Inventory control blossoms at ProFlowers with small MRP system
When a $300 million company with distribution channels nationwide uses a small
MRP system costing less than $10,000 to control its purchasing and inventory,
manufacturing companies large and small take notice.
ProFlowers, founded in 1998, has become the Internet’s number one provider of
grower-direct fresh flowers in the country. Now with about 80 suppliers and 60
domestic distribution centers, the San Diego-based firm isn’t a manufacturing
company in the traditional sense.
But purchasing and inventory requirements still need to be forecast and planned.
So after outgrowing simple systems like spreadsheets and a home-grown database,
the company turned to E-Z-MRP, a Material Requirements Planning system designed
for small businesses.
“When I got here, they were still pretty much in a start-up mode, and we were
doing a lot of things on spreadsheets,” said Brett Clare, ProFlowers’ Senior
Operations Analyst who joined the company in 2002. “While we weren’t a
manufacturing company, I knew that MRP could possibly help us organize the
purchasing of all our componentry.”
Clare, who worked before in more traditional manufacturing environments like
Proctor and Gamble and Estee Lauder, brought his background and expertise in
Material Requirements Planning systems to bear after observing simple systems
like spreadsheets being used at ProFlowers.
“When you get a box of flowers, we send you a box – you have labels, there are
vases, there’s chocolates, there’s teddy bears – all that stuff,” he said. “We
were buying it using spreadsheets and were distributing across 60 locations.”
Clare said they were finding that their distribution centers would inevitably
have too much of one thing and not enough of another.
“As we continued to grow, it just got too complex,” he said.
Because Clare had a strong manufacturing background and was one of the few
employees in the firm who had that expertise, he built an Access database using
pivot tables as a way to begin organizing the data and replace the spreadsheets.
“But I’m not a real programmer,” he said. “I put that thing together which just
kind of stopped the bleeding for a while.” After a few years, Clare began to
recognize the need for something more structured and powerful.
An on-line search uncovered E-Z-MRP, a small, inexpensive Material Requirements
Planning system developed by Del Mar-based Beach Access Software and president
E-Z-MRP was the next step, said Clare, who found the price right, the
capabilities powerful and adaptable enough for his needs, and the location of
Beach Access Software just 10 minutes from ProFlowers headquarters fortuitous.
The close location, he said, “was just a bonus.”
Clare said the attraction to E-Z-MRP was that, while the program was compiled
and not modifiable, the database was completely open and could be modified or
enhanced by the user.
“While [E-Z-MRP] wasn’t set up for multiple distribution centers, I knew that I
could modify the database to allow that,” he explained. “So I have access to
manipulate the database behind Rocky’s program, and then Rocky manages the
Clare said he looked at other systems, but they weren’t as impressive.
“Some of the other programs ... handled distribution centers but didn’t handle
something else, or they were too much for what we needed,” he said. “Rocky’s was
the perfect balance of simplicity and function.”
Cost, too, was an important factor. Besides providing capabilities that suited
the needs of ProFlowers, it turned out that E-Z-MRP was significantly less
expensive, Clare said.
Each distribution center has its own Bill of Materials
ProFlowers pioneered the direct-from-the-grower model of selling flowers, many
of which are brought in from Colombia and shipped directly to the company’s
extensive domestic network of about 60 distribution centers.
Under E-Z-MRP, each of these centers is treated as if it were a “product” with
its own Bill of Material. Clare developed this ingenious way to adapt E-Z-MRP to
his needs, by manipulating the database to suit his purposes.
“That’s the only way I could make it work,” said Clare, who works with 15 to 20
people in the planning and logistics department.
“I was quite impressed with how effective Brett's solution was,” said Beach
Access Software president and E-Z-MRP developer Smolin. “He had both a
distribution problem and a material planning problem. His response was to adapt
the standard features of E-Z-MRP to craft an elegant solution.
“Modeling each distribution center as a product with a unique Bill of Material
that reflected the precise quantity of each stock item required by that
distribution center, satisfied all of his requirements for material planning and
Clare said E-Z-MRP is not used for the flowers, just for the components, which
ProFlowers calls the “hard goods,” all of which are purchased from the San Diego
offices. Those are the vases, chocolates, bears, books and other items that are
included with each flower order.
“We have a separate program that I wrote that helps with the managing of the
flowers,” Clare said. “In a manufacturing environment you have, let’s say, a
finished good that would have a bouquet of flowers in it. Then it would have a
Bill of Material attached to it.
“Our merchandising people are always creating different part numbers for an item
that’s on the Web site. So it was too dynamic to try to use a Bill of Material
for each flower.”
So Clare built a Bill of Material for each distribution center of all the
components that ship out of that distribution center.
Clare gave an example, using his Miami supplier, to illustrate how the system
works. “For each unit we ship out of Miami, we ship 1.001 box for example, or
.35 vases or .4 bears,” he said. “That’s how we do our requirements. The only
input to the MRP is the date, the location and the number of units that are
going to leave the door that day.
“We have two box suppliers, for example – one on the east coast and one on the
west coast. So we’ll place a purchase order here, and then the box suppliers
will deliver to each of the [60 distribution center] locations.”
Clare said this is not a traditional use of MRP. Rather, he needed an MRP system
that could be modified to plan and control the inventory at multiple
distribution centers, and E-Z-MRP was ideal for his purposes.
He explained how he did it: “You’ve got the part master table. I had to
manipulate the database to have a part number, a hyphen and then each location.
So instead of processing 1,600 part numbers, we’re processing roughly 1,600 by
60 distribution centers. MRP crunches that. If a part isn’t used in a particular
location, the user doesn’t have to see it. … That noise doesn’t show up to the
When ProFlowers purchased E-Z-MRP three years ago, there were about 500
components rather than 1,600, Clare said.
Now with 1,600 unique components managed in MRP and about 60 distribution
centers, that would mean potentially 96,000 parts in the Part Master. But not
all part numbers are used at all locations, he said.
Implementation was speedy, Clare said. “I’d say it was up in about eight weeks,”
he said. “And most of it wasn’t so much teaching folks how MRP worked. It was
more me figuring out the customization to allow for more than one distribution
center. I had a concept in my head but I had to execute it. That was on my own.”
Once Clare completed his work on the database side of the system – changes he
said were invisible to the program side – then E-Z-MRP was up and running
quickly. E-Z-MRP was very intuitive, Clare said, and people in the department
“picked up the program really fast.”
Clare encountered little resistance within his department, because people knew
it was time for a system with better controls. But it was a different story with
the company’s Information Technology department.
“Internally in our department everybody was all for it,” he said. “IT on the
other hand was just being kind of parochial. I got a lot of resistance from IT.”
But Clare and E-Z-MRP’s Smolin had been working together on the project for some
time, and it was almost ready – whereas IT said a system would be available for
Clare in three to four years. “I was so far down the road that they couldn’t say
no,” he said.
Problems have been minimal, said Clare, who attributed most of the issues to the
extensive customization he did on the system’s database side.
“We had to relieve inventory too,” he said. “So the customization we did on the
database requires a lot of sequencing. I’d run some queries in our database,
we’d run some reports, we’d walk through this weekly close process.”
Before running E-Z-MRP, Clare said there is “a whole process we have to go
through to close out our week, relieve inventory, pull the [new?] part numbers,
sync them up to the new distribution centers, add part numbers – all that kind
“So the only problems we encounter are when we have some bad data and we have to
start from scratch,” he said. “But typically it’s on our end.”
There are two users who run E-Z-MRP on ordinary desktop computers, with about
one gigabyte of RAM and a 3.2 gigahertz processor. They have about 7,000 Part
Master records and close to 5,000 Product Structure records in about 60 Bills of
Material. And there are about 1,300 to 1,400 individual Demand records when MRP
The MRP calculations are run weekly and take between 25 and 35 minutes, Clare
said. “We do a ‘weekly close’ where we deduct sales from inventory (automated)
as well as add new part numbers, suppliers, Bills of Material, etc.”
Once a publicly traded company, ProFlowers was acquired several years ago and is
now owned by Liberty Media. It employs about 500 people. Although a private
company with undisclosed financial information, ProFlowers spokespersons said
the rate of growth over the years has been sizable.
In 2003, the company shipped 380,000 bouquets for Mother’s Day, and over one
million bouquets were shipped in 2008. Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day are its
two busiest days of the year.
As the company has grown, Clare said “we’re starting to stretch some limits”
with E-Z-MRP’s capacity. But after three years, going on four, Clare said he’s
satisfied he’s gotten more than his money’s worth.
“It’s been great,” he said. “We have 100 percent satisfaction.”
E-Z-MRP [ www.ezmrp.com ] was designed by Smolin in the mid-1980s when personal
computers first became popular. He identified a need for an MRP system to
address what he called “the bottom 90 percent of the market” – all small
manufacturers who needed MRP but were unable to afford the price or cope with
the complexity of the standard offerings. Smolin’s product was at the forefront
of an industry revolutionized by the power of personal computers.
Over the years, hundreds of small companies worldwide have been able to get the
same advantages of automated inventory and production planning as their larger
competitors by using the E-Z-MRP system.
The system, originally developed in C-BASIC and DOS, was completely rewritten
using Microsoft Access – a component of Microsoft’s Office system – and is
available in French, Spanish, and both traditional and simplified Chinese.
“Using Microsoft Access has the additional advantage of making the data readily
available to a wide variety of third-party products, as well as allowing our
users to write their own queries and custom reports,” Smolin said.
Clare said E-Z-MRP’s flexibility, and the way it allowed him to work with the
database side, was unique and key to his success.
In addition, E-Z-MRP’s simplicity and speed were mentioned by Clare as highly
“I didn’t need an IT department,” he said. “I came from a planning background. I
know a bit about databases, enough that basically I could bring the thing up. I
didn’t need an army, I didn’t need a consultant. Rocky came in once or twice. It
was straight-forward enough that I could bring it up quickly.”
And he particularly liked the service Smolin provides.
“We’re a seasonal business,” Clare said. “Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are
huge to us. So when IT asked me if I really needed a service contract, I
forwarded the email I got from Rocky [at work] at 7:30 on a Saturday night, the
week before Valentine’s Day. So, yeah, the service has been great.”
The issue, Clare said, turned out to be a technical problem, but he and the IT
department were impressed that Smolin was on it and responded to the problem on
a weekend evening.
“I would recommend [E-Z-MRP] to any small company, any small company that is
doing it on spreadsheets,” Clare said. “And there are a lot of companies that
are $200, $300 million that could really use something like this because it
doesn’t really require IT.”