Best Practices: Taking Business Process Automation by the Horns

When propane company Blue Rhino says it's serious about automating inventory procurement and ordering processes, that's not just a lot of hot air


Blue Rhino, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based division of Ferrellgas, is a top national provider of branded propane cylinder exchange and propane-fueled products to consumers. The company distributes its cylinders to more than 27,000 retail locations in 48 states plus Puerto Rico through a national network of 52 independent and affiliated distributors.

Founded in 1994 at a time when tank exchange represented a small percentage of the consumer propane market, Blue Rhino has experienced significant growth as it built a nationwide distribution network, established key retail partnerships and rode the wave of increasing gas grill sales and the rise of year-round barbecuing. However, even as the company expanded, it retained its largely manual processes for interacting with its distributors and tracking millions of 20-pound propane cylinders.

"The movement of full cylinders from our production facilities to the distribution points, and then the movement of the empty cylinders back to the production facilities, was handled mostly on paper," explains Tamria Zertuche, senior director of information systems at Blue Rhino. That left management with little visibility into the disposition of a large number of the company's assets at any given moment. In addition, the paper-based process was slowing down Blue Rhino's accounting department, which took days to close out the books at the end of each month.

Taking a BPM Approach

With the company continuing to grow at a rapid pace, Blue Rhino realized that it needed to automate its processes in order to maintain and improve its inventory controls, provide management with visibility into critical information about the business and support the company's steady expansion. Looking for a business process management (BPM) solution, Blue Rhino conducted a competitive review of BPM offerings based on a set of requirements that included the capability to quickly incorporate new Department of Transportation documentation into the workflow as government reporting mandates changed, and the ability to integrate with the company's existing infrastructure, particularly Microsoft SQL Server, which is the company's main database environment.

Eventually the company invited three solution providers to a "bake-off" that involved installing the solutions on Blue Rhino's servers and getting an automated form up and running as a demo. The winner turned out to be Columbia, Md.-based Metastorm, which offers a BPM solution called e-Work. "Metastorm sent in their team, they got here about 9:30 in the morning, and we were in a demo at 1 o'clock, looking at a finished product," Zertuche says. "At that point in time the other teams hadn't even figured out which discs they were supposed to use."

Zertuche adds that Blue Rhino's solution selection team also was impressed with Metastorm's help desk support and the solution provider's corporate culture, which jibed well with that of Blue Rhino. "They were all about people being their greatest resource, and that was important because we wanted the product to be with us for a long time," Zertuche says.

Running the Pilot

Once the selection had been made and the e-Work solution was installed at Blue Rhino, Zertuche and her team set about running a pilot project involving five distributor areas and one production center. For the month-long pilot, Blue Rhino asked the distributors to continue using the previous paper-based process but also to incorporate an online reporting process into their workflow as well. The distributors would file the normal paperwork regarding cylinders moving to and from Blue Rhino's production facility, but they would also report on the movement of cylinders back to Blue Rhino through an online distributor portal.

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