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Brown Brothers' IT system is best when conservatively tended

Like wine, technology matures with age and should be plied for its subtleties. Changing the blend for change's sake is unwise. At least that has been the IT philosophy at Brown Brothers, which has had one enterprise software supplier for eight years.

"Back in 1998 we realised we needed to expand our thinking to the ways the business might change in the future," says Cam Saunders, chief information officer at the 150-year-old family owned winery. "One focus was IT and the need to look into ERP (enterprise resource planning) because we needed the infrastructure to grow and be dynamic."

Back then Brown Brothers produced much less than today's one million cases of premium wine a year. Then it catered only to liquor stores and its own cellar door. Today its output goes to retail stores, the hospitality sector, and 20 export markets. Five company-owned vineyards in Victoria split fruit production with dozens of outsourced growers who demand careful management.

"We realised a few green (screen) PCs weren't going to scale to meet demand in 10 years (time)," Mr Saunders says. The company appointed J. D. Edwards to supply the ERP system on the understanding that both companies would grow together.

Eight years and two take-overs later — J. D. Edwards was bought by Peoplesoft and recently Oracle — that commitment still stands, says Mr Saunders. "They flagged to us that they wanted to go into the beverage industry and CRM, so we had first chance to get a look into new modules."

J. D. Edwards EnterpriseOne works in conjunction with a winery management system the company has had for years from Total Systems for Management. It administers the fruit and other component supply, and the process of winemaking. EnterpriseOne takes over when the wine is bottled. It manages the data process from packaging to delivery and financials.

Above both sits Cognos, which aggregates data from the two systems and produces supply and demand reports.

"In the eight years since implementation, there hasn't been a new initiative, new pricing or trading terms that we haven't been able to accommodate. And that's significant because we've grown a lot," Mr Saunders says, citing an 80% revenue rise in that time but only 10% increase in staff. Brown Brothers has about 250 employees.

Remarkably, the winery has stuck to its no modification dictum, handed-down by three generations of Browns. It has adopted each software upgrade without altering a single line of code.

"We don't even have developers on staff. For our size, it's not affordable to modify code and reapply the modifications every time there's an upgrade. I like to beat my chest about this because while it may sound like a constraint, it works for us. Even though we are complex and diverse, there's nothing particularly unique about our business. Someone else is doing this. Sometimes we can learn from that."

Mr Saunders is planning for the next upgrade in September, when EnterpriseOne will become web-enabled.

"The web-browser interface will be different for our users but there are a number of positives in terms of maintaining (the data) on the system. We will move from thick Windows applications to thin web-browser applications."

It will also offer new modules that the company has not yet decided to adopt, such as supply management and data collection. For now it prefers to concentrate on the complexity of managing long grape growing lead times in a market where demand trends can change almost overnight.

"Our role in IT is to make sure we're continuing to enable our competitive advantage through good reliable systems that deliver trusted information. The key here is that you can have systems but you always have to do things for the right reasons and out of passion for the brand."

Lia Timson, Sydney Morning Herald.

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