To say that Crossville, Tenn.-based Tri-County Equipment Sales & Service is in a “transition period” is a significant understatement. In the past year, the six-store company has dropped its affiliation with one program group to join the Federated Auto Parts network. They have moved from being a jobber to a full warehouse distributor. And they have survived not one, but two major software platform implementations – the first was a disaster; the second was completed in a head-spinning five days.
The company is no stranger to change. According to owner Marshall Pugh, Tri-County started out 23 years ago as a single-location John Deere dealership before expanding into auto parts sales. They expanded to six stores over time, selling automotive and heavy duty truck parts, as well as offering equipment rentals.
In 2017, Pugh and his team made their first ever trip to industry trade shows SEMA and AAPEX, looking for a way to improve their margins on their heavy duty line. They found some new suppliers, but also had their eyes opened to the possibilities of other changes they could make to the business.
Last June, the company decided to switch groups, which meant rebranding and a switch to internal systems. Tri-County met with a new software vendor that assured Pugh they could deploy a new solution that would be able to meet their evolving inventory and business needs. A week before the go-live date, the vendor arrived in Tennessee to train Tri-County’s employees. Pugh could tell immediately there were going to be problems.
“They brought four people, but only two of them really knew how to operate the system, and neither of them could stand here and do everything a counterman is faced with in a typical day,” he says.
At Midnight on August 31, their former group pulled the plug on access to management systems. Pugh’s apprehensive employees began using the new system and it was quickly apparent that the new software system was not performing as advertised.
“We were in crisis mode,” Pugh says. “We went along with the software vendor for about five weeks, thinking that it was going to get better, but we didn’t’ see any improvement.”
The software interface was clunky, and printers and credit card readers at the stores failed frequently. “I bought a pig with lipstick,” Pugh says. “They put a pretty face on an antiquated system.”
In the summer and fall of 2018, Pugh began shopping for another software platform to replace the new solution. He reached out to Fuse5 Automotive Software (a vendor he had evaluated the first time around) to see if the company’s cloud-based solution could work in the newly reconfigured business.
By this point, Tri-County’s inventory issues were even worse than before and the company was losing sales. Pugh also realized his initial search for a new solution had failed, in part, because he didn’t yet understand the right questions to ask.
“We knew we were not going to be a jobber anymore, and that we were going to be a full WD. We knew there were big differences in those worlds, but we didn’t understand them,” Pugh says. “We didn’t know what questions to ask. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”
In revisiting the Fuse5 platform, Pugh determined that it would also help solve one his biggest inventory headaches. With the former group’s platform, staff had to literally print inventory reports and then re-type them into an accounting system. This led to frequent errors, he said. “We always had problems, and it got worse when we started adding stores,” Pugh says. “The inventory never matched. We wanted one system that could keep that together and under control.”
The new software had both an inventory and accounting function, but its feature set simply didn’t work with the way Tri-County did business. It also couldn’t manage Tri-County’s retail-centric operations.
“The other system would work in a warehouse, but our operation is based on our main store being a hub. We’re not a warehouse. We will become more like a warehouse as time goes on, but the primary focus of our business is the retail counters at our six stores.”
Fuse5 integrates directly with QuickBooks, which has streamlined inventory management and improved accuracy.
Tri-County decided to move ahead with Fuse5, but they needed the deployment done quickly. Complicating matters was the fact that the company no longer had access to its system data, and the software vendor that Fuse5 was replacing was not handing over the files needed for the transition.
“We had to rebuild everything,” Pugh says. “We’re still struggling to get our sales history and accounts receivable from the six weeks we operated on the other platform. It’s been crazy.”
Pugh was able to provide some files from the store computers. The system went live Oct. 8, barely a week after the initial phone call.
“We signed the deal on Wednesday and went live on Monday,” Pugh says. “They trained our IT guy so he could help with the training. We sent trainers to the outlying stores and dove in head first. I don’t suggest anybody ever doing that.”
According to Pugh, the Fuse5 solution has made it easier to set and maintain pricing and has enabled paperless point of sale operations. The catalog function is more intuitive and Pugh can centrally track counter operations.
“A big benefit is the cash accountability and the cross checks that go into that,” Pugh says. “We know what is going on at the counter, and we are truly paperless.”
Inventory operations have also improved because the previous vendor couldn’t integrate with the company’s existing barcode scanners. The scrapped software also used paper pick tickets, which increased paper cost.
There is still work to be done. Pugh is still trying to get his data back from the other software vendor, and he is working with Fuse5 to tweak their system and fully leverage all of the modules.
“In the past four months, I’ve learned a lot about what questions to ask and what to look for,” Pugh says.