ACH Food scours out its data pantry

Data cleansing is a dirty job, but mergers and buyouts make it a priority

Data cleansing is a dirty, thankless job. But Donnie Steward, CIO for ACH Food Companies, knew he had to do it in order to bring the Memphis firm's IT systems from the 1980s into 2008.

"We had to account for 30 years of sins in terms of not maintaining our data," Steward said.

Founded in the early 1900s, ACH was simply a regional restaurant and wholesale supplier for most of its existence.

"If you've eaten at McDonalds, you've tried our Frymax" oil, Steward said.

Starting in the mid-1980s, ACH embarked on a growth strategy. It bought more than a dozen firms and itself changed owners multiple times.

By 2004, ACH was a billion-dollar subsidiary of British giant Associated British Foods, with well-known consumer brands such as Mazola corn oil, Argo corn starch, Durkee spices, French's mustard, and Henri's salad dressing in its business "pantry." But it was still relying a complicated, fragile web of almost 60 legacy IT systems.

For instance, ACH's core order control system was a home-grown one, built in the 1980s using the now-esoteric RGB programming language. It ran on an old IBM AS/400 minicomputer.

"When I joined, I used to tease everybody that the ERP around here was Microsoft Excel. Everybody laughed, but there was a lot of truth to that statement," Steward said. "They had a couple of Microsoft Access database apps, which in reality only allowed them to put in a larger amount of records. And there was no such thing as a business analyst at ACH."

And with siloed and ancient systems, ACH's developers could only "kludge together how to price a consumer order and a commercial order, which took a lot of manual labor and workarounds," he said. It was all "very painful, much more than management had anticipated."

A former CIO at Del Monte Fresh and Servicemaster, Steward was hired as a consultant by ACH to write a strategic plan for integrating and moderning ACH's systems, which management was finally resolving itself to do. Steward was quickly hired as CIO to carry it out.

One of the first steps ACH under Steward took was to create a proper data warehouse. It used Informatica's PowerCenter tool to extract, transfer and load the data from the various legacy systems.

This allowed ACH for the first time to get accurate data mining results, Steward said.

"Historically, it was very difficult to get one version of the truth. You'd run a batch routine ten minutes later and get different numbers," Steward said.

The next step was for ACH to consolidate its various ERP and CRM systems, including JD Edwards, PRMS, PKMS and others, for a single ERP system. It chose SAP a year ago.

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