Executive Briefings

Service Is 'Sterling' and Costs Are Lower at Crowley Maritime

A conversation with Tom Sheridan, manager of information technology at Crowley Maritime, Jacksonville, Fla.

Crowley Maritime Corp. is a family- and employee-owned company that provides diversified transportation, logistics and emergency response services in domestic and international markets. To better manage its six divisions and automate business-to-business communications, the company recently implemented the Gentran Integration Suite (GIS) from Sterling Commerce, a division of AT&T based in Columbus, Ohio.

Q: How did you become involved with this software implementation project at Crowley?

Sheridan: I joined Crowley in the early '90s as a pricing analyst. I had been recruited after Crowley purchased a solution from my previous employer, a company called DXI, which had developed software to automate tariff filings in the shipping industry. DXI had a contract with the Federal Maritime Commission and also developed a product for the commercial market, for which Crowley was the first customer. When I joined the company, I helped move all of the old, voluminous paper tariffs that outlined all the rates and commodities that were shipped onto an electronic database. After that, I worked as a pricing analyst for about six years. Then I became manager of tariff publishing, where I managed all the filing of contracts and open tariffs, which are rates that apply to anyone that doesn't have a contract. In 2000 I moved into the IT department to manage application services, pretty much dedicated to the DXI software and Crowley's mainframe. Since then I have managed application development internally, mostly for our mainframe system but including some Windows-based applications. We probably have about 100 different applications internally to support transactions. These range from major applications, like our reservations system for all of our bookings, to little niche applications that are only used by one or two people in the company to do a specific job. So I naturally was involved when we decided to implement the Gentran Integration Suite.

Q: What were the "pain points" that drove the decision to acquire GIS?

Sheridan: Over the last 10 years, Crowley has seen a large increase in EDI [electronic data interchange] traffic with our customers and, in some cases, our vendors. From 2000 to 2005, we tripled or quadrupled our EDI volume. Since most of that traffic went through a value-added network or VAN, our EDI-related costs also tripled or quadrupled. So one of our objectives was to communicate directly with our customers without going through the VAN service. GIS allowed us to do that, which was a big thing. In fact, by connecting directly with our top 10 partners in terms of volume, we were able to save $15,000 to $16,000 a month in VAN costs alone. So our big push initially was to get some of the big railroads and other big customers, which together represented a lot of EDI traffic, off of the mainframe so we could route messages directly to them instead of going through the VAN.

We had been using the Gentran EDI translator from Sterling Commerce internally, but it was totally a mainframe-based product. It worked great for mainframe applications. But then we started bringing in applications like DXI, which is Unix-based, and other applications that ran on non-mainframe platforms. The question became, in these cases, what do we use as an EDI translator? Did we really want to take these applications to the mainframe just to translate and send out EDI? Also, there was a move by our management around that time to get rid of the mainframe altogether, which presented another dilemma since the mainframe was our only translator for moving EDI data.

In the end, we felt that we needed a solution that was independent of all platforms and that would allow all different platforms to send data to a centralized system, where we could standardize our data archives and data history. That also would enable us to track our EDI documents a lot better.

We looked at several different solutions and concluded that the GIS product gave us the flexibility we needed to move the 90 percent of our data that was still mainframe-based and also the ability to plug and play all of our other applications.

Q: Do you use GIS for internal integration as well as with customers and vendors?

Sheridan: Yes, we are using it for better communications internally. There is a lot of mapping that needs to be done to connect one system with another and it is best to have an independent solution for that rather than one that is oriented toward one system or the other. GIS has been great for that. Plus, we are beginning to look at the EDI capabilities of our other back office systems, like our Lawson financial system. We have not used EDI to move data between these systems before because we would have had to send it to the mainframe and then back out. Now, with GIS, the mainframe doesn't need to be involved at all. Data could go to Lawson, through GIS and out to the customer and then back from the customer, through GIS and into Lawson. We also are looking at our transportation systems, intermodal systems, human resources and PeopleSoft applications, asking if there are any opportunities to use EDI where we haven't used it in the past. The biggest obstacle we have there is just having enough people to do it all.

Q: How did the implementation go?

Sheridan: We have an integration team here that implemented the foundation, so I really wasn't involved in that. It seemed easy to me, but it may not have been so easy to the team doing the work. I know that it didn't take very long. My team did the on-boarding of customers and all the mapping for the transmissions. Then it was just a matter of getting an understanding of the mailboxes that are used. As I mentioned before, we targeted our big volume customers first.

One of the big advantages of GIS is that we are now able to on-board customers and get them on the system more quickly. Before, the process for creating translation maps was a little clunky. Now we have an analyst do the upfront work and then a developer comes in and sets up the mailboxes and does the mapping. The analyst who does the upfront work actually can be a fairly non-technical person, which is great because we don't have to tie up a programmer or developer. That is also the case when it comes to troubleshooting issues. Now an analyst can get in there and look at the data, whereas before it took a programmer to go behind the scenes and figure out what had gone wrong when there was a problem with data transmissions. We are limited in the number of programmers we have, and programmers are more expensive than analysts, so being able to use the analysts to do a lot of that work is a savings and a process improvement.

Tracking with this product also is a lot easier because, if we fail to get an expected acknowledgment, we can respond accordingly. And we save all the communications, so if there should be a failure, we have the history to go back and see why something was not received.

Basically, the EDI standards are well defined. For example, an EDI 310 is a shipping invoice and all customers expect the same information to be contained in a 310 transmission. Sometimes a customer or vendor may use a field a little differently than we do and we may have to do a little work there to make sure things align, but it is mostly just defining the connectivity. They will give us the IP address we are going to send to and we will set up a mailbox on our side that will receive the data and route it to that IP address. For example, when we create a bill of lading on our side, it triggers us to create the 310. This goes to the mailbox and from there to the customer's IP address. The customer receives it and we get an acknowledgment that it was received. Then they process it however they want.

Q: You are also using GIS to connect to Customs?

Sheridan: Yes. U.S. Customs was by volume the biggest partner that we worked with. It is a very important partner because we can be assessed heavy fines if we don't get information to them in a timely and accurate fashion. You obviously want your customers to be happy, but you definitely have to be sure the government is happy! Also, because Customs represented our biggest volume of EDI traffic, it presented a big savings opportunity. Moving Customs off the VAN service saved us about $7,500 a month. And, by eliminating this extra step, we have fewer potential failure points and a smoother transportation process.

Q: Are there other non-financial benefits?

Sheridan: The biggest thing for us was just getting on a standardized platform. Before it was like patching something with duct-tape to do any non-mainframe-based EDI. Each time you were building something that may work, but that was not reliable and required a lot of troubleshooting. With everything on the same platform, maintenance is much easier. Now that we have gotten our heavy hitters off the mainframe we are exploring other ways to take advantage of the GIS product. We see a lot of potential areas; it's just a matter of diving in and getting it done.

Crowley Maritime Corp. is a family- and employee-owned company that provides diversified transportation, logistics and emergency response services in domestic and international markets. To better manage its six divisions and automate business-to-business communications, the company recently implemented the Gentran Integration Suite (GIS) from Sterling Commerce, a division of AT&T based in Columbus, Ohio.

Q: How did you become involved with this software implementation project at Crowley?

Sheridan: I joined Crowley in the early '90s as a pricing analyst. I had been recruited after Crowley purchased a solution from my previous employer, a company called DXI, which had developed software to automate tariff filings in the shipping industry. DXI had a contract with the Federal Maritime Commission and also developed a product for the commercial market, for which Crowley was the first customer. When I joined the company, I helped move all of the old, voluminous paper tariffs that outlined all the rates and commodities that were shipped onto an electronic database. After that, I worked as a pricing analyst for about six years. Then I became manager of tariff publishing, where I managed all the filing of contracts and open tariffs, which are rates that apply to anyone that doesn't have a contract. In 2000 I moved into the IT department to manage application services, pretty much dedicated to the DXI software and Crowley's mainframe. Since then I have managed application development internally, mostly for our mainframe system but including some Windows-based applications. We probably have about 100 different applications internally to support transactions. These range from major applications, like our reservations system for all of our bookings, to little niche applications that are only used by one or two people in the company to do a specific job. So I naturally was involved when we decided to implement the Gentran Integration Suite.

Q: What were the "pain points" that drove the decision to acquire GIS?

Sheridan: Over the last 10 years, Crowley has seen a large increase in EDI [electronic data interchange] traffic with our customers and, in some cases, our vendors. From 2000 to 2005, we tripled or quadrupled our EDI volume. Since most of that traffic went through a value-added network or VAN, our EDI-related costs also tripled or quadrupled. So one of our objectives was to communicate directly with our customers without going through the VAN service. GIS allowed us to do that, which was a big thing. In fact, by connecting directly with our top 10 partners in terms of volume, we were able to save $15,000 to $16,000 a month in VAN costs alone. So our big push initially was to get some of the big railroads and other big customers, which together represented a lot of EDI traffic, off of the mainframe so we could route messages directly to them instead of going through the VAN.

We had been using the Gentran EDI translator from Sterling Commerce internally, but it was totally a mainframe-based product. It worked great for mainframe applications. But then we started bringing in applications like DXI, which is Unix-based, and other applications that ran on non-mainframe platforms. The question became, in these cases, what do we use as an EDI translator? Did we really want to take these applications to the mainframe just to translate and send out EDI? Also, there was a move by our management around that time to get rid of the mainframe altogether, which presented another dilemma since the mainframe was our only translator for moving EDI data.

In the end, we felt that we needed a solution that was independent of all platforms and that would allow all different platforms to send data to a centralized system, where we could standardize our data archives and data history. That also would enable us to track our EDI documents a lot better.

We looked at several different solutions and concluded that the GIS product gave us the flexibility we needed to move the 90 percent of our data that was still mainframe-based and also the ability to plug and play all of our other applications.

Q: Do you use GIS for internal integration as well as with customers and vendors?

Sheridan: Yes, we are using it for better communications internally. There is a lot of mapping that needs to be done to connect one system with another and it is best to have an independent solution for that rather than one that is oriented toward one system or the other. GIS has been great for that. Plus, we are beginning to look at the EDI capabilities of our other back office systems, like our Lawson financial system. We have not used EDI to move data between these systems before because we would have had to send it to the mainframe and then back out. Now, with GIS, the mainframe doesn't need to be involved at all. Data could go to Lawson, through GIS and out to the customer and then back from the customer, through GIS and into Lawson. We also are looking at our transportation systems, intermodal systems, human resources and PeopleSoft applications, asking if there are any opportunities to use EDI where we haven't used it in the past. The biggest obstacle we have there is just having enough people to do it all.

Q: How did the implementation go?

Sheridan: We have an integration team here that implemented the foundation, so I really wasn't involved in that. It seemed easy to me, but it may not have been so easy to the team doing the work. I know that it didn't take very long. My team did the on-boarding of customers and all the mapping for the transmissions. Then it was just a matter of getting an understanding of the mailboxes that are used. As I mentioned before, we targeted our big volume customers first.

One of the big advantages of GIS is that we are now able to on-board customers and get them on the system more quickly. Before, the process for creating translation maps was a little clunky. Now we have an analyst do the upfront work and then a developer comes in and sets up the mailboxes and does the mapping. The analyst who does the upfront work actually can be a fairly non-technical person, which is great because we don't have to tie up a programmer or developer. That is also the case when it comes to troubleshooting issues. Now an analyst can get in there and look at the data, whereas before it took a programmer to go behind the scenes and figure out what had gone wrong when there was a problem with data transmissions. We are limited in the number of programmers we have, and programmers are more expensive than analysts, so being able to use the analysts to do a lot of that work is a savings and a process improvement.

Tracking with this product also is a lot easier because, if we fail to get an expected acknowledgment, we can respond accordingly. And we save all the communications, so if there should be a failure, we have the history to go back and see why something was not received.

Basically, the EDI standards are well defined. For example, an EDI 310 is a shipping invoice and all customers expect the same information to be contained in a 310 transmission. Sometimes a customer or vendor may use a field a little differently than we do and we may have to do a little work there to make sure things align, but it is mostly just defining the connectivity. They will give us the IP address we are going to send to and we will set up a mailbox on our side that will receive the data and route it to that IP address. For example, when we create a bill of lading on our side, it triggers us to create the 310. This goes to the mailbox and from there to the customer's IP address. The customer receives it and we get an acknowledgment that it was received. Then they process it however they want.

Q: You are also using GIS to connect to Customs?

Sheridan: Yes. U.S. Customs was by volume the biggest partner that we worked with. It is a very important partner because we can be assessed heavy fines if we don't get information to them in a timely and accurate fashion. You obviously want your customers to be happy, but you definitely have to be sure the government is happy! Also, because Customs represented our biggest volume of EDI traffic, it presented a big savings opportunity. Moving Customs off the VAN service saved us about $7,500 a month. And, by eliminating this extra step, we have fewer potential failure points and a smoother transportation process.

Q: Are there other non-financial benefits?

Sheridan: The biggest thing for us was just getting on a standardized platform. Before it was like patching something with duct-tape to do any non-mainframe-based EDI. Each time you were building something that may work, but that was not reliable and required a lot of troubleshooting. With everything on the same platform, maintenance is much easier. Now that we have gotten our heavy hitters off the mainframe we are exploring other ways to take advantage of the GIS product. We see a lot of potential areas; it's just a matter of diving in and getting it done.