Progressive co-op relies on unified network platform to drive growth
Trupointe Cooperative is a regional, member-owned and controlled co-op with headquarters in Piqua, Ohio. Its nearly 550 employees serve roughly 5,500 grower members from 50 locations in 29 counties throughout Northeast Indiana and West Central Ohio. Gross sales in 2012 topped $750 million.
Member-owned cooperatives, or co-ops, are a staple of the agriculture business. Members band together for their mutual benefit to help with buying and selling crops to maximize profits while reducing costs, obtaining energy and taking care of other needs to their mutual benefit.
Trupointe Cooperative was formed in 2010 when members of two independent Western Ohio co-ops voted to merge into one, increasing their buying power while enhancing their position in the market. Since that time, Trupointe has acquired or merged with other co-ops as well, and continues to grow their membership rapidly. This rapid expansion has yielded many benefits for the members, but has also created some new issues.
“Traditionally, co-ops have been very self-contained and localized,” says Jeff Partee, Director of Information Technology at Trupointe. “As we started bringing more of them into Trupointe we found ourselves managing multiple individual phone systems, many of them old PBX systems that had been around for a long time. There was no interconnection between locations, which meant each one was operating more as an independent entity than part of a larger group, which negated many of the benefits we were trying to gain through consolidation.”
The local nature of the phone system also meant that if no one was in a particular office when a member called, there was nowhere else to forward the call. That was particularly troublesome for energy-related calls, such as for a propane refill, because members only tend to call when there is an immediate need. Another pressing issue was the inability to provide high-speed Internet connections to every office because fiber optic cable was not available everywhere. Finally, Trupointe knew they needed to implement a disaster recovery solution to keep all systems running regardless of the weather or other issues that frequently cause interruptions in service in farm country.
To solve these issues, Trupointe turned to their longtime partner PERRY proTECH, a Cisco Premier Partner with extensive experience in all these technologies. PERRY proTECH recommended implementing a Cisco Unified Communications (UC) system with Voice over IP (VoIP) phones, along with a wide area wireless network in locations where cable was unavailable and a cloud-based call center. PERRY proTECH also recommended upgrading the network with new Cisco switches and routers to accommodate the higher bandwidth requirements, and a DR solution based around virtualizing servers with VMware.
The move from individual phone systems to an organization-wide Cisco UC platform had a profound and immediate effect on Trupointe’s business and the way it communicates with its customers.
“Roughly 40 percent of our workforce is mobile,” says Partee. “While they do have offices, they’re literally in the field nearly all the time. With the new Cisco UC system they’re able to remain connected easily so they can make and answer calls, obtain information and seek out solutions. For example, when one of our reps is at a member’s farm and the member has an issue, the rep can call one of our Ph.D. agronomists and tap into his or her expertise on the spot.”
The wide area wireless network has made a significant impact on the business as well.
“We now have Internet and network connectivity throughout all our locations,” Partee says. “Many of our sites are very remote, which means there’s no Internet Service Provider available to run a wired connection. But since we own the tallest structures in those areas we’ve been able to put radio towers on top of them and provide full coverage. We have 350 smartphones and 80 to 100 iPads in the organization. We’re using the cloud to make our applications available to field personnel through a virtual private network. None of that would be possible without the wide area wireless network.”
The addition of a virtual call center has definitely been a difference-maker in customer service according to Partee – both for day-to-day operations and for “the exceptions.”
“All customer calls are routed first to our call center,” he explains. “If they can’t answer quickly enough, calls are then routed out to the branches. We have several facilities that are fully automated so it was important to get away from the idea that growers had to call their local facility to place an order, make a sale, etc. In the agriculture business, 20 minutes can be the difference between profit and loss. We’re now able to provide a much higher level of service. And should our agents not be able to get into the call center due to weather or other issues, we can route the calls to them at home, keeping the business running.”
Another improvement that has been instituted was the creation of a redundant data center to provide greater business continuity, both for data and for the call center. If the main Cisco Call Manager server in Wapakoneta, Ohio goes down, Trupointe can quickly bring up the server at the backup site. If both servers go down, Partee says they can quickly spin one up within their VMware environment so members always have access to the services they require.
As much as Trupointe values all the technology, Partee also values the knowledge and expertise PERRY proTECH brought to the project. He is particularly appreciative knowing how difficult it is to find skilled networking experts who can do the heavy lifting in more rural environments.
“PERRY proTECH is a one-stop shop for projects requiring a high level of technical expertise and integration. Their service levels have been phenomenal, and their technical capabilities are excellent. They’re very innovative, always staying on top of the trends and bringing ideas to us. They’ve been a huge factor in our continuing success and growth.”
— Jeff Partee, Director of Information Technology, Trupointe Cooperative