Seven years ago, Don Whittington took Florida Crystals Corporation in a bold new direction—a direction that was ahead of its time and changed the way Whittington and his team worked.
Based in West Palm Beach, Florida, the company is one of the largest cane sugar producers in the United States, growing and harvesting sugarcane and rice on about 190,000 acres of land. Florida Crystals Corporation also owns two sugar mills, a rice mill, a sugar refinery, a packaging and distribution center, and a renewable power plant. ASR Group is the world’s largest cane sugar refiner and marketer, with sugar production facilities in eight countries across the globe. In 2010, Florida Crystals and its companies became the first in the world to move its ERP system to the cloud, according to Whittington. For the project, Florida Crystals worked with a third-party vendor, Virtustream, which was a startup at the time. Cloud computing is mainstream now, but back then, it was still in its infancy.
“When I sold our executives on the cloud, I told them we could lower our infrastructure costs by 25 percent and actually achieved 30 percent,” says Whittington, vice president and CIO of Florida Crystals Corporation and its ASR Group subsidiary. “I didn’t focus on all the hardware aspects. I focused on the business value, showing where it had a return.”
Whittington already knew that putting the ERP system on the cloud eliminated huge capital outlays—money he could reallocate to operational expenses. Instead of being bogged down by software and hardware issues, he thought his IT team could be more service-oriented and take a more active role in facilitating growth for the company.
In addition to potential savings, Whittington tied cloud computing to company growth, telling executives it would give Florida Crystals and ASR Group the kind of agility required to expand globally. His approach worked, and Whittington staked his department’s future on it.
“I try to make IT transparent,” Whittington explains. “It’s like dial tone. It’s always there and should always work. Over the years, I’ve been able to instill that in our culture.”
Whittington has built an IT department across the company that is completely on board with that business-first mind-set. Since joining Florida Crystals in 2001, he has been able to pick and choose the right people in the hiring process. And, he has also succeeded at fostering a paradigm shift among the IT employees who were already there.
“I encourage IT employees to know what value they add to the company every day,” Whittington says. “If they can’t think of it or they’re not sure, they need to rethink what they’re doing. I’m trying to create that sense of awareness that we’re a service provider to the business.”
Once IT is viewed as a business enabler, the department can take on a whole different role within the company by evaluating the risks and rewards of applying new and existing technologies to various projects within the company. In the process, IT can earn a permanent seat at the table when big, company-wide decisions are made.
“We’re seen as business partners now,” Whittington says. “We don’t write code. We look to our partners at SAP and Virtustream to help us do the innovating on the technology side.” There are a number of advantages, he says, to doing things this way, but the largest is that his department has very few overhead costs. “Even though we are on the leading edge of many technologies, we operate at less than 50 percent of the benchmark of IT costs as a percentage of revenue,” he says. “We can get innovation faster and in a more cost-effective way.”
“I try to make IT transparent. It’s like dial tone. It’s always there and should always work. Over the years, I’ve been able to instill that in our culture.”
Because Florida Crystals Corporation and its companies are always one of the first clients to use a new feature or service, Whittington says both SAP and Virtustream are more responsive and hands-on than they otherwise would be. Essentially, Florida Crystals gets special attention.
Meanwhile, Florida Crystals enjoys first-mover advantages in the market, too, getting a leg up on the competition before other companies adopt similar technologies. Likewise, SAP and Virtustream get all kinds of vital feedback from Whittington and his team that help improve their new technologies. In some cases, Whittington and his team influence what those vendors come up with next. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Whittington says.
Having such a close relationship with SAP and Virtustream gives Whittington a clear view of the future, which he says is right now. “Everything is there,” he explains. “We have cloud technology, ubiquitous network service, and advanced user-experience capabilities. The people who are the first to put it all together will make a big difference.”
Further into the future, Whittington sees artificial intelligence being a big area of focus for corporate IT departments. One day, advanced systems will be able to gauge the market and anticipate business decisions. But even then, the success of an IT department will be its human capital. “It will always be about people,” Whittington says.
That’s why he is on a mission to sell his department on the premise that they are the critical element of the department, not the technology. And it is the same for its partners, Virtustream and SAP. “When you know you have good people,” he says, “being on the cutting edge of technology is a lot easier.”