A major milestone for MFA came in February with the conversion of the last group of company-owned stores to the MerchantAg retail software system.
The process began in late 2012 to replace the cooperative’s outdated mainframe computer with a modern platform that could integrate MFA’s wholesale and retail operations. The first stores went online with the MerchantAg system in July 2016, and the implementation team has been steadily adding more locations ever since.
The most recent stores to begin using the new system on Feb. 1 are MFA’s Trails Group (California, Cole Camp, Jefferson City, Sedalia, Tipton, Versailles and Windsor) and West Central Group (Adrian, Centerview, Chilhowee, Harrisonville and Rich Hill).
With MerchantAg, customers will see more than just a new look to their receipts and statements. The software offers benefits not available under the old system, said Craig Childs, MFA senior vice president of Agri Services.
“Consolidated statements are one big advantage,” Childs said. “A customer can buy products at multiple stores, anywhere in our trade area, and receive one statement. They can also have tickets emailed to them.”
For the stores, there are many other behind-the-scenes benefits, including a much more precise way to control inventory, margins, financials and customer data.
“This software gives MFA more consistent and centralized information to provide a better purchasing experience for our customers,” said Curt Price, MFA Incorporated operations controller. “The accessibility of this information and ability to support our retail locations will transform the way MFA does business.”
Price and a team of employees in MFA’s Retail Accounting and Information Technology departments have overseen the development and implementation of the MerchantAg software from the start. The daunting task began with the selection of EFC Systems, based in Brentwood, Tenn., as MFA’s software vendor. The team worked with EFC programmers to customize the software to fit MFA’s business model, which is a hybrid structure of company-owned stores and local affiliates along with wholesale operations.
“When we began looking at vendors, they either offered wholesale software or retail software, and we would have to find a way to integrate them,” Price said. “EFC offered both.”
Improved inventory management is among the biggest benefits of the new system, he said. Previously, there was a delay between the time products were sold or received and when inventory was updated in the computer. Now, that process happens in real time. Plus, company-owned locations can access current inventory records at other locations to shift products as needed to meet customer demand.
“It gives our stores visibility to other stores’ information, and it gives them visibility at the wholesale level,” Price explained. “They can see quantity on hand at the warehouse, so the store can more easily manage their inventory and provide the customer with products on a more timely basis.”
With MerchantAg, MFA Agri Services centers and local affiliates have improved access to actual costs, margins and expenses, which should lead to better analysis and, ultimately, profitability, Price added.
Though considered successful, the conversion process hit a number of snags along the way, but Price said that’s to be expected of a project this size. For example, reconciling product numbers was time-consuming. Historically, each store had maintained its own item database, but those product numbers might vary from location to location. In the MerchantAg system, company-owned stores now operate from a centralized product list, so those numbers had to be streamlined to one system. This also sets the stage for future online sales opportunities.
There is also now a common customer database for all company-owned stores with new identification numbers assigned to everyone who had an account in the system.
Because they operate independently from MFA, local affiliates have presented their own set of challenges in the conversion process, Price said.
“There are complexities associated with locals that we didn’t anticipate,” he said. “Even within the same company, they might not call a product the same thing or carry it in the same category across branches. We had to set parameters for inventory management. And each local maintains its own customer list. There’s no way to consolidate that because they are separate databases.”
MFA’s grain business has perhaps posed the biggest stumbling block, Price said.
“The way we handle grain made developing that part of the software much more difficult,” Price said. “At MFA, we centralize grain hedging but record profitability at the location level. Completion of the grain software fell outside our implementation window, so we moved forward with an alternative solution.”
That solution was to first convert all non-grain locations to MerchantAg, and then deploy the software to the remaining locations for their non-grain activity only. Grain transactions are currently recorded on the old “legacy” system.
This is a temporary solution, Price said. The grain software is expected to be completed by late spring or early summer, with plans to launch a pilot location before harvest.
The amount of education and support needed to ensure a smooth transition has also been a learning experience, Price said. Before every conversion, an intensive one-day training is held to cover the system’s most important functions. Support personnel also stay on site anywhere from a few days to a week during each MerchantAg deployment. A subsequent training is held 45 days after conversion to delve deeper into the features.
“Every time we bring a new group online, there’s something else that crops up that we didn’t anticipate,” Price said. “The workload that first week is amazingly busy. We’re constantly taking calls. By the end of the week, however, it starts to slow down.”
The MerchantAg implementation builds the foundation for future online interaction with MFA customers, the first of which is a customer portal (see story below).
“One driver for us to change software platforms was to give customers online access to their accounts,” said Childs. “Our legacy system just could not do this.”
Getting all company-owned stores on MerchantAg is a “big hurdle,” Price added, but there is plenty of work left to do.
“We’re still experiencing growing pains with MerchantAg, and we’re continually pushing updates and changes to the software,” Price said. “Training our personnel will be an ongoing task. But I’m proud of the work that our entire team has done so far. They’ve sacrificed a lot and put in many hours to provide MFA with a computer system that will serve our company well for many years to come.”
MFA launches online customer portal
With the completion of MerchantAg conversions at all MFA company-owned stores, a new online customer portal is available that provides a convenient connection to detailed account information.
Through the portal, customers can access invoices, statements, purchase history, bookings, prepaid contracts and much more. They can run summary reports of purchases for any time period and export it to a spreadsheet for their recordkeeping. Customers can also conveniently pay their bill through an electronic bank payment, which helps remove inconsistency of mailing checks and makes payment posts more timely.
“As MFA moves into the future, technology is playing a bigger role for our customers, especially those who prefer electronic communications,” MFA Operations Controller Curt Price said. “The online portal offers a convenient way to track input expenses and pay bills, and that’s important these days when producers are busier than ever.”
To access the customer portal, simply log on to https://customerportal.mfa-inc.com/. If this if your first time accessing the portal, click “Create Account.” All you’ll need is a recent MFA receipt with your account number, store number and invoice number.
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