Karen Thomas Finds The Right IT Solution at the Right Speed

A look into the IT plan that helped Southern States Cooperative reboot its sales operation

Karen Thomas was simply trying to make her job as an entry-level accountant more efficient. She made friends in IT, started asking questions, and implemented several process changes that sparked an interest in software and set her on a new career path. Today, Thomas is vice president of information systems at Southern States Cooperative—the company she joined in 1988 as an accounting trainee.

In her current role, Thomas is leading the agricultural supply cooperative through a complex retail rejuvenation project designed to unite operations of two hundred retail locations in ten states. By replacing an outdated legacy system, reviewing operating principles and standards, and moving to a centralized solution deployed with virtual desktop infrastructure on SQL and Windows, her team will introduce much-needed consistency as the entire company focuses on staying competitive and relevant to meet the changing demands of the customer.

The multifaceted, multiyear initiative will make a significant impact on the company and the future. Those who know Thomas well aren’t surprised that she’s holding the reins; she’s made finding and executing meaningful process improvements her calling card. In the late 1980s, Thomas’s colleagues in accounting often found her talking with IT professionals and learning software tool sets that she would later apply to make accounting processes more efficient and effective.

“I knew that, if I could map out a solution on paper and set business rules and steps in the process, I could use software to remove cumbersome manual steps in my job so I would be free to do more valuable work,” she says.

After automating a few simple parts of her job, Thomas found herself poring over detailed information in long, month-end financial reports. That’s when she had an epiphany. “I knew that I could take the same steps to speed up a very long process that we were required to go through each month,” she says. Every month, she struggled to input and reconcile an enormous amount of data. Each time an employee made a minor change, she was required to repeat the tedious work. Thomas used her knack for computers and software to create automated reports that extrapolated data sets. The program generated totals and automatically recalculated every time someone else made a last-minute change. She ran the program parallel to her manual process for two months to demonstrate its accuracy and efficiency. Thomas’s program ended up cutting more than two days out of the monthly reporting process.

She officially moved to the information systems side of the business in 1998. Since then, she’s worked in various roles to help all sectors of the business accomplish tasks as effectively and efficiently as possible. Although the business is broad and others come to her team with small and large requests, she prioritizes based on a variety of assigned traits analyzed by committee. Members meet with Southern States Cooperative colleagues to learn about their needs and objectives for each project, and a light project implementation methodology keeps the information systems team agile and responsive. “We want to provide the right solution at the right speed,” Thomas says. “Then, we look for opportunities to use that same solution in other parts of the business.”

That cross-functional approach has yielded big results. Thomas has lived through an era in which Southern States was more siloed. But now, integrated IT groups work more closely with the business. If one team requests a document imaging function or mobile application, information systems teams consider introducing those solutions company-wide.

Having a lot of data is great, but you have to be able to take action, and we can do that now because of this solution.”

Since its founding in 1923, Southern States Cooperative has become one of the country’s largest agricultural cooperatives. About three years ago, company leaders realized that though the organization had evolved, its retail systems had not kept pace. In fact, Southern States’ main retail system was a custom solution developed more than thirty years ago before a period of significant growth. As a result, it operated as a patchwork of aging equipment with limited capabilities. Others in management asked Thomas to find a solution that would help Southern States meet its ongoing business needs and compete in a digital and mobile environment.

Before developing a solid road map for the rejuvenation project, Thomas met with department leaders to understand current and future needs. Then, her team planned the large project to transform the business into a streamlined operation capable of growing sales and fully supporting customers through a portal and other digital offerings. Additionally, the plan called for simplified back-office operations and outlined ways to remove redundant processes while giving managers a stronger view of data across all Southern States Cooperative’s locations.

The information systems team conducted a thorough request for proposal before selecting EFC Systems’ Merchant, an agribusiness management point-of-sale software and accounting solution. The retail ERP is online in real time. Given the unique needs of the operation, such as selling chemicals and other products that require compliance and licensures, Thomas is pleased to have found a specialized industry provider.

After obtaining approval in January 2012, Thomas and her team went live at pilot locations in the fall of 2014 and have now implemented the retail rejuvenation solution in all company-owned locations. They’re on track to migrate remaining member-owned cooperatives by the end of 2017. The transformation is nearly complete, and early feedback is overwhelmingly positive. The company has grouped locations together in operating areas and identified general managers that oversee each group. With real-time information at their fingertips, those managers avoid long trips to gather data at each field location. They can make responsive and accurate business decisions more quickly.

Accountants and other support team members can better interact with retail staffers and store employees as the centralized solution gives many people the same information with a single source of truth. “We have data we can actually act on,” she says. “Having a lot of data is great, but you have to be able to take action, and we can do that now because of this solution. We see what works and what needs work, and we act accordingly.”

With implementation nearly complete, Thomas is pushing other projects like an enhanced CRM tool set and a virtual desktop infrastructure that will assist teams in recording and answering calls or finding new ways to cross-sell and up-sell. Nearly thirty years after she joined the company, Thomas is doing what’s she done since day one: using her natural curiosity to improve processes, uncover new opportunities, and drive growth.

“I’m doing what I started out doing, but now I have the ability to make an impact from a leadership role,” she says. “From this seat in the IT group, I have the chance to dive in deep and really make a difference.”