Acorn Paper delivers a seamless Oracle upgrade—and better service for customers—with no interruption in business operations.
by Fred Sandsmark
On Fridays for the last half of 2010, the 250 employees of Acorn Paper Products Company donned “spirit wear”— T-shirts emblazoned with logos for Acorn Paper and Oracle on the front and “Can you believe 11.0.1 to 12.1.2?” on the back.
The shirts were the most-visible signs of an ambitious months-long effort to modernize and expand Acorn’s Oracle E-Business Suite implementation. “The shirts were all about buy-in and getting people excited,” explains David Weissberg, CEO of Acorn Paper Products Company. “Everybody here uses the Oracle system every day, and we wanted them to understand that this would make their life easier.”
But the upgrade itself touched every element of Acorn’s technology stack—hardware, operating system, database, and applications. In an around-the-clock push, the upgrade was made over a long weekend in November 2010 and was, according to Weissberg, a “1,000 percent success”: “We had no issues, no downtime, and it was completely transparent to our customers.”
The upgrade plan devised by Acorn and the company’s technology partner C3 can serve as a model for companies of all sizes—and the benefits executives can expect when they invest in the latest IT tools.
A paper company may be an unexpected location for cutting-edge business, but Acorn is no ordinary paper company. The Los Angeles, California–based operation, launched in 1946 by Weissberg’s grandfather, Jack Bernstein, was still a local player with fewer than 30 employees when Weissberg came on board in 1982—with big ambitions. “I had a vision to make us one of the most well-positioned paper and packaging companies on the West Coast,” Weissberg says. Over three decades Weissberg expanded manufacturing and shipping operations, grew the product line, opened new facilities, and created new divisions to meet market needs. And the workforce grew tenfold.
Today, Acorn is the most visible division of Weissberg’s holding company, Oak Paper Products, which includes a manufacturing division that processes more than 150 million square feet of corrugated paper every month, a wholesale division serving about 600 customers nationwide, and a creative services division that designs packaging and corrugated displays. Acorn fills 500 orders a day—98 percent of which are filled in 24 hours or less.
What’s more, Acorn competes on both price and customer service. The company maintains inventory of more than 1,600 different corrugated boxes for immediate delivery—more than any other company in the United States—and sells at lower prices than competitors. “A customer can call a national mill and order a large quantity, which they’ll get in a week—or they can call us and pick up an order in 30 minutes,” Weissberg says.
Over the years, Oracle E-Business Suite has been key to these achievements. In 2000, Acorn went live with Oracle E-Business Suite 11.0.3. Weissberg’s peers were skeptical, telling him that the new system was bigger and more complex than he needed, but he remained undeterred. “We were probably one of the smallest Oracle customers at the time,” Weissberg says. “But we embraced Oracle, and it has proven successful for us.”
Still, Acorn’s Oracle system—which gave the company its competitive advantage—had fallen behind the times. The initial implementation had been a huge effort for the small company, requiring much time and energy. But the need to upgrade came to a head in January 2009, when sustaining support ended for Oracle E-Business Suite 11.0.3. “We told them, ‘Listen, you have to upgrade everything, and you need to do it soon,’” recalls Steve Martin, principal and program manager at Oracle Platinum Partner C3. Martin and his team had supported Acorn’s Oracle environment for more than a decade, so Weissberg knew he was serious.
The challenge was the interrelationship between the operating system, the database, and the applications: changing any one aspect of the system would likely break the others. Martin proposed that Acorn upgrade to multinode x86 hardware running Oracle Linux, Oracle Database 11g, and Oracle E-Business Suite 12.1.2. In addition to modern hardware and software, the new system would support a new Oracle iStore–powered internet storefront, Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition 11g to help management understand and respond to changes in the business environment; and Oracle Application Express for Web-based application development.
Weissberg agreed and selected the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend, which most U.S. nonretail businesses observe, for the entire upgrade. “The entire stack needed to be upgraded in one process,” Martin recalls. “We couldn’t multistage it.”
To prepare for this narrow window of opportunity, new hardware was installed in Acorn’s data center months before the upgrade began. Then C3’s technicians began test-running the upgrade, timing each step and tuning the scripts. “We took our time and made sure we had a great upgrade plan,” Martin says. “You need to actually do the upgrade, and then repeat it and get the same result. And then do it a third time to make sure you can do it within the upgrade window.” Over the course of three months of testing, C3 personnel also trained Acorn’s 15 “superusers” on the new software and the superusers trained their staffs.
On Wednesday, November 24, 2010, C3’s implementation team began the final changeover. First they exported 12 years of historical data onto the new server and upgraded the database from Oracle8i Database to Oracle Database 11g. The team then took an incremental approach to migrating and upgrading Oracle E-Business Suite—first patching the applications to version 126.96.36.199, then upgrading to 12.1.1, and patching again to 12.1.2. Finally, C3’s team migrated Acorn’s customizations and Oracle Discoverer end-user layers to the new system. (See sidebar “Upgrading Customizations”)
The upgrade ran until Sunday morning, when key users checked the work. By Sunday evening the system was declared fully functional. “We upgraded it all—millions and millions of records across the Oracle E-Business Suite footprint,” says Martin. “People came to work on Monday and started shipping right away, without any loss of service.”
Weissberg says Oracle E-Business Suite 12.1.2 has not only brought the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) functionality into the twenty-first century but is also enabling new technologies and delivering new benefits to his business.
For example, the operational data collected by the ERP system is now accessible to an instance of Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition, which allows Acorn management to monitor key performance indicators (KPIs) in real time. “They can see what’s going on all day long from anywhere in the world on their iPads,” Weissberg says.
To feed this data stream, Acorn’s sales managers and salespeople now plan to use Oracle Fusion Customer Relationship Management (Oracle Fusion CRM) to manage prospects, customers, and the company’s sales pipelines. According to John Gilligan, Acorn’s vice president and division manager for northern and central California, the new CRM functionality will be an everyday tool for the sales force, providing insight into Acorn’s available inventory, product pricing, customers’ purchasing history, and sales trends. “More information is available, in a more detailed format, with the new system,” says Gilligan.
Combining this CRM functionality with core ERP data provides a complete enterprise package that helps Acorn preserve margins in a complex business climate. With thousands of product categories and the volatile cost of raw materials, the new Oracle system provides alerts that keep salespeople informed about changes that could affect their selling strategies. And the results show. “Our bottom line has consistently improved, month by month, since we’ve gone live with the new system,” says Weissberg.
Capturing and monitoring activities companywide is key to Weissberg’s IT strategy and gives him and his executive team an accurate, top-level view of business activity. So Acorn’s warehouse workers and truck drivers also access the Oracle system to maintain inventory, fulfill orders, and make deliveries. “If you don’t have everybody in a company buying into this and touching the system every day, then you might as well not do it,” he says.
Acorn’s largest customers also interact with the system, through Acorn’s Web storefront, to check inventory and place orders online. Online interactions provide additional insight into customer requirements and demands, while increasing customer satisfaction and shortening the business cycle to increase profitability. “The Oracle iStore e-commerce product has allowed us to pull ahead of competition,” says Randy Seff, vice president at Acorn. “Our online store lets us market our products so customers and prospects can quickly browse our product offerings in a way that was never possible prior to Oracle iStore.”
Weissberg also sees the online store as a marketing tool, because new customers and prospects can search inventory for a potential solution. And Acorn staff uses social media to drive business to the Web-based store. “It’s all just pieces of a puzzle that have to go together,” he explains. “If you want to be in an enormously competitive business like mine, you either do it the right way or you don’t survive.”
Upgrading Oracle applications also changed the relationship between C3 and Acorn. “A lot of our work there used to be creating reports,” Martin explains. “Much of that is now done in Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition. But that’s OK—we don’t want to be report-writing consultants. We want to enable the software so our customers can do more on their own.”
David Karr, COO at Acorn, provides an example: he’s learning Oracle Advanced Pricing. “It will give our sales reps improved speed-to-market quoting and pricing,” he says. “We are continually learning about new methods and processes that can improve the overall functionality of our teams and departments.”
Weissberg encourages Acorn’s employees—and his peers—to focus on the possibilities that new applications represent. “We all have these horrendous upgrade fears,” Weissberg says. “But Oracle has made these less real. The processes have become so streamlined and scientific that there’s no reason not to upgrade anymore.”
Fred Sandsmark is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Many business processes at Acorn Paper Products Company that required customization under Oracle E-Business Suite 11.0.1 are handled without customization in version 12.1.2. But some—such as a proprietary model for product costing and a specialized method for calculating commissions—required more effort to work in the new environment.
The differences often lay in the way the customizations were developed. “Acorn’s custom pricing was developed in Oracle Order Entry in 11.0.3,” recalls Steve Martin, principal and program manager at Oracle Platinum Partner C3, who led the upgrade team for Acorn. “But Oracle Order Entry was completely rewritten in 11.5.10 and renamed Oracle Order Management. We had to make sure those changes were incorporated as we upgraded the customizations.”
Although Acorn still customizes its applications somewhat, CEO David Weissberg prefers to work within the applications’ inherent structure whenever possible. “You want to take advantage of the genius of the people who design the software,” he says. “You don’t want the software to change; you want your business to change to work inside the software.”
Weissberg finds that easy to do with Oracle Database 11g. “By having the best, most powerful database product available in the market today, there’s almost nothing that you can’t get out of a standard system, simply by employing the right applications,” he says.