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Carl Lewis: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise Podcast, where our guests share how they stay connected. I'm your host, Carl Lewis from Vision33, and my guest is Joe Leimer from Design Resources, Inc. (DRI). Joe, we met at a Biz.ONE conference in Plano, Texas, in 2012. Welcome to the podcast. Please tell us about DRI and your role there.

Joe Leimer: Thanks for having me. My role at DRI is Senior Director of Technology. My team focuses on serving the technology needs of DRI and our affiliated companies.

Carl Lewis: DRI is an interesting company. You have several businesses. They're all in the apparel industry, right?

Joe Leimer: That's right. To explain what DRI does – because it’s opaque in regards to design resources – we can design any resources. Our companies take an approach of being service-oriented and focusing on our customers and letting their brand shine through.

DRI started over 24 years ago, focusing on simplifying importing apparel products. We've been doing that for almost 25 years. That grew into also designing apparel lines. We do private label work for other companies. That grew into another division of DRI, which is called Caps Direct.

The Caps Direct network focuses on being the wholesaler of headwear. We've done hats for companies like SAP. Carl, if you need hats here at Vision33, let us know. We'd be happy to get you in touch with a distributor we work with.

Our headwear business ships about 700,000 to a million hats a month in the US.

Carl Lewis: That's just a few-

Joe Leimer: Yes, there are a few heads in the world. We like to put a hat on them, and we like to promote someone else's brand, which puts us in the promotional products space. All the giveaways at conferences like Biz.ONE, etc. and our partner, Third Wave, sourced hats from us to give away at their booth.

Many folks are geared toward the creative arts. They're on Macs, and they're doing the art and design work related to the headwear and/or other brands.

Another company we started about 15 years ago is called Dri Duck, or Dri Duck Traders. You can find it at driduck.com. Dri Duck is an outerwear brand focusing on folks who love to work and play outside. We started that brand in the promotional product space also. Imagine you're a construction company, and you want to outfit your crew with jackets. We're happy to get those jackets to someone who can put your company name on them. We have headwear there, too.

And, two years ago, we branched into direct-to-consumer.

Carl Lewis: You address a broad marketplace through these various business lines.

Joe Leimer: Yes. One opportunity has led to another.

Carl Lewis: That's created, from an IT perspective, a large landscape to manage. And you're focused on your customer. What areas of your business have you automated to stay connected to your customers, supply chain, and other networks? What's been important?

Joe Leimer: All the companies I've described – we have others – use SAP Business One. The nice thing about Business One is that we can launch a new company on its own stack. We're still on SQL server, so that lets us simplify company-to-company integration and other integration projects.

Such as EDI. Many are orders through our BCS business, which is Branded Custom Sportswear. We have a license agreement with Nike. Every college where you see a swoosh on the field, we help get apparel from the Nike factory to that college bookstore, the fan shop in that city, or a retail location.

In the US, that's roughly 1,600 colleges. We also work in Canada. Business One allows us to launch a new stack focusing on that company. Even our Canadian business model with BCS is on its own Business One database on Canadian currency.

Then we ask, “How do we automate this? How do we make things simpler?” Whether it’s our different sources or how we receive an order, a lot of our focus has been on that integration effort of making things smoother, cutting down the human touch on the orders we process.

Carl Lewis: Ok. Now pick a specific project and tell me how it got started.

Joe Leimer: I’ll focus on the BCS business model. We service all those colleges and some pro team sports. Again, anywhere you see the Nike swoosh, we're there somewhere. Because with our nimbleness to market, we can still source from the Nike factory, get the product in domestically, decorate it, and ship it.

We focus on, “How do we get blank product that's here domestically?” And then the folks we have selling to those colleges and pro sports are independent rep teams across the country.

When I got here, those orders came in using centuries-old technology: paper. They wrote it down. They received paper on fax machines that would print out the orders. One of the first changes was moving those fax machines to email boxes.

Since then it's been, “How can we simplify that even more? How can we get a solution to our reps so they can pull up the school they're working with and add the apparel items to the order?”

Then the thing that makes this complex we couldn't just buy off a shelf, like on our Dri Duck brand; we're using big commerce for our e-commerce store. We can't just use something like that because we're making custom-decorated apparel.

Carl Lewis: Right.

Joe Leimer: That wraps a ton of complexity around the order because we've done what I call ‘white manufacturing.’ Yes, we have the polo shirt sourced from the Nike factory. Yes, we have the shirt here in the US, blank and ready to go; we just need to add the art graphic, whether that’s screen print, heat seal, or embroidery methods. But those little details, that custom decoration, adds complexity.

What we created for the reps allows them to pull up the school, where it needs to ship, when we can get it there, and base art. Base art is reference art of what a graphic will look like. It's art we’ve already worked on with the Nike team to align with their brand, and we say, “You can order something similar to this.” We’ll switch the logos in this image for your school’s logos. We'll change to your school name, match your colors, etc.”

We do that after we receive orders from the sales rep. We need an easy way – here's the garment, here's the art. Fill out the size scale. Make it available to promise, which is another project we customized. Pull that together, run it through a ton of business rules, and submit it to our Account Service Team.

Our Account Service Team is like concierge-level service to these independent sales reps working on it.

Carl Lewis: How many independent reps do you have?

Joe Leimer: About 35.

Carl Lewis: That's a lot of faxes coming in! 

Joe Leimer: For the more advanced forms, we use Excel. We simplified it, and they email Excel spreadsheets. It's always been a goal: “How do we automate this? How do we make this less work?”

Carl Lewis: You created a portal where they can submit orders. I'm sure that increased efficiencies. What were the goals of that project?

Joe Leimer: It's taking the context of MVP (minimum viable product), and saying, “What's the easiest thing we can tackle related to this?” You already saw that in getting rid of paper fax machines. Let's move to email boxes. Let's leverage Excel. Let's have access to that. Let's utilize that.

For us, starting with this portal a year and a half ago, the easiest thing was an exact reorder. Allow the rep to pull up an old sales order number or PO, add that to their order, and copy it to give them a visual representation. Allow them to make tweaks, such as changing the size, and then allow them to submit it.

That was the first thing we focused on: how to do an exact reorder.

Carl Lewis: Makes sense.

Joe Leimer: Yep.

Carl Lewis: And you said you started this project about a year and a half ago?

Joe Leimer: Yep. And then there's a constant balance between our internal team that manages orders and our sales rep team. They defined reorder, and we had another definition.

Carl Lewis: Of course.

Joe Leimer: Then it was transitioning to the agile approach of, “What do you mean by reorder?" “Well,” they said, “I'd like to change the color of that polo." But that’s a color change, not a reorder, so we had to modify it to handle that.

Then there were more requests, and our reorder portal grew to handle everything our rep team called a reorder – and then some. We took the lessons learned from doing that app, which was very simple in look and feel, and we said, “How can we fold all that into something that captures not only those orders but also new orders? How do we make it a platform for our strategy of having one spot for our reps to put in their orders?”

Carl Lewis: How far along are you to having that project 100% done? It sounds like it continues to morph and adjust and get new feature requests, and other types of scope-creep things that happen in projects. Where are you today?

Joe Leimer: We see ourselves in the same spot Nike saw themselves in the '70s. They did an ad campaign that said, "There is no finish line." The rest of the ad was about how beating the competition is relatively easy, but beating yourself is a never-ending challenge.

That’s where we are. I'm not saying we're the best in everything, but we show up every day and ask, “How can we improve what we've already done?” Yes, we already have this out there. Yes, reps are using it. Yes, reps are trained. But we know there's always more.

That's really where the agile method comes into play, of having that close conversation in between. Our development operations team and the business side can ask, “What are the priorities? What are the things we must focus on and add into it?”

Around April, we’d identified a pilot team of reps to test this. Five reps were saying, "We’d love your feedback on this. We know we’ll need to fix some things. Give us grief on that." And they were great. They provided a ton of feedback. Our team was releasing fixes every week – sometimes twice a week – for the portal, to improve everything I discussed, like reordering sizes and capturing new orders.

Some things seem simple on paper but are complex when trying to convert them to digital solutions, such as sketches. How do we capture those sketches digitally? How do we take this ASR image? (Because there's not much deviation we can do from the sign-off we have from Nike.)

That first statement about our company – of how we want other brands to be the focus, with us just executing in the background – is because we don't want to confuse the consumer. This product is still sourced from the Nike factory. It's still close to operation with the Nike design team. Folks don’t understand that it originated from Branded Custom Sportswear unless they're geeky about their apparel and read the tags people usually cut out right away.

Carl Lewis: That's funny. It sounds like it's continuing to work out against the goals of giving you a smoother transition from your salespeople into the ERP system, and better service to the customer. What were your biggest surprises of this project, good and bad?

Joe Leimer: The apparel industry is very tactile, very visual. So how do we solve the challenge of presenting the artwork we create? Just on the apparel side, we need a way to show all the styles and colors.

Then, on the base art side, we're working with 1,600 colleges, but even if you pare that down to the limited number of graphics you can choose, it’s still a giant number. And then creating a way to capture the artwork. After we’ve placed the new order, created the custom artwork for it, and okayed the artwork through the college or the license director, we have something we can reorder.

It’s a new way of saying, “Ok. We have these digital assets in Illustrator files. How do we harvest that and create a clean way of presenting it in this portal?” There's a lot of work along the way related to just that one challenge.

Carl Lewis: Just creating the digital filing system for all these bits of information and all the details you want for this order and future orders sounds likes quite a project, for sure.

Joe, you have this project behind you. When your team looks at your business and dreams about the future, is there something high on your list you wish you could get to sooner? What’s the next big project?

Joe Leimer: There's a side called programs to our orders, and simplifying that process is next. In our industry, many people think, “Hey, Vanderbilt just won the College World Series. How are you guys handling that? Can you output those orders?”

And we do, which is called a program. What happens is that a design already exists and is already out to the decorator. We ask, “How do we phase that apparel stock and how do we keep from printing stuff we’ll have to destroy?”

We'll have the order in place from retail or the colleges. We'll have the artwork sitting at the decorator. We don’t own the decorators, but we have relationships with them. Anyway, that's ready to go.

It’s, “How do we create an easy way for our reps to say, ‘Here's a program.’ It's going to have a very tight window. But how can we show customers what they can order, make it simple to order, and then allow reps to capture the order?”

That's our next thing with this portal, which will include several things. Streamlining, and how that's done within the portal, and changing business processes to create more time for us in those narrow windows. Also, creating an email campaign to allow a quick blast-out and click the links for an easy way to start an order.

Carl Lewis: Interesting.

Joe, work stuff is fun – but we’re dealing with the pace of the IT world changing so rapidly that it's hard to keep up and keep learning. How has the speed of technology affected you? Is it harder to stay on top of things? Or do you say, “I have to do what I know how to do, and I can't know everything suddenly”?

Joe Leimer: I learned a few decades ago there's no way to know it all. Within the technology space, a lot can’t happen as a lone wolf, so a strong team is critical. Having strong relationships with other folks like yourself, Carl, vendors, partners, and peers, and leveraging those relationships to say, “What's our problem, how do we solve it, who can we reach out to?”

I've found that if someone can't explain something simply, they probably don't know it. I look for folks who can make the complex simple and focus on developing relationships there.

And I'm always in a book. I'm reading Walter Isaacson's book The Innovators, which I highly recommend. It's fascinating if you're interested in technology. It starts in the 1800s and goes to 2014. It's interesting to see that AI and machine learning were topics of conversation way back in the 1800s, as they are today.

Along with focusing on technology, I also focus on leadership. I attend several leadership-focused events, like the Global Leadership Summit, and I follow several leadership-focused podcasts, like Craig Groeschel's Leadership Podcast.

I want to be a lifelong learner. To build relationships along the way with folks who enjoy doing that, whether it's in technology or another space. There's a lot to learn, and you can have fun doing it. 

Carl Lewis: Definitely. Well, Joe, I appreciate you joining me on the Connected Enterprise podcast. I'm positive your company’s journey at DRI will help others.

I get many comments about keeping this podcast short, so we’re not going to make it any longer. I'll say farewell to everyone. I hope to hear and see you all again, but until then, stay connected.