Tony Kontzer, Contributing Editor
Frey Farms exists because of the sheer grit of its founder, Sarah Frey. So there was no way the Keenes, Ill.-based company was going to let a little thing like technology get in its way.
More than 25 years ago, at the age of 18, Frey, the youngest of 21 siblings and half-siblings, bought her family’s farm in an effort to save it from foreclosure. During the subsequent decades, she built the company into the nation’s largest supplier of pumpkins and second-largest supplier of watermelons. Her determination has become a key component of Frey Farms’ identity.
For many years, however, the company’s technology undermined that identity:
- Frey Farms relied on a combination of QuickBooks and Google Docs, with a 110-column spreadsheet serving as the de facto ERP system.
- Each of its four business units required a separate QuickBooks instance, and users could only be logged in to two of those at a time.
- The business had grown to comprise seven of its own farms, as well as relationships with partner growers and dozens of distribution partners. In recent years, it also launched a fruitful business making beverages out of unsold watermelons. Financial transactions related to each of these activities had to be entered in five locations between the company’s various spreadsheets.
Along the way, QuickBooks reached its breaking point, literally. Data corruption issues resulted in some data linkages being lost for particular general ledger transactions, causing certain balance sheet reports to no longer balance as they should’ve.
CFO Tracy Martin suggested to Frey that it was time for a new system.
“When something needs to be done, “Sarah just says, ‘Make it happen,’” said Martin. “So that’s what we did.”
“Making It Happen”
Frey Farms’ search for a new ERP system came down to three contenders: Oracle NetSuite, Microsoft Dynamics and SAP. While Martin was partial to SAP because of previous experience, she was also wary of the rigidity of the product. Ultimately, the company went with NetSuite because it was a good match for Frey Farms’ existing business processes, and because of its ability to provide detailed reporting on the fly via saved searches.
A quick rundown of the results by business area:
Frey Farms used NetSuite to address one of its biggest priorities: the ability to “drop orders” before there is inventory available.
At most companies, “orders are not scheduled for shipment until inventory is available, but our process works in reverse,” Martin said. “Because of the short amount of time from field to the store, we must prepare to ship orders while the product is being harvested and packed, rather than waiting until the finished product is visible in inventory.”
On NetSuite, Martin can simply log in to see the entire company’s operation in a single report. Custom saved searches show her transactions and balances for any combination of Frey Farms’ four business units, or all of them combined.
And then there are those all-important linkages: by tying together sales orders, purchase orders and freight costs, NetSuite has given Frey Farms more clarity on pricing than ever before. This comes in handy when the company pursues deals with major retailers like Walmart and Kum & Go, the Midwestern chain of convenience stores.
“It’s very important for us to understand how much each load [of product] costs us, so we can make sure we’re pricing it correctly,” said Martin. That way, “when we go to our customers next year, we can say, ‘This is what we need to charge.’”
- Reporting and modeling
Frey Farms can also see information about its inventory with an unprecedented level of detail. Martin said she can easily run reports on the availability of regular pumpkins, ornamentals or seedless watermelons, or break down inventory levels by farm location, in NetSuite. She segments sales reports by farm location and item type, too.
The company employs multiple business models — sometimes it owns the field and handles all the growing; sometimes it pays a grower a fixed price per bin. Martin uses NetSuite to quickly determine where Frey Farms is making the most money, thus allowing entry into more profitable deals. She also uses the tool to identify the delta between bins of product the company grew or bought and how many it actually sold, so teams can reach accurate settlements with growers on a more timely basis.
With QuickBooks, teams would’ve had to pull this kind of information, if even available, from multiple spreadsheets manually.
“[NetSuite is] definitely closing some gaps that we had before,” Martin said.
“NetSuite is definitely closing some gaps that we had before.” –Tracy Martin, CFO, Frey Farms
Implementation: A Quick Ramp-Up
Frey Farms went live on NetSuite in late March — yes, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was heating up — and was shipping watermelons just two weeks later. (It began shipping pumpkins, its top product, in September.) Martin expects to learn a lot more about the impact of NetSuite once the company gets a full year on the software under its belt.
What she has learned so far is the importance of balancing technology with the analog orientation of the business and its employees. While Frey Farms’ staff was receptive to NetSuite, Martin has pulled back on process changes that weren’t making their jobs easier — such as tracking multiple pallet types in the inventory system. Ultimately, that method just made order changes more complicated — so the warehouse team went back to counting pallets visually.
“You have to understand when it’s time to say [that a procedural change is] not adding value,” Martin said.
Coming Soon: Customization and Dashboards
Going forward, Martin plans to pursue a couple more value-adds:
- Her team will build a custom script that will let NetSuite accrue liabilities related to drop-ship purchase orders. That way, when Frey Farms closes its books at month-end, profitability is more accurately reflected without as much manual intervention.
- She also wants to take the time to customize dashboards in NetSuite that display the day’s business activities in real time.
She plans to spend the winter months, when things are slow, to handle both of those tasks. It’s all part of the day-to-day mission to keep the business Frey created out of sheer determination moving forward — a mission NetSuite is making a little easier.