Wasserstrom Discusses Their Research and Development In Robotics and the Internet of Things

Phil Smith - Columbus Tech Power Player Honorees

Phil Smith


The Wasserstrom Company



Christine Zmich

Director of Business Development and Technology Consulting - Great Lakes Region



To listen to the podcast, click here!


The CIO for Wasserstrom, Phil Smith, discusses Wasserstrom's research and development into robotics and the internet of things.


CZ: Good morning. We are here with Phil Smith, who is the CIO –  Chief Information Officer –  at Wasserstrom. Wasserstrom is an organization based in Columbus, with 1,600 employees. My name is Christine Zmich, and I'm with RSM and I'll be your guest moderator today. Let's get started. So, Phil, how are you using technology for positive change or disruption in your organization?


PS: You know, I think, uh, the interesting thing about organization is that, uh, technology is in basically everything we do now. It's not just simply a necessary evil. And so, what's fun about that is the fact that it is part of every major project. Technology's being used to revolutionize everything from the customer relationship in terms of how we, uh, talk to the customer or how we actually approach the customer from an E-Commerce perspective. E-Commerce is a big part of what we do today. We still have a significant inside salesforce and being able to track calls, monitor calls, actually record calls, uh, improve the quality of those calls and help us train and help our associates learn how to be better at that part of the relationship. When you think about the cost structure of the business, uh, in the warehouse, we're primarily a distribution business to the uh, national restaurant hotel and supermarket chain locations or companies. We, uh, we look at how do we pick, pack and ship and how do we do it more efficiently, more effectively and with less errors?

And that's a big part of what we do every single day. So, uh, we found that in our situation, a custom WMS – Warehouse Management System – is something that we found being very beneficial because, to differentiate ourself in a very low margin business, uh, we use technology to do that. And the technology is allowing our customers to say, “I want one spatula,” or “I want one glass,” rather than buying something in bulk packages if they don't need them. And so, we're finding that being able to have that specialized touch allows customers to buy exactly what they want at the price point that they want, and allows them, uh, to have ultimate flexibility and really manage their financials a little bit better at each store unit. And the only way for us to do that is to, is to do that by using technology. And so, that's kind of the types of things we're seeing.

I think we're also seeing a lot in the future around IOT and a RFID chip sets and how can we get product from a customer, from a vendor into our shelves faster by using things like robotics? So, you know, as fast as we've moved over the last eight years, I think over the next two or three years we're going to be moving even faster. And so, we've had significant capital investments that we're making, uh, in R&D related to things like robotics and IOT so that we can leverage them when we're ready, so that customers see a better experience, continued better experience every single day.


CZ: Um, that is fascinating. And it sounds like your customers are very lucky, because that's, you're trying to focus on their experience and using the technology to help, you know, give them that flexibility.


PS: Right, and I think that differentiates us among other large distributors in our space.


CZ: I would agree. Um, so let's just talk about the infrastructure a little bit. Can you tell us about your equipment lifestyle management plan?


PS: From a lifecycle perspective, uh, when I first joined Wasserstrom, we tended to buy product, you know, a server, a mid-range CISCO network device and really try to keep it forever. And what we, what I found when I arrived as CIO is that we had a lot of old product, we had a lot of breakdowns. We had a lot of those sorts of things. And so how do we, how do we change that life cycle and make it more effective for the business while giving better predictability from a budget perspective? And what I do today is, I use a lot of leasing companies. And so the idea is to force the business to make changes on a regular basis on a regular cycle. And so, uh, I work with leasing companies, we look at a product, let's say it's a server, or servers in our case, in most cases, we're going to buy servers, we're going to look at the kind of product we need, we look at the kind of maintenance that we need on that product, and then we're going to negotiate a really good price, and then we'll go out to a leasing company and say, “Hey, I want you to lease that for 36, 48 and in some cases 60 months.”

And what that allows me to do then, is that forces me to have a refresh cycle at an appropriate time. Um, and, and that's a real benefit to us, because it allows us to not have to pay high maintenance fees when we're done, when we initially had to pay high maintenance fees at the initial, after the initial timeframe is set up. But it also allows us to get better technology. And as the better technology happens, what we've found is that we're getting better technology for the same price point. So, from the fiscal responsibility part of my job, the ownership I work for, is a very flat budget related to the spend on equipment on a like-for-like basis, but we're getting either better product, better capability, better software, all those sorts of things.

Now, you do have to project for growth. So, you know, if all things were even, if all things were, would be the same, we'd never seen any growth. But the fact that the business is growing at a very fast rate, you do have to project for that and you tell the ownership that “Hey, our, our budget is going to grow by x percent.” But by doing that though, like I keep them informed –  we're still running, our growth rate is running lower than, in terms of costs. our growth rate and cost, is running lower than the actual revenue’s growth is. So that allows us to build true margin in there for the business. And so, um, that's kind of how we look at it. That's how we've, we've continued to see the value of doing that refresh cycle. And the, quite frankly, the leases force a refresh every time and it allows us to not have to negotiate with a, from a budgeting perspective, on why we need to spend more money now. It's, it's a fixed cost, ongoing. That's how we look at it.


CZ: It sounds like a win-win, really. Because you get the forced refresh, so you never get outdated technology, and the CFO gets a planned budget.


PS: Correct, and I think the other part of that is then, we're also getting better equipment that has better, in some cases security, better management, better tools associated with it. So, we're happy with that, that methodology. It really works well for us today.


CZ: Wonderful. So, from a service perspective, how does your company approach end user support through the service desk?


PS: Um, you know, I think that's something that, uh, when I arrived, we had…service desk was a necessary evil. It wasn't really a partner in working with the, the end users in terms of their productivity and making them successful. And what we've done is, we looked at service desk and we said, “Hey, here's an asset that we've got to figure out how to make it work for the employees themselves.” And so, a couple of things happened. We changed the point of view. They are not just help desk, they are desktop services. And the metrics that go along with desktop services are really around productivity of the employee.

So, what I talk about is, “Hey, you need to resolve problems.” You need to – and it's not just simply an interaction, and go onto the next interaction. We got to get strategic about solving these problems. So, one of the things I look at is processes like ITIL. Uh, when you look at those kinds of things, you get, you put those in place and you say, “Hey, if we see recurring, the same problem recurring over and over and over again, it's not good enough just to simply fix it individually.” We, “Hey, I stop that problem from happening for Joe.” And I hate that.


CZ: Yeah, it can be a band-aid.


PS: And it can’t be a band-aid, it's got to be a true fix. And so, um, and so that's the requirement, right? We can't have that band-aid approach. And so, that's probably the big sea change for us is telling them that you are desktop services, you are responsible for what happens on the desktop for every individual out there, and we're going to ask you to not just simply fixing an individual event, but fix it from a strategic perspective so it doesn't ever occur again.

And with that, so, several things have happened. One, the number of tickets have gone down, and we want to see that. So we do, I think metrics is a huge part of the service desk environment. So you've got to look at those metrics and say, “Hey, where are we, where are we at? Where are  we getting to and are we being successful?” And so, we look at it in two ways. We look at tickets per asset, and we also look at tickets per associate and are those going down? And we look at both those measures, because associate can have more than one asset. Some cases it's a mobile phone, sometimes there's a PC, sometimes it's, I mean, it's a whole lot of other things. Maybe it's simply a, uh, a wireless card, uh, that they're using.

So, uh, so we want to look at both on an asset basis and on an individual associate basis. So we do that. But I think that's been the big key for us. It's really changed their focus as being, “Hey, you're just a guy or a gal fixing a problem,” to being “You're a guy or a gal who is strategically important to the business and you've got to make a difference every day in that desktop environment.” And that’s really, truly related to productivity because we're, again, we're in a business and industry that is one, two percent margin on the bottom line. And when you think about things being that tight, you really can't afford not to resolve a problem once and be done. And so, you know, the more productive we make our associates, the less new associates we have to buy as we grow.


CZ: And it probably helps with employee retention across the board, both the help desk as well as your employee. So that’s a good thing.


PS: Correct. And they're happier. The associates are happier and it really works out for us.


CZ: Okay. Well, thank you again for your time. Again, this is Christine Zmich, and I'm interviewing Phil Smith, and to learn more about us, visit comSpark.tech. Goodbye, until next time.


To learn more about sponsorship opportunities for 2019, contact Michelle Ziegler at michelle.ziegler@venuemag.net