Cement firm consolidates data via Internet portal

For a company that only embraced e-mail five years ago, the idea of adopting enterprise-wide, Web-based B2B software might have been considered a stretch, but it’s something St. Lawrence Cement Group made happen – even if it is still in the process of refining it.

In May, St. Lawrence Cement, a Montreal-based supplier of cement and other related construction materials that employs more than 2,400 people across Canada, went live with Cement-Online. The portal, which ties directly into the company’s SAP backbone, lets St. Lawrence’s customers place and track orders over the Internet, and gives employees access to the information they need faster. It has also streamlined the company’s operations by allowing it to integrate and share business data with its various branch offices.

Aside from account information, the portal also provides access to a technical resource centre, which includes free tools and a research library, and even weather forecasts (weather can affect the mixing of concrete).

And Cement-Online facilitates roles, so that the only information a visitor need see is information pushed to them according to their position or interest in the company.

St. Lawrence realized in 2000 that it needed to overhaul the way it conducted business with its customers and partners. Phone orders got the job done, but left each party without the means to guarantee that accurate information was being relayed. Orders could take days, sometimes weeks, to be fulfilled. And even the most routine contact with customers often meant hopping in a car.

The company was also faced with a dilemma others might recognize – whether to jump on the Internet right away, despite the technical and financial risks, or to hold off, with the knowledge that a competitor might beat you to the punch.

“We saw what we needed was an Internet solution,” said Paul Ostrander, senior vice-president of St. Lawrence’s Ontario region. But as St. Lawrence explored the technology, it learned that there were business benefits to be had as well, if all went to plan.

The company selected the Intelligent Customer Environment (ICE) from Concord, Ont.-based iStark Corp., a logical move, given that St. Lawrence invested in and helped found the company, which specializes in supplying e-business software to the cement industry. After some customization, ICE became the foundation for Cement-Online.

Rolling out Cement-Online meant first clearing some hurdles. This included breaking the status quo, said Dave Codack, iStark president and CEO. In the cement industry, even today, turning to the Internet is not an easy decision, and one that in some cases still requires some arm-twisting. St. Lawrence itself only mandated the use of e-mail five years ago, and even then had to convince some that the move was worthwhile.

“The biggest challenge is taking a very traditional industry…and convincing people that this new medium is a way to do business,” Codack said.

“And the construction industry is very fragmented…there’s lots of confusion and information at remote sites,” Ostrander added.

It’s crucial to ensure business policies and workflow will match the new technology when rolling out a portal

– B2B experts say a sure way for such a project to fail is to try to mesh outdates practices with cutting edge technology.

But Codack said St. Lawrence has detailed business-case outline from the beginning. “Their business case looked at a number of different factors,” he said.

Third is coping with data. Without any overarching process or technology to guide it, corporate data tend builds up in various silos, and the same piece of information may be stored in several places at once. Also, outdated information may still be residing on critical systems. Codack said data cleansing was the first tasks it undertook at St. Lawrence.

Then there was the task of actually convincing the designated users of Cement-Online to embrace it. “From our perspective, the biggest challenge is to get everyone to see the Internet as a better solution,” Ostrander said. To that end, he helped oversee an initial pilot at one customer’s site (a company also owned by St. Lawrence), and a second round of testing involving five of the firm’s “Internet-savvy” customers.

Finally came security concerns. Codack said for those new to e-business, it could be the biggest obstacle to adoption.

The pilot proved to be worthwhile. The pilot customers immediately took issue with the ordering procedure, which required them to click through four different pages — “which is not user friendly at all for a guy in a ready-mix plant,” Ostrander said. Today, customers can simply click on an order icon that stores their information residing on the SAP system, the quantity they tend to order and the shipping location.

As for buy-in, Ostrander said St. Lawrence gave its sales force a financial incentive to get as many of its customers up and running on Cement-Online as quickly as possible. Roughly three-quarters of them have signed on to date.