What Does Open Source CRM Success Look Like? Ask Estes Inc.

Headquartered on the Texas plains and serving up fertilizers, pesticides and other materials to farmers across the Midwest, you might not initially recognize that Estes Inc. is technology pioneer – until you walk into the lobby of its Irving, Texas office.

Rather than a receptionist, the office boasts a touch-screen greeting system tied into its Asterisk-based phone system. That gives a hint at Estes' IT underpinnings; led by its CIO and VP of Information Technology, Russell Smith, the company has made a strong move into open source technology – not just in its phone system but in its business software systems, including its Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software and its Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system.

Working with system integrator Levementum, Smith's team at Estes implemented open source CRM and open source ERP - from SugarCRM and Compiere, respectively - to create a fully integrated, front-to-back-office business software solution that allowed the company to develop customizations as necessary for business process requirements unique to Estes' industry, and to do it at a lower cost than with a commercial solution.

In order to accomplish this IT strategy, however, Smith had to overcome a troublesome history of problems related to the legacy information systems. Smith commented that "11 years ago, Estes tried to implement a proprietary ERP software system using a third party consulting service, and the company almost went belly-up, it was a dismal failure." In addition to replacing a business software system that was almost two decades old, Smith had to explain, educate and promote his open source strategy with the rest of the management team. He admits he had to do a "bit of a sell job."

Fortunately, that selling effort was made easier when he pointed out the unique vertical market circumstances of Estes' business. The company sells specialized farming supplies through both retail stores and a direct sales force, making inventory management an important consideration.

"There's a time consideration as to when our customers need these products," Smith said. "If our inventory falls below a certain number, we need to be able to quickly break open a pallet and move the product to the warehouse. Since these products are often sold on a consignment basis, we needed to be able to handle various pricing methods."

These business requirements also bring mobile CRM into the fold, since direct sales staff need to be able to guarantee availability of products while in the field. Sales people also need to proactively know at what time during the year their customers may need certain products, based on seasonal or other fluctuations, so they can initiate their outbound calling.

Adding additional regulatory requirements, some agriculture products, like ammonium nitrate, are controlled materials whose sale is monitored by the government, meaning that the CRM and ERP applications need to be able to identify and tie into additional systems that monitor these items.

"They didn't evaluate any ERP software solutions until they understood at a tactical level their unique requirements," said Geoffrey Mobisson, Levementum's managing director of technology and marketing, thereby giving the company an edge that many companies lack while evaluating ERP and CRM software systems. "Because of that, they were able to bring real data – real, specific data – to the discussion of what the solution should look like and what products should be involved."

Using a commercial or proprietary suite of applications would have carried a big price tag even before the software customizations needed to make it a suitable fit for Estes. That left one viable avenue: open source.

Smith used the open-source community to help build his team's expertise, said Mobisson. Levementum's participation was "primarily to bring in the basic functionality; once it was in place, the team at Estes could handle a lot of the customizations on their own," he said.

At the heart of the system was Compiere's enterprise resource planning system. The Estes team built a custom front end to Compiere that aided the inside sales and inventory management processes. Because of SugarCRM's mobile offering, an integration between SugarCRM and Compiere was developed using Talend, an open-source ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) data migration product, that allowed sales staff in the field to view inventory availability and delivery information through SugarCRM via handheld devices.

To deploy the enterprise-wide business software system, Smith knew that as lacking as the legacy system was, a rip-and-replace approach would not be tolerated. Instead, he chose to get one site up and running with the new software, then quickly roll it out to other locations, using his immediate past successes to help smooth the transition, demonstrate issues that needed fixing, and win over more allies within the company.

Despite many CRM software implementations incurring user adoption challenges from sales people, Estes biggest allies may be the sales team. Sales staff now have the ability to understand the customer better – when does he plant, when will he need certain supplies, what payment options does he prefer or what did he buy last year – and have the information at their fingertips when they call on the customer. However, a related challenge of software training has had to take a back seat to seasonal workloads.

"From March to September, our sales team is going balls to the wall," Smith said. "We haven't had time to train the sales team on the new application, and all this power is going to give them a big advantage, but only if they know how to use it." The winter season promises an opportunity to bring the sales staff fully up to speed, so the growing season will be the real test of the solution's field component.

Another challenge facing Smith: late in September, shortly after implementation roll-outs, Estes was acquired by Winfield Solutions, another large agriculture supplier. The future of the open-source business systems remain somewhat in limbo. "I'm sure I'll be working to sell this idea again," Smith said, "but I've had to choose open source before – and now I have some results to talk about."