Carolina's Choice? Microsoft's Small Business Server

By Patricia Fusco | Posted November 05, 2003

Carolina's Choice by Williams, Inc. is a small, independent furniture maker that specializes in manufacturing high-quality furnishings for the home and office. Located in Rocky Mount, N.C., Jeff and Nan Williams have been running the business for 14 years.

"We started the company on the back of a Ryder truck. We had two sample products and offered two different finishes. We hit the road to sell our line, " Nan Williams said. "Today we have hundreds of items and nine different finishes. Instead of selling our furniture out of the back of a truck, we sell to a network of dealers throughout the U.S."

Like many growing small businesses, the company struggles to keep its costs down and production up. Williams said that's the only way a small company like Carolina's Choice can stay competitive.

"The name of the game is volume," Williams said. "For us to stay competitive we have to keep a close eye on all our costs. If we're even five-cents over on our production costs, we're losing money."

Back Office Bottleneck
In order to manage its production line, the Williams devised an elaborate costing system. "We know down to the penny how much glue costs on every single item we make," Williams said. "Our costing system helps keep us competitive." But detailed costing systems are difficult to manage, especially for a small business like Carolina's Choice that lacked the computing power to keep up with constant adjustments in their supply lines.

The old costing system was done in Microsoft Excel. Basically, Carolina's Choice used a "flat file" that related one piece of information with another, so that the data could be sorted, but not queried. Every time the cost of raw materials or parts changed, the back office spent days trying to adjust all the costs of related items by hand. Weeks could pass before the new pricing information was communicated to its sales channels.

Carolina's Choice back office consisted of three people, two workstations and a laptop computer. They had a peer-to-peer network set up for file sharing and print serving, but only one workstation had a dial-up connection. All their faxing was done manually after physically printing the pages to be sent to sales representatives and brokers. They also produced their catalogue in-house. If one person was working the color copier to produce printouts for their catalogue, everything else in the office came to a standstill.

As efficient as Carolina's Choice costing system was on the production floor, its back office was riddled with inefficiencies. "We didn't realize things were as archaic as they were until we updated our back office systems," Williams said.

Back Office Overhaul
With the help of its IT partner, Harrison Technology Consulting, Carolina's Choice created a more flexible and powerful network infrastructure, a single-entry cost management system, and new communication and collaboration tools that dramatically affected their bottom line.

How dramatic?

Carolina's Choice spent about $12,000 to upgrade its infrastructure and estimates they'll save $72,000 this year alone.

Jason Harrison is part of the two-person team behind Harrison Technology Consulting, which happened to be part of Microsoft's Rapid Adoption Program for the Office 2003 System as well as a trusted IT partner of Carolina's Choice. With advance access to Microsoft's Office System 2003 and server software in July, Harrison was able to deploy the new setup for Carolina's Choice well before the public release of the products in October.

"We set up a Dell 2600 server to run Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 with SharePoint Services. Of course, we added a backup power supply to make the network fault tolerant, and we upgraded the workstations so they could handle the Professional Edition of Microsoft Office 2003," Harrison said. "We set up a DSL connection and a wireless access point for the laptop. We added an intelligent fax board so people could fax from their PCs — we basically overhauled the entire back office."

The result?

Williams said the new and improved infrastructure has given the small business an edge, and the ability to be as competitive as any American manufacturer could be.

"We're using the new system to produce our catalogue and do e-mail marketing," Williams said. "We're just beginning to use the Windows SharePoint Service to extend sub-sites to our dealers and sales network. They can log in and gain access to new product information, new promotions and the like. The bottom line is that we are doing a lot more with a lot less."

New Standards, No Regrets
Harrison said one of the most important parts of the Microsoft solution was to move Carolina's Choice from a peer-to-peer network and standardize the office software.

"The combination of Windows Small Business Server 2003 and Office Professional Edition 2003 liked all the employees, sales representatives, and dealers together. This made information easy to share and their costing system easy to manage."

Harrison migrated the Excel-based costing system to Microsoft Office Access 2003. Carolina's Choice is taking advantage of the relational database capabilities of Access. Now when there's a cost adjustment in the "furniture parts" data the change is automatically replicated throughout the "finished goods" data, which, in turn, automatically updates the selling price and price sheets for each finished product. Once the price and product lists are updated, the information is available to dealers and sales reps through their SharePoint sites.

The Windows Small Business Server 2003 and associated client-side applications solved a variety of problems for Carolina's Choice. Williams said the small company has just closed a major deal as a result of its new efficiencies in the back office. The deal could literally double its sales over the next year.

"If you approach managing your small business like a big business, you have the potential to grow," Williams said. "We always try to build a quality product at a fair price, but now we're even more responsive to our customers. We're so blown away with the numbers so far, that the only thing I would change is to have upgraded our system sooner."

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