Ivory International may not be a household name, but its apparel products are probably found in most U.S. households. The Caribbean Joe brand of casual sportswear, which Ivory recently licensed, is sold in department stores, specialty stores and resorts. The company's private-label business makes a broad mix of products for mid-level department stores across the United States. From children's denim at Sears to hunters' camouflage pants and turkey vests at Wal-Mart, Ivory International apparel can be seen nearly everywhere shoppers go.
Miami-based Ivory, which is privately owned and has been profitable for all 37 years of its history, is now in fast-growth mode and is committed to moving more of its activities overseas. But to continue its rapid growth, it must coordinate diverse functions in scattered locations with disparate work cultures and capabilities. To produce and deliver its eclectic mix of clothing, Ivory sources goods from 14 countries on three continents, operates quality assurance offices in eight of those countries, and maintains design offices in Miami and Dallas and a sales office in Kentucky. And that's not even counting the new Caribbean Joe division, which is based in New York.
To add to the complexity, Ivory must meet divergent requirements posed by the retailers for which it produces private-label apparel. As retailers began implementing product lifecycle management (PLM) systems to shorten their time to market and keep abreast of fast-moving trends, Ivory was challenged to keep up with them while remaining true to its origins as a lean, low-overhead domestic importer. "We have multiple customers with multiple data requirements - each one is unique and even their terminology is different," says Roger Mayerson, the company's executive vice president of product development and global sourcing.
PLM made simple
Mayerson realized that to meet retailers' demands, Ivory would need "one data pool that allowed us to have data at the tips of our fingers to communicate with our customers." Over the years, each part of the company had developed its own spreadsheet-based tracking systems, but no integrated system was in place to help the company quickly develop products and bring them to market. To gain more visibility and control, Ivory would need its own PLM system as well as more robust back-office systems.
During his years in the retail side of the industry, Mayerson built a product development management system from the ground up at Target and implemented a PLM system at Casual Male. Those experiences gave him clear ideas about the PLM system he wanted at Ivory.
His most important requirement was that the system be simple and easy to use. "We're in a relatively unsophisticated business," he says. "We're in multiple countries with multiple languages - we've got to keep it clear and simple." Based on his market research and experience at Casual Male, he recommended NGC's e-PLM and e-SPS software, which together provide an integrated solution for PLM and global sourcing. Ivory purchased the NGC software in September 2008 and finished implementing it domestically by April 2009. Implementation is still underway in the overseas offices and will begin early next year in the Caribbean Joe division.
Because the NGC software was selected for its user-friendliness, training was relatively quick and easy. To get everyone up to speed, Ivory held formal training sessions and then developed a group of super-users who could answer questions in each functional area.
Getting serious about deadlines
Learning to take full advantage of the software, however, presented challenges - and is still a work in progress. To get the most out of PLM requires cultural changes on the part of the company and its suppliers. The first cultural shift is learning to live by the calendar. PLM systems make public all the dates that must be met to deliver finished goods on time. Divisions and suppliers are judged, as never before, on their success in meeting deadlines.
Mayerson says: "The biggest challenge is convincing people that deadlines are serious. ... In some countries, people just want to talk about the deadlines a lot; in other countries, they're very dead-on and love being regimented - they take it on as a challenge." Mayerson predicts that the regions embracing faster, deadline-driven production will compete better in today's economy than those that continue operating at a more relaxed pace.
On the development side, too, Mayerson says, many designers and merchandisers have long been in the habit of waiting until the last moment to make sure the design is "just right." Such delays in finalizing products threaten delivery dates. Once PLM is implemented, these perfectionists often chafe at the constraints imposed by the calendar.
Enabling customer-focused teams
Another cultural shift involves replacing functional "silos" with team-based development and production. Ivory is in the midst of reorganizing itself into customer-focused, self-managed teams reporting to a sourcing manager. Each team includes representatives of functions from development through delivery for a single retailer. Although every activity is assigned to a particular person or group, the team as a whole takes responsibility for meeting deadlines.
PLM reinforces team collaboration by making status updates and communications visible to everyone in the team. "If a person overseas has a problem with color approval, [the news] goes to the whole team, which requires that it gets done on time," Mayerson explains. "If they see red squares on the calendar, they know they're behind on an activity for a certain purchase order or style. ... And if they all know that a person is behind, the expectation is that they will go and help that person." By applying peer pressure, marshalling additional resources, and contributing creative new ideas, team members help each other meet their deadlines.
"My experience is that it's a more enjoyable and positive experience to work as a team, and it gets more positive results," Mayerson adds. "PLM facilitates that. Without PLM, it would be very difficult." (Mayerson notes that PLM can also be used to reinforce "silo" organization, if a company chooses to implement it in that way.)
Still, the transition from functional silos to customer-focused teams is difficult. "It's always a challenge to get people to see how it can help them individually," Mayerson says. His approach was to solicit input from skeptical team members - some of whom had been working for the company since before computers were introduced - and to listen seriously to their concerns. In response to their feedback, he tweaked many business rules to make sure each team was receiving the information its customer required. Variations among the customers, of which some are niche retailers and others are price-driven mass retailers, added complications. "We had to set up calendaring differently for each team and each manufacturing location," Mayerson says.
While Ivory is still three to six months away from measuring the results of this transformation, Mayerson expects to reduce time to market by 20 percent to 30 percent. He says: "PLM allows us to be transparent, to see work in progress at the factory level, and to manage by exception rather than trying to manage it all. That's the exciting potential of PLM."
Masha Zager is a New York City-based free-lance writer who specializes in business and technology.
systems at a glance
* Product Design and Development: Adobe Illustrator
* Color Management: Datacolor (in process of being implemented)
* Integrated PLM and Global Sourcing: NGC e-PLM and e-SPS
* ERP: CGS BlueCherry
* Accounting: Microsoft Dynamics (Solomon)