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Beyond Bits & Bytes

Ed Collupy may be the vice president of information services (IS) at The Pantry Inc., and this year's Convenience Store News Top Tech Executive, but when it comes to technology, for him, it's all about business. His approach is to unearth the business needs of each department, whether at store level or headquarters, and then identify and implement the technology to meet those needs.

When he started at The Pantry 11 years ago, the company operated 380 stores, but that didn't last long. What followed was a massive and quick expansion, leading to its current count of 1,650 locations. At the time, Collupy was just beginning to bring the company up-to-date with technology, including a new back office system and scanning.

However, he knew the most important thing for the business, from accounting and inventory to marketing and more, was to have the new stores -- which were, at times, being added on a weekly basis -- up and running on The Pantry's systems from their first day as part of the company. So he immediately worked with his team to put a plan in place.

To date, this accomplishment is still what Collupy notes as one of his greatest. "We fine-tuned the process from the beginning of our growth spurt," he said. "I would say the thing I'm proudest of is our ability to go through the amount of acquisitions we have, and to have those stores integrated from day one. The second is how we have grown the use of technology throughout the company, having built up a portfolio of systems that support the business."

Since the beginning of his career in retail technology more than 30 years ago, Collupy has always viewed his role as a mix of business and technology.

"I'm often a liaison between the two groups," he explained. "The senior leadership team has always been supportive of our efforts and has continually demonstrated their interest in using technology and systems to advance the business. We've taken great steps to let the business drive projects."

Through leadership and example, Collupy has passed this view onto his staff, which votes his listening skills, memory and patience among his top qualities as a manager.

"He is a very good listener, and I think he can analyze a situation to determine the best need for the business," said Alvin Forston, director of network systems development at The Pantry. "He always puts the focus on the fact that the business comes first, and the business is the customer."

Chris Young, director of store systems, said he relies on his memory. "He is one of the most intelligent guys I have ever met, and he doesn't forget anything," he said. "He does a good job at letting his people have autonomy, and delegates very well, but he is very detail-oriented and knows the details on things personally. There is hardly anything that goes on around here that he doesn't know about."

To ensure his team is on the same page, Collupy looks to hire tech employees that fit with his philosophy and are team players.

"I look for someone that has a broad base knowledge of business -- not necessarily the c-store business -- I'm always interested in someone who is not just for technology. I want someone who understands how technology is applied to the business. We have been successful in finding people that fit into the team well, and become team players quickly."

And his team and their needs are high priorities for him, which is both noted and appreciated by the members of his staff.

"He is concerned about developing people and wants them to feel engaged," said Young. "He is big on people communicating both separately and directly. He wants to make sure people are engaged, and I think people appreciate it."

Each of his eight direct reports have individual meetings with him as needed, and the entire group also meets together once a week. But Collupy explained his door is always open to everyone.

"Reporting relationships are important, but I've never viewed them as a barrier to engaging and becoming involved with the rest of the group," he said. "I will often go to someone who reports to one of my direct employees and help them or ask a question to engage them in something."

Collupy also will attend different group meetings when he can, especially when it relates to a current project.

Young referred to him as a humanitarian, and someone "always looking out for the little guy." And not one staff member interviewed failed to mention the non-profit corporation Collupy helped to create called Share the Blessings (, which has helped to build wells for clean drinking water in Uganda as well as rebuild schools and supply computers to schools in need. The Pantry has also contributed computers to the cause.

Collupy developed the organization with a group of people from his church after visiting the country on mission work. He has since returned a second time, and looks forward to a third trip.

This empathetic and giving nature can be seen in the way he treats his employees as well. "He is extremely compassionate and caring," said Paul Dalberth, director of network operations for the company. "He is a courteous guy who is always keeping everyone's feelings in mind, and he has great respect for the team. I think I speak for everybody when I say we feel the same way about him."

Building a Foundation
When Collupy joined the company, its technology use consisted of green-screen in the back office with an in-store handheld application to capture key sales data, he explained.

"It was very much a paper-driven company," he said. "The attraction for me was the ability to get in on the ground floor of something, which is always pretty exciting. The job came with challenges, and I am always up for a challenge."

But again, Collupy has always known it is about more than just technology. "Because the technology was new, and I was introducing change to both other people as well as myself, it had to be more than a technology approach. It had to look at what was good for the business."

It took a year and a half for Collupy and his team to find and formulate a solution to automate the store, which was his first big initiative along with finding a way for people to communicate with one another, including the field staff because the company did not use e-mail at the time. He also introduced the Microsoft suite of products.

"Our approach was to first implement the back office technology, and we started to receive at item level from the beginning," Collupy said. However, 360 stores began to grow rapidly with new acquisitions, and needed a new accounting system as well.

"Our focus was really to implement the back office and get the benefit from that as well as item level receiving, and make sure we were bringing the new solution to acquisitions on an immediate basis," he explained.

The person Collupy credits with helping the most in this process is Forston, who joined the company in 1998, right when The Pantry started its big acquisition initiatives.

"Alvin had the mind for understanding the back office system and how we needed to put it all together, both from a technology and operations standpoint," Collupy explained. "The first couple of acquisitions went well, and we would learn and continue to fine-tune the process. Through it all our one objective has always been to keep learning from each one. We never rested and kept doing something the same way if we had a better way."

For a while, acquisitions were taking place every week or every other week, and the team didn't really have the time to go back, said Forston, who noted there was a lot of planning beforehand to make it work.

"We had to create a support model," he said. "We put our PCs and accounting systems in and took theirs out so from day one they would be doing everything on our systems. That way we didn't have to go through a transition later. It's really a coordinated effort."

As the company continued to grow, the next step was to integrate the back office system with the point-of-sale (POS) at the store level, and implement scanning -- an area Collupy knew well from his days in the supermarket industry.

The information technology team first approached scanning with the goal of implementing those stores that represent key markets, and to start looking at the data there instead of implementing all the stores. However, this plan quickly changed after seeing the benefits. "We quickly found there were enough benefits to do the implementation chain-wide, so we switched our approach," Collupy said.

The Current Roadmap
Two years ago, Collupy started planning an upgrade of The Pantry's IT infrastructure in order to stay up-to-date and remain competitive. He hired Loren Allston, senior project manager, to oversee the portfolio of projects planned, and his first project was to perform a system assessment on the company, going out to all the business groups and conducting interviews to identify technology needs and where IT could fill in the gaps.

However, the planning started many years earlier. "Ed has great vision," said Young. "He started talking about upgrading our POS systems four of five years ago, and used his contacts with outside companies, as well as a consultant, to help us write up a request-for-proposal."

Collupy explained the company had grown tremendously and needed new systems to catch up with that growth. Many of its systems were aging and some of the infrastructure needed was not in place. The company also wanted to be positioned for further growth, and decided to take "a more proactive approach to systems and technology and make some additional investments that had not been made in recent years," he said.

Once the cross-functional teams identified their needs, the IS team worked with them to prioritize projects. "We went through an exercise and involved senior management throughout the process," said Collupy. "We began working with some key vendors at the time to build a roadmap and came up with a plan senior management agreed to -- both strategic and tactical."

This was the birth of Project START, which stands for Systems Transition Assessment Roadmap Transformation, said Allston.

The concentration of projects and the return-on-investment is a 3-year scenario, focusing on the "plumbing you need for a company of this size," said Allston. These include a combination of financial accounting systems, operational systems focused on enhancing management control, and the automation of workflow.

Using application service providers (ASP), The Pantry is implementing two human resources applications, a Talent Management System and an employee intake system for its people to use if they need to report a concern, Collupy said.

"They will be Web-based applications so we won't be installing any software or hardware," he explained. "We expect to see results from those within the year."

Hyperion is the current planning, budget and financial reporting system, and The Pantry is upgrading to the vendor's latest version, as well as "retooling" applications that are part of those systems, explained Collupy. And the maintenance department will benefit from a new system by ViryaNet to help with dispatching, workforce management and parts inventory.

But these systems are only the beginning. At the store level, the company is upgrading its POS systems with Retalix, moving from dial-up to a wide-area network (WAN), and upgrading its back office system from PDI's legacy system to PDI Enterprise.

"The POS project is just moving from the pilot stage with 26 stores up and running, and we are ready to get into the rollout," Collupy said. "The plan is to rollout the WAN just in advance of a store getting the POS so these projects will be running parallel."

The company is also committed to enlist more merchandise vendors providing electronic invoices using the NAXML EB2B standard. "It's a big benefit at the store level as well as the headquarters," Collupy noted.

Mission Accomplished
Project START, well into its second year, already completed many projects, including a major upgrade to the The Pantry's data center, which doubled the size of the facility and improved the infrastructure related to power management and cooling, said Collupy. It was completed in December and "the way it is designed allows for more growth and safer growth," he noted.

As part of a mandatory project, The Pantry migrated to the BP CommLinx, which is BP's program to move credit away from the POS to its own system, said Collupy. This provided the benefit of adding debit to the pumps for customers, which has been "a huge success. We have been seeing benefits in reduced fees as well as improved customer service," Collupy said.

Also implemented are a new risk management system using CS Stars, another ASP vendor, and a new imaging-based workflow system for the approval of maintenance invoices.

Collupy said what the team is working on now will enable other programs to advance store operations, marketing, human resources and more in the future.

For example, while the company receives at item level, they are still entering some of the data manually. "We would like to look at vendor receiving and a store-level labor scheduling program," Collupy noted. "PDI has a product called Store Assistant we will probably take a look at."

The company also is looking into a system for real estate lifecycle to provide system solutions for lease administration, lease accounting and construction project management.

"The technology advancement in the c-store industry has been phenomenal since I started," Collupy said. "It has gone from an industry that was very much paper-based to one that now could be just about fully automated at store level and in the back office. How c-stores are using technology today compared to 10 years ago is night and day."