by JD Sartain

How a B2B company got its tech groove back

Jul 16, 2015
IT LeadershipManaged Cloud ServicesMarkets

MSC Industrial Supply — one of the largest direct marketers and distributors of metalworking and maintenance, repair and operations supplies — distributes 500,000-plus industrial products to more than 2,000 suppliers for over 300,000 customers. 

Up until recently, the Melville, N.Y.-based MSC was still servicing its manufacturing plant customers with a 4,000-page hardcopy of its “Big Book,” which means the sales were almost exclusively a manual, catalog-driven process. And worse, MSC’s meager website was built on antiquated technology — think Report Program Generator (RPG) and Common Gateway Interface (CGI) scripts running on an AS/400.

The first thing CIO Charlie Bonomo noticed when he joined MSC was the lack of modern ecommerce technology. He knew immediately that transforming this business and creating a robust online marketplace would be his greatest challenge.

msc industrial supply

“The current site was cumbersome and unstable with frequent downtime,” says Bonomo. “Simple changes and upgrades often took months to accomplish. And, it was ugly. The user interface was bad; the search function had two technologies cobbled together and, when searching the inventory for a specific part or product, users received a matched items list that was so large, they still couldn’t locate what they were looking for.”

[Related: Why businesses are turning to managed IT services]

And, according to Bonomo, the data was analog with no governance or consistency. For example, a one-inch tool part was often labeled various different ways such as 1″, one inch, 1 in. or 1 inch. So, even a good search engine, at the time, would have trouble providing accurate results. 

What first? What next?

Bonomo assembled a dedicated ecommerce team within his department and created a new ebusiness team within the company. The first step was to clean up and standardize all the data. MSC approached Mindtree – and IT consulting, services and solutions firm – and asked for help with this initial, organizational challenge. Mindtree had expertise with RPG and organizational issues, so it was happy to oblige. 

“Mindtree came in and quickly dug into the code, discovered the technical issues, determined what the site was about, and established which functions were necessary for optimum performance,” Bonomo says. “Later, we discovered similar problems with our e-commerce development vendor, so we asked Mindtree to consider this challenge as well.” 

From that point forward, Mindtree was MSC’s primary partner for developing and maintaining MSC’s e-commerce site. Mindtree also provided substantial Java development, use of Web services and message queue (MQ) for messaging back to the host. DB2 was employed for the database layer and Endeca was used for search. This is all in addition to adding a lot of high-end security products to ensure that the site was protected. 

“MSC’s technology landscape was complex,” says Anil Venkat, director and head of global marketing at Mindtree. “It was comprised of an interesting mixture of latest, cutting-edge technologies and applications, alongside multiple 40-year-old legacy systems. So, creating the foundation for a full-fledged e-commerce platform required injecting a lot of new technologies, phasing out some older ones, and integrating everything with a vast array of internal systems (legacy and new).” 

Venkat explains that this required a parallel effort to re-skill their current team, while injecting fresh blood and developing new processes and routines to manage this evolving platform. On the whole, this was a significant change-management initiative. And, since MSC has a service level agreement (SLA) that stipulates all orders placed before 8 p.m. EST must be delivered the next day, the website had to be fail-safe and support very heavy traffic during peak business hours. 

“To support this, we implemented a scalable architecture that allows MSC to handle increasing loads such as load balancers and firewalls, a cluster of Web servers, a cluster of app servers, a dedicated cluster of Endeca severs to handle search requests, and dedicated MQ servers to interface with the AS/400. In addition, they needed several external interfaces to interface with third-party components and Akamai CDN Edge servers. The website interfaces with backend AS/400 and other systems through MQ; plus advanced features such as Punch-Out and Punch-In, which allows the e-commerce site to interface with MSC’s customers’ ERP systems, which is done primarily for their large customers,” Venkat adds. 

Disruption leads to success

“We partnered with Mindtree to develop a comprehensive, intuitive and fast ecommerce site that would streamline processes for both us and our clients,” Bonomo says. “It’s written on a standard platform, which means we can now implement features in weeks, a process that used to take months.  The search function is one of the best in the industry, and our customers validate this claim.” 

[Related: How an MSP can help your company get its groove back]

Bonomo clarifies that this transformation has yielded a number of clear benefits, including the following:

  • An upgraded electronic data exchange.
  • Infrastructure to streamline the sales process for large accounts, as well as integration with other systems.
  • Successful integration of MSC’s largest acquisition.
  • The capability to conduct innovation exercises with key business and IT executives to define over 20 prioritized ideas that transform key business processes.
  • A stabilized and improved business-critical Master Data Management platform. 

According to Bonomo, MSC’s digital transformation delivered both top- and bottom-line results for the publicly traded company. It cut $1 million in costs to the business and delivered $1 billion in annual revenue. – which now ranks in the top 40 in Internet Retailer‘s Top 500 Guide – offers an a greatly improved user-experience for customers on the front-end, and is simple on the back-end, which makes maintenance seamless. 

In summary, Bonomo advises that with the right mix of technology and strategy, B2B companies can win market share in the new digital world. Having an agile organization that can respond to change means having effective data flow, integrated policies and systems, and the ability to make fast decisions based on that data. If, at the same time, you can simplify processes for your company and your customers, you’ll have the power to disrupt the status quo and beat the competition. 

“This takes time and focused effort. The first step is to review the technology solutions that drive critical processes in your company and then ask: Are we agile enough to keep up with the ever-changing digital landscape? How can we create more efficient processes for our company and our customers? How can we make information flow seamlessly within our organization and across our partners? The competitive landscape is changing quickly; what used to work in the past will not work in the future,” Bonomo adds. 

“And, establishing a constant and aggressive feedback loop is vital. MSC organized periodic and comprehensive customer sessions to tap into the evolving customer sentiment and feedback, and this input keeps the machinery focused and balanced,” Venkat says.