From Breweries to browsers

When Garry Collings took over as IT manager at Mainfreight two years ago, one of the first things he did was to get the company on the Web. The reason was to give customers and suppliers the means to track freight online - not just one consignment but multiple consignments by simply scrolling back and forth.

When Garry Collings took over as IT manager at Mainfreight two years ago, one of the first things he did was to get the company on the Web.

The reason was to give customers and suppliers the means to track freight online — not just one consignment but multiple consignments by simply scrolling back and forth.

“I can’t believe other people hadn’t thought to do this, so that multiple consignment numbers can be tracked,” Collings says.

The freight handling company operates 51 branches in Australia and New Zealand, employs 1100 staff, including owner-drivers, and last year had turnover of $250 million. In an operation of this size, knowing where freight is at all times is critical. It’s the innovative use of information technology that has made this feasible.

It wasn’t always so.

In 1988 the company had no systems. “Kevin Drink-water [then financial controller] couldn’t believe the company was using a Burroughs accounting machine,” Collings says. “He moved to computerise the company with a transport system, and in 1990 a system was rolled out which is still running today, though it’s getting long in the tooth.”

Two additional applications were developed: Freman and Tracey.

Freman enables customers to produce their own legible consignment notes quickly. “That’s really paid off,” Collings says.

“The package is designed to upload into the host, and where we once had many people in Auckland keying in data we now have just three.”

Tracey is a voice-interactive response system which is online to the host so a customer can enter a consignment note number and track it in real time. It complements the later Web application.

All the Mainfreight drivers -— there are around 280 trucks — use data over radio, through the Telecom Fleetlink system.

The main system, developed in 1989, was written in Reality X, a derivative of Pick, which was designed as an inventory system during the Vietnam war.

“The system now has 2250 functions. It’s been a great success story,” Collings says.

However, the world has moved on, particularly with the advent of open systems, and he is about to make changes.

This quarter, Mainfreight will go live with a Sun E4000, which is 15 times more powerful than the current Sun platforms the company uses.

That’s the forerunner to more than $1 million being spent to move to three-tier client-server.

“We’ve chosen Informix as the database, running on Sun NT enterprise servers,” Collings says.

“At the front end we’ll use Web browsers in the smaller branches, and PCs at the larger branches.

“It’s a hybrid centralised and decentralised model.”

The main branches — Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch handle 65% of the business — will run in packet burst mode back to Auckland. That means there is redundancy with local application servers should telecommunications go down.

“We envisage having a PC with an Internet connection to a local ISP [Internet service provider] via the PC’s Web browser at the small branches,” he says.

“There are big savings to be made using browsers.”

The JavaStation features high on Collings’ shopping list.

“If this works, we will look at having our customers use Web browsers to produce their consignment notes and run freight reports from our Web page at will. We have a lot of customers who are very heavily tied into our customer-focused technology.”

For example, four major customers dial directly host to host to get updates from Mainfreight.

When Collings joined Mainfreight none of the branches had local area networks; there were just dumb terminals mainly and dot-matrix printers. There was one Novell server — “I threw that away.”

Now, every office has a LAN with frame-relay connectivity to all branches. The digital circuits allow Internet email and files to be transferred via 11 NT servers.

Mainfreight is, of necessity, a big spender on telecommunications. “We spend $1.6 million a year with Telecom,” says Collings, who has a specialist background in data communications in Europe. He leaves no doubt he is not completely satisfied with the service he gets but concedes things are improving, if not to the standard of service he was used to in Europe.

Collings has an unusual background for an IT mana-ger. He began his working life with New Zealand Breweries, “managing pubs”.

“It nearly killed me. I was 19 stone and had high blood pressure.” It didn’t take long to realise that was not for him.

He went to the UK where he spent £5000 being trained in IT.

“I’d always had an interest in PCs but that was what got me started.

“I soon realised that specialisation was what was going to make me money so I moved towards the data communications side of the industry. He joined Sorbus, a Bell Atlantic subsidiary which is the biggest third-party maintenance supplier in Europe.

After four years in data communications, he was headhunted for his present position.

If he found the pub industry stressful, what about running a major IT operation? “No. I love it.”

Mainfreight’s site is at www.mainfreight.co.nz.

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