Guest post by our “IT Department”
If you have been following this blog, you may have read about how PNZ is an odd little company of some 45 people. We live and work in the heart of the Bavarian countryside, produce wood coatings, and somehow possess a cunning ability to bring about change in our industry. The realization that our continuous improvents to all aspects of the production process is actually considered ground-breaking came as a surprise to us. But then, here we are: what are “they” going to do about it?
Some recent PNZ achievements and innovations, which came about rather casually in retrospect, include: a machine cleaning process which reduces its environmental footprint by 90%, a state research grant for sustainable coatings R&D, and an in-house built system to drive and automate the product-lifecycle management of 25,000 SKU’s. It bears re-iterating: an odd little company of 45 people makes this stuff (and more) just happen, on the side, as they churn out cans of extra-premium-quality sustainable coating products…
How did we get here?
Surprised by this realization that we’re quite good at what we do, we naturally asked: “Why us? What do we do which is so different? How do we keep the momentum going?” We found that the answer precedes our questions, and -in hindsight- is quite obvious. As Plato wrote in The Republic: “Necessity is the mother of all inventions”. What made us who we are today can be traced back to sometime around 2012. Back then, as we started to develop our “Premium Private Label” concept, we did not foresee the disruptive ability of its future success. That is, how our new micro-customization approach to production processes and marketing would influence the core of our business as a whole – who we are and what we do as a company.
A second pivotal moment for us happened in 2016 – at a time of identity crisis. Our private label business was growing, but some of its success was at the detriment of our PNZ brand. Should we shift our focus on being a reliable but mostly invisible third-party producer only, or do we also still have our own story to tell? After much introspection and a very productive all-hands retreat, we decided that the main reason we excel in being a value-added partner actually lies in who we are. The brand is made of – and only exists due to – what we stand for as a group of people. It is our culture and our values which give us a solid story to tell our customers. It can be found in our company slogan “Aus Liebe zum Holz” – out of our love for wood. But somehow, until then, we often forgot to tell our story because we found it so obvious! In other words: the success of PNZ is central to the success of private label.
Appetite for disruption
The necessities: a hugely successful new concept, a need to better tell our PNZ story, a limited capacity for new investments. What used to be a service function (support and maintain existing infrastructure) became an integrated, transformative and driving aspect within every department and for every major production process.
Highlighting just one of these transformations: prior to the introduction of our private label line, each of our product information sheets would be stored individually in a MS-Word document. Translations for each foreign language would require their own separate copies. Today, we manage the information sheet data (and more) through building blocks in a content management system. With this, we can easily assemble product documentation for 700 private label customers in 10 languages and maintain information for approximately 25,000 articles.
The content management system itself is part of a larger product-lifecycle system, which we built in-house with the help of open source software. It supports information flow and quality control from the initial conceptualization of a new product to the final printing of its label on a can.
…eating our own cooking
The main constraints that we faced, and which directed our need to build such a system ourselves, were that we lacked the financial and people resources to consider alternative approaches. Secondary, but in hindsight also extremely important, was the requirement for such a system to evolve as the needs of its users crystallized over time. Starting by quickly replicating the initial content with a more efficient hierarchical structure, followed by the regular addition of new features and refinement of existing functionality, the system’s capabilities have grown with the needs of its users.
This is a continuous process which is driven from the ground up: initially by the people responsible for product documentation, but as time progressed by the organization as a whole. More recent functionality includes providing product information data to our channel partners and feeding our online properties. The very latest addition is a process for retrieving, consolidating, reconciling and reporting on online sales data from various sales outlets and payment processors. Our general idea is, admittedly very ambitious, to eventually replace and improve our legacy ERP system as a whole.
We need a bigger stove…
We are a bunch of down to earth DIY girls and boys, who have lots of fun at what we do. No dull knives here. Known to sometimes punch above our weight, we generally succeed in spite of the odds. Is there a catch? Yes obviously, and also a new opportunity. Our IT “kitchen” could use a makeover…
It boils down to: you can’t dance with just one leg… As our IT focus shifted, our attention got captured by the newer and sexier technologies that help us in becoming more productive. As we settle into our more efficient processes, we realize that handling tons of product data and connecting the dots between disparate use-cases requires the basic IT framework to be equally well-oiled. Our data management practices depend in great part on the quality of our infrastructure: our servers, desktops, devices, networking, backups, replicas, email (yuck!) and other “background” processes – which need to be secure, always available, running fast and smoothly.
…and our own “Jamie”
No drama yet, there’s that. And, we have a good idea of how to rework our legacy IT infrastructure so that it will rebalance with the newer parts and whirr in full swing. Due to our pragmatic nature, and keeping in mind “necessity” – the road ahead will likely require some inventive steps and extensive use of open source software. But mostly: the path to be taken will be lead by someone new to the organization, who is self-confident and able to imaginatively cook with a varied array of ingredients.
Are you an IT Sous-Chef who has outgrown their current place of work and is looking to eventually run your own show? Can you work with Windoze and Linux, Macs and Droids, and bring it all together with sophistication and surprisingly good taste?