John Perrin started working at Farner-Bocken before he was old enough to vote. As part of a school-to-work program in conjunction with the Distributive Education Clubs of America, Perrin began working at the convenience store distributor, part-time as a stock boy. He unloaded trucks, opened boxes, and swept, all the while unsure of what high school graduation would mean for his future.
When one of the owners asked Perrin—now the company’s director of information services—to join the company in a full-time role until he figured out what was next for him, the then-stock boy thought it might be a good way to save a little money. The story, Perrin says, might seem a little corny, but that decision would help frame Perrin’s entire career. He has since worked in virtually every position at Farner-Bocken and taken an active role in the company’s evolution over the past few decades.
Perrin’s early career at Farner-Bocken had nothing to do with IT. He moved from his first general labor position to a delivery route, fulfilling customer orders for the Iowa-based company. He says the contact with customers helped him develop his interpersonal skills.
After a short stint in sales, Perrin hopped from the warehouse to the office to do accounting work. He notes, however, that titles haven’t ever been a big part of the family-owned company. If it needed to be done, he had no problem doing it. “By the mid- to late eighties, I think I had done about every job there was from counting and depositing money to ordering products from suppliers to selling to delivering,” he says. “And then computers came along.”
Perrin admits that his future as the IT leader at Farner-Bocken would have come as quite a surprise to, above anyone else, his younger self. He volunteered for a data entry position having never touched a computer in his life. “There was nothing in the high school curriculum about computers,” Perrin says. It wasn’t something he even thought might interest him. But that soon changed.
In 1985, a pivotal moment for Farner-Bocken and for Perrin’s career emerged. As the company migrated to computer systems, a new fascination with technology began to take hold. In a pattern that would repeat itself several times in the future, Perrin decided to teach himself a new job. While literally learning how to use a computer doing data entry during the day, he assembled materials to learn IBM System/36 and would return at night to further his studies. Later, as he got to know one of Farner-Bocken’s software providers, he would teach himself to program RPG, a language that’s now so old he says he catches flak for it at work.
Perrin would continue to rise on the IT side of the company, eventually arriving at company headquarters in Carroll, Iowa. The next twenty-five years would serve up a number of technological innovations for Farner-Bocken, primarily with Perrin’s steering. “No one ever walked up to me and said, ‘Now you’re the director,’” he says. “It just kind of happened that way.”
During the early part of Perrin’s career, Farner-Bocken distribution centers were located in eleven different sites. In 1996, Farner-Bocken decided to centralize its distribution centers under one roof. “It was a pivotal time for the company, and the ownership recognized that, while it was a hard decision, a decision had to be made,” Perrin explains. “It really catapulted us into tremendous growth.” It allowed the company the ability to scale in one location that they weren’t able to in eleven. The building was also paperless and wireless—a cutting-edge move at the time.
In 2006, the company made a transformative decision to empower its customers with handheld technology to both view company inventory and make orders on their own. It allowed salespeople, who had formerly only been able to fulfill as many orders as miles they were able to drive, the chance to build stronger relationships with more customers, according to Perrin. “It was a significant change for us,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to have the support of the ownership because no one else in the industry was really doing that at the time.”
Perrin says another long-term project he’s focused on since 2008 is the Voice Pick technology used at Farner-Bocken’s 350,000-square-foot distribution center. Working closely with the director of distribution—Perrin’s brother Chuck, who has worked at Farner-Bocken almost as long as he has—Perrin has helped implement the near-perfect combination of Voice Pick, which tells distribution workers via headset where to find product, and Light Pick, which shows workers where to locate product via light paths in the distribution center. “It’s a constant work-in-progress as we continue to grow and try to maximize every little bit we can get out of our distribution center,” he says.
Looking ahead, Perrin says that working to make the company more open to suppliers and customers is key. He thinks customers should be able to look at company inventory, whenever, wherever. “It’s more about how we can connect people to what we need to get done on our end, but on their terms,” he says. “People don’t make their buying decisions on a schedule.”
Perrin is also working to empower Farner-Bocken’s drivers with more state-of-the-art technology. The company owns its own fleet, and Perrin—a former driver himself—thinks some advantages can be gained by upgrading that arm of the company.
Whatever department the IT team is focusing on, Perrin has probably spent some time there. “The beauty of it is that as we’ve gone through all of these changes, when someone talks about technology solutions, both good and bad, I kind of understand their world,” he says. “It’s changed a lot since I did it, but I still have a pretty significant leg up from understanding the business and how it correlates to IT.”