Ballin Tailors its IT for a Perfect Fit

— April 01, 2009

Changing a tried and true way of doing business to fit its software, making unique customizations that result in a time-stamped system, or ending up with "orphaned" software that's been modified so much it won't work with any new applications: Those are some of the difficulties that Ballin wanted to avoid when it began looking for a solution to replace its legacy system.

Ballin, a leading manufacturer of better men's dress slacks sold at more than 1,000 North American department stores and specialty shops, was founded in 1946 in Montreal. Today, the company utilizes multiple warehouses and distribution centers, with about 60 percent of its manufacturing done domestically in Canada.

Ballin had been running a legacy system installed in 1997 that was originally acquired from Garpac. Several years later, the software rights were sold to CGS, which ultimately decided to discontinue the software application - with more than a million dollars spent by Ballin on its development over the past decade.

"We were happy with that Unix-based product and it did what we required of it," says Ron Cacchione, Ballin's director of information technology.  "We were pretty well able to support the bulk of it ourselves. However, with respect to EDI, we had to rely on the vendor to move the application along as it evolved with our trading partners."

When CGS stopped supporting Ballin's custom system, the search for a new system began. The company looked at a number of different solutions, but found that none of the traditional ERP offerings met its needs.

"We were looking for a solution that would offer us the ability to participate in the development, and grow with it as well," says Cacchione. "We do have a small development team here, and alongside of the main ERP system, we have developed our own layered applications that interface with our system - a scanning system, a replenishment system and data warehouse system decision support - all were developed here. It was important to us to continue to do that."

Participation in development
Ballin also wanted to retain the major functionality of what it was already running.

Other products, says Cacchione, were already "established and defined." Although some modifications would be possible, the essential structure in which they operated was different from what Ballin was used to.

"The way in which we do supply and demand balancing is not necessarily replicated in other systems" it is achieved in a somewhat different way," says Cacchione. "And it was important for us to retain that, in terms of the culture within our organization. When a customer sales order comes in, how that order is going to be satisfied and how we identify that supply source, and all the rules that come into play with that, was something we did not wish to change."

Ballin had built up its own internal expertise to handle customer orders, using the parameters as defined within the system. To change that core operation would have added to the complexity of going to a new system. "We did not really want to change the way we were doing that," says Cacchione. "We didn't want to go conceptually in a different direction. It was important to us to retain the same sort of approach going forward as we had with the existing software."

Around this time, Cacchione was approached by David Roth, the primary architect of the legacy system it had been running, regarding a new solution offered by Simparel with flexibility the others lacked. 

"We were intrigued by the technological approach that was being taken," says Cacchione. "When I took a closer look, I was also intrigued with the possibility of participating in the design and some of the configuration with my staff here."

Instead of being rigidly forced into whatever functionality the software offered, Ballin was able to replicate the functionality that it didn't want to change, while making whatever changes it wanted.

Implementation over a weekend
First, Ballin went over all the functionality it was looking for, including a gap analysis done module by module. "We did this by having Simparel explain what they had previously configured in their system, and us explaining what we had in ours, and got the gaps identified. Then we laid out the development effort."

The company's existing ERP functionality was replicated, including master production scheduling, cut planning and multi-level automated supply chain allocation. Ballin's own developers spent six weeks working with Simparel learning how to manage the configuration on their own, then came back to headquarters and wrote several parallel applications in their own shop.

With a project plan in place, configuration efforts started in early 2008 and implementation and training began in Ballin's ladies' wear division in the fall, with its much larger main division coming on board two months later.

"This approach allowed us to implement the solution on a smaller scale, with smaller volumes, in a more controlled way," says Cacchione. Because the ladies' wear division is much smaller, it allowed the company to keep closer tabs on things and made it easier to control the implementation. "This allowed us a 'dry run,' if you will, before doing a full blown implementation."

The approach also allowed Ballin to work out some kinks, making some minor modifications and fine-tuning technical details such as data synchronizations and cutoffs.

"We implemented over a weekend and we have never looked back. On a Friday evening we ended an accounting period on the old system, and we started using the new system immediately after," says Cacchione. "We had some minor issues, but business was not interrupted."

Ability to interface
One of the major benefits of the new system is its ability to interface with other systems being used by Ballin, now and in the future.
While traditional solutions rely on code and customizations, the Simparel solution uses "system dictionaries," which are pieces of data accessible to the company. That data can be reconfigured and tweaked without the use of code, ranging from user interfaces, business processes for how Ballin interacts with its suppliers and customers, and EDI.

With all of Ballin's scanning and warehouse operations systems developed by its own team, interface files were previously used to patch information back and forth. Now these applications interface directly in real time with the Simparel files.

"Once we got rid of all of those interface files and transfer processes, we were able to operate as one integrated system," says Cacchione. "That is a major advantage."

Much quicker system development
Cacchione says that the biggest advantage of the new solution is the speed of system development. "Whenever you are able to accelerate something as time-consuming as system development from conception to delivery, it gives you a huge competitive advantage."

Cacchione says that although Ballin took a fairly sophisticated technological approach to its legacy system, the company was still encumbered by third-generation tools and languages for its development. "The use of a newer technology speeds that up, and every effort from this point on will carry that benefit," he says.

Looking forward, Ballin plans to implement data warehousing, analytics and web-based decision support - which can all be layered and interfaced however the company wishes, as a result of its team's participation in the original configuration process.

"This system will allow us to do so much more," says Cacchione. "We have a sound, advanced technological base from which to grow over the next decade and more."

Stacey Kusterbeck is an Apparel contributing author based in New York.

systems at a glance
ERP: Simparel
Financials: Sage Accpac
Marker making: Gerber Technology
Plotting: Gerber Technology

fast facts
Employees: 250+
Target market: Adult males
Headquarters: Montreal
Number of SKUs: 250,000+
Price points: $39.99 to $225.00


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