by Kim S. Nash

Wireless Applications: How Loomis Is Getting Enterprise Deployment Right

Aug 27, 200815 mins
MobileRisk ManagementSmall and Medium Business

The armored car company Loomis learned the hard way how to get enterprise deployment of wireless applications right. Learn how they're getting wireless applications into the field sucessfully the second time around.

Since 9,000 B.C., when cattle served as the world’s first money, people have plotted to steal it. Herders knew that taking too long to get cows across Mesopotamia meant leaving yourself open to a deadly arrow in the heart. Now, as then, time makes money handlers vulnerable.

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Last October in Philadelphia, two Loomis guards were killed as they collected cash and checks from a Wachovia ATM on their route. Surveillance tapes from that morning show a man sat in a car nearby, watching the armored truck arrive.

One guard went to the bank machine, while the other remained with the truck. The killer put on gloves, walked over and shot them both with a 9-mm handgun, police said in published reports, getting away with a bag of deposits from the ATM. A man arrested in the case is charged with murder and robbery and awaits trial. Companies in other industries may not face such dire threats, but analyzing and mitigating corporate risk, in whatever form, is a growing part of the CIO’s job. (Read a related story, Hot Jobs: IT Security Manager) Of 316 IT leaders surveyed by CIO in June, 62 percent say they are very or extremely interested in risk management, up from 58 percent last year. And more CIOs are applying IT to help manage corporate risk—38 percent, according to our 2008 “State of the CIO” survey, up from 30 percent a year earlier.

Wayne Sadin, CIO at Loomis, knows that no amount of technology will eradicate crime. But he’s counting on a new enterprise wireless application to shrink Loomis’s exposure to it. Guards will use a smartphone system to replace the tedious, error-prone paperwork they normally fill out by hand, making each stop on a route faster.

The new application is rolling out across the country this year and next but hasn’t yet made it to Loomis’s Philadelphia region. It’s hard to know what effect it might have had on the robbery-murder there. But computerizing the fieldwork of guards cuts the amount of time—and thus the level of vulnerability—at each stop, Sadin says.

Plus, the real-time system produces more accurate information sooner about inventory—customers’ money—in transit each day. Loomis can then offer the data to those customers, such as banks, retailers and restaurant chains. This helps Loomis achieve another goal familiar to many CIOs: Reduce the risk of customer flight. “Information about money is sometimes as valuable as money itself,” Sadin says. “If we can give people that, it makes it harder to switch away from us.”

The project itself involves risk: Building core business applications for wireless capable phones is still a relatively new concept for midsize companies like Loomis, says Leonard Simmons, Global Products Manager of Mobility at CSC. Fortune 500-caliber companies are further along in wireless experimentation and adoption, Simmons says; they’ve often given employees wireless devices for personal productivity applications, such as e-mail, and added more complicated applications after that. (CSC is not working with Loomis on its project.)

No matter the size of the company, though, going wireless means jumping hurdles, Simmons says. For example, security is usually a top concern and sometimes delays wireless projects. Small screens and buttons on a smartphone automatically limit what developers can do with the user interface. Perhaps most critical is integrating new front-end technologies with whatever back-end software applications the company runs. In Loomis’s case, that’s Oracle’s E-Business Suite.

Loomis is also dealing with an issue of its own making: Sadin and his team had to convince the rest of the company that this wouldn’t be a repeat of a similar system tried two years ago but abandoned after six months. This time there’s different software, hardware, interface and architecture, says Derek Pickett, director of enterprise systems at Loomis. “We learned a heck of a lot from that project,” says Pickett. And as the new application moves from pilot to deployment, Loomis is still learning.

Moving Money

Sadin, who has spent his 30-year career mainly at various banks, says Loomis’s approach to IT, which traditionally slanted toward logistics, must incorporate approaches familiar to manufacturing and financial services.

“Just like screws, paper clips or French fries, we manage inventory, and our inventory is cash,” Sadin says. “We’re a factory.”

Consumers made $34 trillion worth of credit- and debit-card swipes and other electronic payments in 2006, according to a Federal Reserve System study released in March, but cash remains king. About $829 billion in U.S. currency circulates worldwide, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That’s partly because most of the world lacks the technology to do meaningful digital commerce, reports the World Economic Forum (WEF), which ranks countries by the degree to which they use information technology.

Indeed, $12 billion in cash from the New York Fed—that’s 363 tons of paper money—was flown to Baghdad in 2003 and 2004 to grease the wartime economy in Iraq. Much of it arrived stacked on pallets in bricks of $100 bills.

Banks reposition money all the time, says Mark Clark, senior vice president of strategic growth at Loomis.

Major sporting events, such as the Indianapolis 500 or the Super Bowl, draw tens of thousands of fans. In anticipation of crowds giddy to spend, banks contact armored car companies such as Loomis to order delivery of extra volumes of crisp, dispensable twenties brought to regional distribution centers. It’s easier that way to keep customer ATMs stocked, Clark says. Loomis also serves retailers, convenience stores and casinos, among other customers.

Big-time money handlers often describe their business in manufacturing terms. Literature explaining how one part of the New York Fed works, for example, discusses coordinating “shipment” of “inventory” with five global banks and storing currency in “cash depots” until an “order” comes in.

The Fed, like other entities that need to move money, uses various armored car companies for the job. And there are many. Three players dominate the $2.8 billion cash management industry in the U.S.: Brink’s and Loomis, which are private; and Garda, which is public in Canada. But many small regional companies constantly nip at the bigger guys’ business. Loomis posted $550 million in sales last year, Clark says.

Pivotal in reaching that goal is Loomis’s regional cash management facility about 45 miles west of Boston (the company does not want to reveal exactly where). The center is one of the company’s busiest.

Mark Geib, area general manager for southern New England, won’t say how much money flows through the low brick building. But as he strolls the noisy coin and bill processing rooms, he notes that the volume is enough to warrant two shifts of workers, five days a week, sorting, counting and packaging, and driving trucks.

The Boston-area facility doesn’t yet have the new wireless system. For now, things run the old-fashioned way, Geib says. Drivers arrive each morning and grab their route manifests—printouts that tell them where to stop and what to unload or pick up.

Trucks are loaded with that day’s deliveries. That may include cases of quarters, rolled and boxed, headed to a store or restaurant. Perhaps clear plastic bags are stuffed with bundles of $20, $50 and $100 bills destined for another of Loomis’s regional facilities.

Departures are staggered every 20 or so minutes. A team of two or three guards might make more than 10 stops on a route. Trucks start coming back midafternoon to unload. There’s only one door open at a time at the loading docks. “They come in one door and drive out the next door,” he explains, “for efficiency and risk [management].”

Wireless Apps = Less Risk

The business has always been risky. Loomis, formerly known as Loomis, Fargo, is the oldest cash management company in the U.S., tracing its roots to the Gold Rush out West. The Fargo side began in California in the 1850s with stagecoaches. The Loomis side started with Alaskan dogsleds in 1905. They merged in 1997.

When the Boston-area facility gets the wireless application later this year, guards will be trained in how to use ruggedized Motorola devices. A combination cell phone and scanner, the MC70 models are about six inches long, three inches wide and weigh about a pound. Each unit also has a Velcro strap by which to hold it in either hand. “You have to keep your gun hand free,” Sadin notes.

The devices run Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system and a homegrown application in which guards can record details about their progress during a route, such as arrival and departure times at each stop, along with other details about the cargo they pick up and deliver. The interface allows keypad typing and tapping on menus. A built-in scanner lets guards check in and out bar-coded packages filled with cash, coins, checks, food stamps or postage stamps. Depending on where the package originates, either Loomis or the customer places the bar codes. Then in real time over AT&T’s cellular network, all the data is sent to Loomis’s Oracle E-Business ERP system in Houston.

Before now, that work was done on paper by guards and keyed into Oracle later by clerks in each branch who “debrief” the guards after each shift.

Early results from a pilot in Houston in January and a subsequent rollout there in March show guards spend less time recording route information than they did before on paper. This lets them finish stops more quickly, which decreases their physical risk, says Chris Squier, an operations manager in Houston.

The new system also eliminates 30 to 40 pieces of paper on each route, including delivery sheets, manifests and customer signature forms, Squier says. All that information now resides on the smartphone, which also captures customer signatures required for pickups and deliveries, like similar applications used by UPS and FedEx.

Because the data is digitized from the start, there’s no need for anyone to type it in later. The Houston branch has eliminated three debrief positions, Squier says.

Loomis, as a whole, meanwhile, can make decisions that decrease its corporate risk.

For example, it sets limits on the amount of money a single truck can contain. (Company officials won’t specify how much.) You don’t want to send an overloaded truck through some violent neighborhoods, and if a truck is too full, guards can’t complete all the pickups on their route because there’s no room for more money on the truck. Sometimes, however, a guard may expect to pick up packages valued at a certain amount at a convenience store, based on past history, and finds bags up to four times as much instead because the store had a good weekend.

Such discrepancies are common, Sadin says. Now they can be relayed immediately, via the wireless system, to branch managers. Loomis guards must follow a specific protocol to handle exceptions during their daily routes. When something unexpected happens, they either follow their training procedures or phone a branch manager for instructions. “Now we can recognize what’s happening and use the handheld to advise proactively,” adds Sadin. That’s another time-saver and risk-mitigator.

The Second Time Around

Loomis’s first attempt at a wireless system died on the vine.

In 2006, Loomis contracted with a software-on-demand company for a similar application, paying a monthly fee, says Pickett, the enterprise architecture director. The hardware, a Nextel cell phone, didn’t have a full-fledged OS, such as Windows Mobile. It was the size of a candy bar and delicate, meaning it couldn’t stand up to drops and jostles in a truck day after day. A separate scanner had to be brought along to record bar codes.

Going with a plain cell phone, and a small one at that, limited the functionality of the application, Pickett says. The user interface relied on many layers of menus. The size of the screen and the lack of a robust operating system meant it wasn’t possible to use many icons to simplify navigation.

The on-demand service came to be viewed as needlessly expensive, Pickett says. He declines to name the vendor. “We realized [that with] the money we were planning to pay them over two or three years, we could build our own system,” he says. “The calculation was something like, within two years we would recoup our costs, versus paying them endlessly.”

This time around, Loomis spent more money on the hardware and more time perfecting the software, he says.

Where the first phone and scanner pair cost about $350 together, the Motorola MC70s, with built-in scanner, are $1,200 each. “It looks like a piece of equipment, rather than a phone,” Pickett says. “We haven’t broke one yet,” Nick Olivas, an operations supervisor in Houston, adds.

As for the software, Pickett foresaw two main challenges: linking the wireless application to Loomis’s existing Oracle systems and improving the user interface on the phone itself.

The first time around, Loomis used middleware between the phone and Oracle that turned out to be pretty slow because it handled a lot of the transaction processing. Also, the separate scanner had to be connected to the Nextel phone at each stop, so that bar-coded data could be sent to the back-end Oracle systems. “That could take two to five minutes,” says Squier, the Houston operations manager, “and it could take 15 or 20 minutes to get data into the phone,” he says.

That’s a big deal when a single stop is supposed to last, on average, no more than 15 minutes.

This time, Loomis used integrated phone-scanner hardware to avoid connection issues. Loomis also developed the software with a very “light” middleware layer, to be faster. As Pickett explains, rather than having the middleware translate data from Windows Mobile formats to Oracle, then send it, data is sent as is, then translated after it reaches the Oracle system in Houston. “We didn’t get into any middle-tier processing. That’s been a big win,” he says.

Decisions about how to design and deploy the middleware architecturecan make or break a wireless application, says CSC’s Simmons. Presumably, Loomis doesn’t have a lot of different back-end systems to contend with—Oracle is it—so the company could rely on doing data translation on the back end, he says. But for larger companies that need to deal with several different enterprise systems, a more strategic and multivendor approach is required. “Middleware might have to do a lot of the work in that case.”

As for the interface, most important for Loomis on the second try was creating the ability to move quickly between functions using graphical buttons on screen—mimicking existing processes and minimizing manual data entry by accessing data from central servers. The first project showed that forcing big hands to manipulate many tiny buttons isn’t viable.

Olivas was one of the first at Loomis to use the new application and says the touch screen is “simple,” requiring about 90 minutes to master, top to bottom. “Once you get used to it, you just start rockin’. Everything’s more accurate.”

Despite those improvements, the IT group at first anticipated resistance when it came time to start testing the new system last January. It wasn’t unwarranted, says Squier. “Our employees suffered” through the first project, he says, “and they had a sour taste in their mouths.” But rather than turn them off, the experience made them eager to try the new iteration, he says. “I wanted the opportunity to roll out the new version because of everything we went through before,” he says, laughing.

Better Customer Service

Because Loomis, like others in the armored business, views itself as more than a group of gun-toting couriers, Sadin wants to use technology to open the door to more sophisticated cash management services. For example, doing business on paper meant customer accounts weren’t updated right away. But keeping electronic estimates of the value of cargo collected and dropped off as drivers move from stop to stop lets Loomis post the information quickly to customer accounts.

When companies get accurate credit faster, they can make decisions faster on what to do with their money: invest it, move it, hold it, he says. “When it’s sitting in our trucks or on our shelves, it’s a nonperforming asset. That’s good for no one.” One of the most common queries to Loomis’s customer service line is, “Who signed for such-and-such package?” Handling those requests was a matter of finding the right papers and faxing them to the customer to compare disputed signatures. It could take days. But electronic signatures can be sent over in minutes, even minutes after a truck leaves a stop. If Loomis can provide logistics services rivals don’t offer, Sadin reasons, the company can attract more business.

Meanwhile, Sadin says, once you collect more digital data, you can analyze it for customers and charge them for the insights. In the future, Loomis sales people could let a bank know, for example, if one particular branch consistently fails to have packages ready for pickup, which keeps Loomis guards waiting and ends up costing the bank extra. “Just like every other supply chain, we and our customers are trying to find efficiencies,” Sadin says.

Providing these technology-enabled services makes it harder for customers to switch cash-handling companies, he says. That kind of competitive advantage will become more crucial when in December Swedish parent company Securitas spins out Loomis as a standalone public company in Sweden.

But first Loomis has to finish rolling out the system to all of its 180 branches, which Sadin expects to finish by the end of next year. Meanwhile, Loomis still must plan for the certain risk that criminals will steal some of the thousands of pounds of money the company moves, Sadin says. “We pick it up, deliver it and guard it with our lives.”