joints and screws that connect each section of the cue and provide the correct balance. Techniques like carbon fiber reinforcement are used to perfect performance and handling, and cues are finished with a special coat for protection.
Given the complex nature of the materials and processes required to create their products, Predator Group requires an extremely efficient inventory and distribution management system in order to meet customer demand and produce the level of quality they’re reputed for. After finding their previous system to be inefficient, the company embarked on a search for a new solution and implemented Blue Link distribution and wholesale ERP software in March 2013.
An Outdated System Geared Towards Manufacturing
Predator Group’s order and distribution process is complex and consists of many steps. The company’s 250 customers, all of which are wholesalers, place orders for cues through the company’s sales department. Staff must then determine what components need to be ordered to make the specific type of cue requested—which can include anywhere from five to 30 individual parts, including shafts, joints and weight cartridges—and create purchase orders for these items.
These purchase orders are sent to the suppliers Predator Group works with, who then ship the ordered items to Predator Group’s main facility, where they’re stored. Workers then pull the items necessary to fill customer purchase orders and ship them to China, where they’re assembled into the cues themselves. These cues are shipped back to Predator Group, where they’re distributed to the company’s wholesale customers, who sell them to retailers around the country.
In the past, Predator Group manufactured cues—in addition to distributing them—and therefore relied on an ERP manufacturing software system to handle their needs. In 2006, however, the company began to phase out this area of operations, and by 2008 all in-house manufacturing had been outsourced to China.
Despite this shift, Predator Group continued to use the same manufacturing-specific software. Consequently, the company found themselves struggling to reconcile their distribution needs with a system that was both outdated and ill-equipped for their new outsourcing model.
The system Predator Group used previously was very difficult to customize, which made it challenging to generate reports on essential data such as inventory levels, sales history, purchase order history and shipment receiving history. It also required all information to be entered and tracked via spreadsheet, which meant employees had to enter all sales and purchase orders individually and continually update everything by hand as orders were filled and shipped.
“As the years passed, we found that we were using the system less and less and using spreadsheets more and more,” says David Morrison, an accounting assistant at Predator Group who has extensive knowledge of both the old and new systems.
“We spent hours and hours and hours every week trying to update everything. It was taking way too long, and we thought, ‘This is crazy. Why are we spending all this time in spreadsheets when we can try to find a system to help us with all this?’”
A Search for an Automated, Web-Based Solution
In summer 2012, Predator Group began looking at new warehouse distribution software systems, specifically those that were cloud-based. “A lot of our sales team travel, and we were finding that it was difficult for them to be able to log in and put in orders, etc.,” Morrison explains. “We also have three employees over in China who work for us, and they were always complaining about how hard it was to log in and work, so we knew that going into the cloud was a major qualification we needed to have.”
Predator Group also wanted a system with strong reordering capabilities. “We found that we were always running out of components for our products,” Morrison says. “Suppliers would come back to us and tell us they were out of something, so we’d have to go and order parts from other suppliers, and things would get delayed.”
Predator Group wanted a system that would alert them to when inventory needed to be replaced well in advance, giving them adequate time to find a different supplier if one was out of stock.
An Easy-to-Use System With Impressive Capabilities
Predator Group evaluated several other systems before making a decision. In the end, however, the company chose Blue Link wholesale and distribution ERP software. Used by small and mid-sized distributors and wholesalers in Canada, the U.S. and Central America, Blue Link offers both an on-premises and cloud-based solution.
“Blue Link took our breath away,” Morrison says. “They listened to what we wanted and presented a good demo to us. It seemed like Blue Link would be very customizable, which it is. The system is very simple and to the point.” Predator Group also liked that Blue Link had a similar user interface to the previous system they were using, as it would make the transition and training process easier.
Extensive Training Enables a Smooth Transition
Prior to implementation, Blue Link provided Predator Group with a trial version of the system that employees could use to see which features they would and wouldn’t require. “We were testing the system to see what worked for us and what didn’t to identify what changes needed to be made, and Blue Link made modifications accordingly,” Morrison explains.
Morrison also trained employees on the software for two hours a day so they would have a basic knowledge of the system before Blue Link arrived to conduct the formal training and implementation session. “I was showing staff in different departments what they were going to be using everyday and how they were going to use it,’” he says. “When Blue Link came in, I wanted them to be able to show the staff shortcuts. I wanted our sales guys and our team to be asking them questions.”
When the time came to make the transition, Blue Link staff traveled to Predator Group’s facility and spent two weeks training employees and transferring all of Predator Group’s data into the system.
Strong Reordering Feature Improves the Purchasing Process
Blue Link has considerably improved virtually every area of Predator Group’s operations. With the Automated Reorder Management feature, the system is able to track all customer orders that have been placed and monitor inventory levels to ensure Predator Group has the parts required to fulfill these orders.
When supplies run low, the system automatically creates purchase orders for components while taking into account factors such as the minimal order quantities for different suppliers. “It takes all the guesswork out of everything,” Morrison says. “This screen does what our staff used to spend hours and hours doing, and does it with the click of a button.”
Blue Link’s Inventory Reorder screen
Blue Link is currently working to modify the system to further improve this process.
“What Blue Link is doing right now is they’re customizing a whole screen in the system that will tell us we’re going to be short on X product by X amount on X date,’ or when we’ve overallocated for another product,” Morrison says. “Then It will pretty much do the purchase ordering for us. If sales is trying to sell a certain amount of one of our products, it will tell us what we need to go ahead and order to make that happen.”
Predator Group also uses Blue Link to automatically fill back orders, which are common because of the how in-demand the company’s products are. “We literally can’t keep our product on the shelves,” Morrison says. Blue Link’s backorder capability indicates which customers should receive orders first depending on when they were initially placed. This helps the company meet customer demand and allows staff to focus on more important tasks.
Blue Link’s Inventory Back Order Fill Screen
“The sales team can focus their efforts more on selling and getting on the phones with customers instead of having to deal with working in the system,” Morrison says. He estimates that Blue Link’s combined reordering and purchase order capabilities save the logistics and sales team a minimum of 10 hours per week.
Review Screen Provides a Complete Overview of Sales Orders
For distribution companies like Predator Group, knowing the completion status of all orders is essential to ensure time isn’t being wasted pulling items for orders that cannot yet be shipped.
Blue Link’s sales order review screen tells staff what percentage of an order has been filled and when it has passed all required qualifications and is ready to be shipped. “It tells you everything you need to know about the order so the guys in the back can say, ‘okay, this order has got the green light, let’s pull it,’” Morrison says.
Blue Link’s Sales Order Review screen
Additionally, if one of Predator Group’s customers is set up to pay via credit card, sales team staff can pre-authorize this card directly within Blue Link before the order is pulled. This feature means the company no longer has to rely on third party systems to verify card information prior to processing orders, and saves employees a great deal of time.
“We already know whether or not the card is going to go through before the order is ready,” Morrison explains. “So we’re not wasting time having our guys in the back pull an order that can’t go out because the payment won’t go through. In the old system, we couldn’t do that.”
Blue Link’s Record Payment screen
Automatic Invoicing Helps Improve Customer Relations
Blue Link also helps considerably with sales invoices, which are automatically generated once all items for an order have been shipped to China. “In the old system, it would take us a couple hours per day to process invoices,” Morrison says. “Now it only takes about 10 minutes at the end of the day. We also have the system set up to automatically email out invoices to customers on the fourth of each month, so that’s one less thing we have to worry about.”
A sample customer invoice generated by Blue Link
Along with their invoice, customers are emailed their tracking number and packing list to keep them up to date on their order status. “Customers now get all of this information before they even get the product, so they know what’s coming,” Morrison says. “This has certainly helped improve our relationship with them.”
Strong Reporting Capabilities Provide Key Feedback
Blue Link’s strong reporting abilities is another key benefit for Predator Group. “The system has a really good backbone, and it’s so customizable,” Morrison says. “You can create and print a report on virtually any information in the system. We needed a solution that has great feedback capability, and that’s exactly what Blue Link has shown us that it’s able to do.”
Predator Group’s CFO, for example, has created a report in Blue Link that he uses to automatically calculate all financials at the end of the month. “All you have to do is click on a button once a month, and the system updates all financials,” Morrison says. “It’s leaps and bounds from where we were, like going from a typewriter to a computer.”
Additionally, almost any data in the system can be exported in Microsoft Excel or Word format, which makes it very easy for staff to pull information and email it to suppliers, customers, or even board members who wish to see this data.
A System That Reduces Errors and Improves Productivity
Morrison cites the fact that Blue Link is a web-based system as a significant benefit. “It allows our China employees to be more involved and our sales team to be more involved when they’re on the road,” he says. “This helps alleviate the workload in the office.”
Blue Link’s automated processes have also significantly reduced errors resulting from manual data entry. “Anytime that you do things by hand, there’s a much higher chance for error, so anything that we don’t have to do manually significantly cuts down on this,” Morrison says. “Before, we were dropping everything into Excel, so things could be put in the wrong cell. This leads to delays, which sometimes means you have to spend more money to airlift freight if you’re running behind schedule, making it harder to meet sales goals.”
Additional Customization Will Further Increase Efficiency
Blue Link is currently working with Predator Group to modify the system to further improve processes. One such modification is creating a screen that will tie customer orders directly to purchase orders. If a customer places an order for 1000 cues, for example, Predator Group will be able to tell them where the various components needed to assemble these cues are, how far along in the manufacturing process the order is and exactly when it will be delivered.
Blue Link is also helping Predator Group move towards a direct shipping model, where components from suppliers will be shipped directly to China instead of to Predator Group’s corporate office. This model eliminates a week of shipping time and will decrease overall shipping costs. “I haven’t come across a single thing that they haven’t been able to solve, customize or create for us,” Morrison says. “They haven’t told us ‘no’ yet.”
All of these current and future capabilities will help Predator Group continue to grow and expand overseas as the company looks to add to their list of customers. “Being able to use the system anywhere in the world will help us as we grow into other countries,” Morrison explains.
Although it’s only been several months since the implementation of Blue Link, Morrison estimates that the system will save Predator Group at least $12,000 per year just in terms of the resources needed to run and support the software compared with the previous system. He also expects cost savings due to the hours saved creating purchase orders, reordering inventory and processing invoices to reach into the tens of thousands of dollars per year. “Blue Link has moved us into the 21st century,” he says.
Predator Group is just one of many distributors to experience the considerable benefits of wholesale distribution systems such as Blue Link. With the ability to track sales orders, monitor inventory levels, automatically generate purchase orders and keep customers up to date on shipments, these systems make it easier than ever for companies to run efficiently and expand operations to further growth.
Thumbnail image provided by Nick Saltmarsh.