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Posted Date: 4/1/2003

LF Brands Tackles Full Package and PDM

By  Tracy Haisley, Apparel

Several months ago, Apparel asked manufacturers and retailers to share their stories, as progressive apparel industry leaders, of a software implementation. LF Brands Inc., formerly known as The Leslie Fay Company Inc., answered the call and what follows is part one of a three-part series on the company's implementation of Lectra's Gallery product data management (PDM) system.

If you've been in the women's section of a department store, any department store, chances are you are familiar with one of the many labels produced by LF Brands Inc. They span the marketplace from high-end designer lines produced under the Cynthia Steffe label, selling in Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, to the Rimini evening wear line sold at Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's, to the flagship Leslie Fay Dress, Sportswear, Haberdashery collections, to Joan Leslie and David Warren New York lines, which sell in better department stores such as Dillard's, Federated, Saks, and May Co. to d.w. studio by David Warren sold at JCPenney.

Managing data for hundreds of styles each season for each of these brands would seem reason enough to adopt PDM. But it wasn't. Two very important things happened to spur the company's PDM software search and implementation: New management took the helm in April 2002 - John Short as CEO and Linda Larsen German as president and chief merchandising officer - and a decision was made to change the business model from a cut-make operation to a full-package f.o.b. business model.

"We decided to move the business from a manufacturing model to a design driven model where product is purchased on a full package basis," notes Short. "Based on that decision, we were confronted with a fundamental decision: either define operating procedures for the new business model, find software to support the newly defined operating procedures and then likely deal with the need to customize that software to match a newly defined operating process; or find software that incorporated best practices and adequate controls, and implement and train the processes and procedures inherent in the software to define the business process."

For Short, the choice between the two was motivated by one critical factor: Speed. He wanted the changes to the company in place "yesterday." "We made the conscious decision to identify an existing tool that met our criteria and implement that tool with no modification."

That decision was driven by two key issues: "First, I want our business focused on designing dresses, not designing business processes. Many of our large, successful competitors have contributed to the evolution of the software over many years through participation in user groups. That participation, along with certain customization projects paid by those competitors, has guided the evolution of the Gallery development and created a base of 'best practices' inherent in the software. That was the starting point," notes Short.

LF Brands looked at a number of solutions providers during the summer of 2002 before selecting Gallery. Among the deciding factors in the selection process were the financial stability of the supplier, ease of use of the software and the program's ability to support full-package production, the company reports. One program that was reviewed but not selected was set up more for a manufacturer, says Lee Polsky, senior vice president, worldwide sourcing and production quality. "We wanted a true product development software package that covered our operating needs and was user-friendly. We decided on Lectra because it best met those two criteria," Polsky notes.

The contracts between LF Brands and Lectra were signed at the beginning of August and the new partners immediately embarked on a highly focused, short lead-time implementation. Short insisted that hardware and software be installed and operating by the end of August. "The following week, we had servers in place and software being loaded," notes Paul Robinson, director, product information systems. "By the third week in August, we sent people to training at Lectra and began loading data. We were live with the earliest stage of the rollout by the end of October. This has been a 'warp speed' implementation."

The Sourcing Scene

Prior to Short's coming on board, LF Brands had been working in a cut-and-sew environment whereby it would buy its own piece goods and trim, and secure labor on a cut-make (CM) basis. "We needed to broaden our horizons from a sourcing standpoint and develop a stronger global sourcing presence. Prior to deciding on Gallery, we joined forces with Li & Fung by appointing them as our exclusive global sourcing agent for product purchased outside the United States," Polsky says.

With 68 offices in 42 countries managing more than $4 billion in f.o.b. shipments, Li & Fung brings true global sourcing capability for all types of apparel products to LF Brands, Polsky notes. LF Brands is currently using Li & Fung's sourcing network to make product in Hong Kong, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, India, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Guatemala and El Salvador. "We also make goods in the United States. We have a dedicated cutting room based in New Jersey, which handles all of our cutting, and we continue to buy fabric and trim and place production on a CM basis with selected domestic factories," says Polsky.

Prior to converting to a full-package model, LF Brands was controlling everything in-house: production pattern-making, marking, grading, etc. Today the company is providing its contractors with "tech packages" delivered electronically, including the technical specifications of the product, so that their contractors can quickly and accurately price garments, make samples and execute production. Ultimately, Polsky notes, the need to work overseas in a full-package mode while reducing cycle time was the driving force for implementing PDM software.

With Li & Fung partnering in global sourcing, the natural next step was to connect it to Gallery. "Li & Fung was receptive to collaborating via Gallery," notes Ann Joyce, LF Brands' CIO. "In addition to the collaboration benefits, they can leverage it to reduce product development cycle time as well as decreasing production lead times. In essence we are collaborating by sharing the application. This approach eliminates the confusing and labor-intensive interface methodology, which is commonly used. Li & Fung has made a financial investment in the tool, and we have an agreed upon a game plan with implementation targets, which we are aggressively moving toward," notes Joyce.

By choosing a PDM package to handle dresses (in addition to its sportswear businesses), LF Brands is venturing into uncharted territory. "In terms of PDM, I would venture to say that we are one of the few design companies that has done this in dresses," notes Polsky.

Sportswear applications of PDM can be simpler because the garment specifications tend to be less reliant on the 3-D aspect of the style. "Sportswear product development is less three-dimensional; it's front, back and sleeves, and is more easily workable through a PDM package," Polsky notes. The dress business is more three-dimensional in terms of pattern work. In many cases a lot of draping is required, which is a hands-on process between the creative team, the first pattern maker, and the draper, who needs to execute the design of the garment. "Developing something in the way of a complicated dress with multiple parts and considerable draping 15,000 miles away from this office without any kind of face-to-face dialogue between the designer and the first pattern maker can be difficult," says Polsky. "In the absence of an excellent tech pack with the level of detail that can be provided by Gallery, trying to produce complicated dress styles overseas would create a back and forth exchange that would result in longer lead times. In this day and time, one of our primary business goals is to shrink our lead time, not increase it."

For LF Brands, Gallery offers a huge difference in terms of speed. "Not only can a technical designer, one of the primary users of Gallery, generate many more tech packages per day than can be produced based in a manual process," Polsky says, "but those tech packages can also be moved around the world instantaneously - electronically - instead of taking two to three days to be delivered by courier. The payoff is in both speed and accuracy."

Ah, There's the Rub

As with all implementations, there have been challenges. LF Brands was a company that had been doing business one way for a very, very long time. "We changed our process, our calendar and our systems in a three-month period. When we started the Gallery implementation, we were running in multiple systems: the legacy CM system, an interim tech pack solution and Gallery," Polsky says. "The culture shock and learning curve to the company has been extraordinary. Now we're trying to get down to the one system and roll it out to the balance of the divisions."

Paul Robinson joined LF Brands in April 2002 on a consulting basis to support the conversion of the business process to a full-package f.o.b. model. "What I found was they didn't have the traditional tech package you need to support the import business, so I designed an interim format that we could use to send out tech packs while we searched for a more complete software package from the market," Robinson says. "When we decided on Gallery, we immediately went to work on implementation. But we already had the old systems out there, plus the one I created, and then Gallery. People here didn't know what to use," adds Robinson.

"Is it [Gallery] perfect? No," notes Robinson. "We took the out-of-the-box, vanilla screen shots as they were, and changed a few screen titles and went to town. Some users have found the software and new business process easier to adapt to than others. We're finding after five months that we need to continually train the users, implement quality control standards for tech packs and constantly reinforce the process defined by Gallery to ensure we get the high quality output we require."

As with other implementations, one of the biggest obstacles confronting LF Brands is getting people to do something a new way. "For example, we're asking designers to sketch in Graphic Spec instead of laying out their sketches freehand. It's a whole new mindset," says Polsky.

"We bought the hardware, loaded the software, plugged it in, put people in front of it, sent them to training, and they came back excited," Short notes. "Within days we were bastardizing the process: taking pages out of Gallery, building separate files, and pushing those files around the world outside the Gallery software."

Short stresses it is crucial to train users, then monitor and retrain them, and then re-monitor and retrain again if necessary to get people disciplined and accustomed to using the tool properly. "If you're going to invest in a tool, you have to get everyone to use it. My guess is that today we are using less than 50 percent of the capacity of the software. But that is up significantly from where we were two months ago. I am confident that we will continue to improve dramatically over the coming days and months," Short says.

Polsky and Robinson credit Short for the company's ability to remain on track regardless of challenges. "If it were not for John, we would probably still be about six to eight weeks behind where we are now in getting this thing implemented. He demanded 150 percent so we could yield 100 percent, and it has been a hard push," notes Robinson.

In terms of the company's implementation goals, it hopes to be fully operational with Gallery in June, with each line in various stages of being developed on the system. The Leslie Fay brand was the first to go live, followed by David Warren. "We're doing it in phases. We started with our dress divisions for spring/summer 2003, then we started sportswear for fall/holiday 2003. Cynthia Steffe and Rimini will roll out in 2004," notes Short.

"One of the key things that we preach to our people is that the one constant in our industry is change. If we are not evolving, then we are 'devolving.' Our competitors are not standing still. So get used to it, get comfortable with it, get happy with it, because as soon as we get this up and running properly, we're going to change it again. And we're going to change it because our challenge is to get better, faster, better, faster, better, faster ... As soon as we get it stable, we're going to refine it. But we've got to get stable first," concludes Short.

TRACY HAISLEY is associate editor of Apparel and may be reached at thaisley@apparelmag.com.

Editor's Note: The goal of the software implementation series is to share the story of a progressive apparel industry leader's software implementation in a three-part series of feature articles. The following parts are scheduled to appear in the June and October issues of Apparel. 

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