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Flash Forward

This year marks the third in a row Jenny Bullard is serving as chairman for NACStech, the industry's biggest technology conference and trade show. She's also served as chairman of PCATS (Petroleum and Convenience Alliance for Technology Standards), continuing to play an active role in the association today. And when she's not on the road helping to make a difference in the way c-store chains use and benefit from technology, Bullard manages the IT department at The Jones Co. as Chief Information Officer.

Fresh out of high school and taking night classes at Okenfenokee Technical Institute, Bullard never imagined she would be where she is now.

"I got my introduction to technology with computer science classes I took at night. I always had the analytical mindset that wanted to get in and solve a problem," she told Convenience Store News. "I didn't think it would be my career at the time."

While attending night classes, she worked as an administrative assistant to the principal of Bacon County Middle School in her hometown of Alma, Ga., where she got her first taste of technology submitting test results to the state. "We had a machine we ran cards through to scan the data, and I was responsible for understanding the technology and making it work," she recalled. She was also learning RPG (Report Program Generator) programming at the technical school during this time.

It was while working at the middle school that she met Carl Jones, owner of The Jones Co., based Waycross, Ga., and now operating 175 Flash Foods convenience stores.

"While working in the school system I got to know Carl Jones and provided childcare for his two youngest sons on the weekends," she said. "In February 1972 I started in the accounts payable department at The Jones Co."

Today, she manages a team of 30 people, and is always working on improving the technology processes in place at Flash Foods. "What makes working here so interesting is we always have technology innovations going on. I work with a great team. Everyone is always ready to embrace technology changes," she said.

She also enjoys working in the convenience industry, and not only sharing her ideas, but learning from others as well, which is one of the reasons she remains so involved in the industry as a whole. It was due to her accomplishments within Flash Foods, as well as the industry, that earned her Convenience Store News' First Annual Top Tech Executive Award in 2003. (This year, CSNews is presenting the 7th Annual Technology Leadership Awards during the Opening General Session at NACStech in New Orleans.)

"Although we consider ourselves a very competitive industry, we are still very open to sharing ideas and insights at industry events," she noted. "This is especially true within the technology area. Being out in the industry, attending conferences has allowed me to sit at the table with many individuals from other companies both larger and smaller than ours."

Through her involvement, she hopes to help advance the industry as a whole to be more technology savvy, and is grateful to be able to work every day in a job she is passionate about.

"I'm very passionate about the company I work for and the industry, as well as how technology plays a role in making this industry more profitable," she said. "And I am thankful to work for a company that has provided me the opportunity to be a technology advocate within the industry."

Education on the Job
After working for a year in the accounts payable department of The Jones Co., Bullard moved into the data processing area of the company, where an IBM 402 accounting machine was the only technology in place. At the time, it was used for picking labels and invoices for Flash Foods' distribution center in Alma, Ga.

"I found that I liked to develop applications down to programming the code," she said. "Being able to look at a business need and understand how to make the process more efficient with technology was a challenge, and it was here that I started to learn more about our stores and understand how we could automate the day-to-day operations."

A couple of years after moving to data processing, the company switched to an IBM midrange computer system. Bullard worked with a contract programmer furthering her skills, and Flash Foods sent her to an IBM school in Atlanta to advance her knowledge even more. Eventually all applications -- from payroll to the general ledger -- operated on an IBM AS 400 using in-house developed applications, she explained.

"The new midrange systems used RPG programming language, and we still have applications I developed that run on our AS 400 today for our distribution center," she noted.

As the company continued to grow, so did Bullard's role -- moving to office manager, where she prepared the financials each month and dealt with any technology issues. She credits being involved with the accounting side and understanding how it worked with helping her on the technology side.

"Being able to understand the accounting side of our industry was very important to me as we moved to automate our stores in 1996," she noted. "I know how things hit the profit and loss, and the balance sheet, and understand how sales are entered at the store level and flow into the financials at the corporate level. I think anyone who is involved in technology in this industry needs to understand the financials."

In 1998, Bullard became the Director of IT (Information Technology), and in 2003 took the role of CIO for The Jones Co. The 30 people in her department include IT, pricebook and the 24-hour help desk.

"I have a great staff, and they are my support team," she said.

Moving to Automation
The first major technology initiative Bullard took on began in 1995 when Jimmy Jones, CEO of The Jones Co., put the task of automating the company's stores into her and the CFO's hands. At the time, the stores operated with cash registers, and priced all items individually. Associated rang up items by entering the cost of each into the register. This was also prior to pay-at-the-pump technology, Bullard explained.

"Our paperwork was done by entering sales information on a large handwritten spreadsheet that was mailed into the office once a week, and then entered into our accounting system," Bullard recalled.

In 1996, Flash Foods partnered with The Pinnacle Corp. to test its point-of sale (POS) and back-office systems at one store, and by 1997, deployed Pinnacle Palm POS, which allowed it to start scanning products, and rolled out Pinnacle Oasis back office, completing the project chainwide in early 1998.

Since then, the company continues to be at the forefront of technology innovation, from switching to item-level inventory and implementing computer-assisted ordering (CAO) for all items delivered from its distribution center, to offering its own loyalty program and ACH debit card to cut back on transaction fees.

And this year is no different. After successfully implementing CAO with its beer wholesalers, and Coke and Pepsi bottlers, which took eight weeks to accomplish and finished this past January, Flash Foods and Bullard's team are taking on the rest of the direct-store delivery (DSD) vendors.

"Our implementation of CAO with our own distribution center a few years ago has significantly saved our company money in inventory investment, as well as increased sales from reducing out of stocks," Bullard explained. "Our marketing director, Phil Settle, has been very involved and instrumental in moving this technology to other vendors that deliver to our stores."

The challenge is getting vendors to agree with the process, she said. Most have people who go to stores and place orders. "Soft drink vendors are where you really gain the most inventory investment savings. Next is our snack and chip vendors like Frito Lay and Lance," Bullard said. "It will be hard to get down to some other vendors like bread and some regional ones. They would be targeted last."

When an order is created, the CAO system creates an invoice at the store level. Now, when product is delivered to the store, employees only need to verify what is delivered, compared to the invoice. It no longer needs to be scanned or keyed in.

"We are already seeing a return through reduction of inventory," Bullard noted. "We are able to go into the stores and the coolers, and product is more organized. It's also quicker to do inventory counts because we don't have extra product stocked up in the stores."

Another project recently implemented is Pinnacle's Andele, a Web-based solution automating the fuel supply chain from ordering to delivery. The solution is enabling Flash Foods to have real-time fuel inventory numbers. In the past, the fuel delivery drivers mailed in their paperwork, and it would take 10 to 15 days to be received and entered into the accounting system. Now, using their BlackBerry, drivers can enter the information and it updates immediately into the fuel accounting system, Bullard said.

The company is also upgrading its loyalty program this summer with new promotions and will be integrating social media applications into it to communicate with loyal customers.

Industry Involvement
Since attending her first industry show -- the 1997 NACS Show -- followed by her first NACStech conference in 1998, where she was asked to participate in a workshop on pricebook, Bullard remains an active participant in the advancement of convenience store industry technology.

She continues to represent Flash Foods in speaking roles at industry events, and was asked to serve on the NACS Technology Committee, which later became PCATS. There she served on the PCATS board of directors as the Implementation Committee chair, and then in 2008 became chairman of PCATS.

Additionally, she is currently a member of the NACStech Council Committee, and in 2008 served as chairman for the NACStech conference. Two years later she is still in that role.

"I was honored to be asked back as chairman in 2009, and then to my surprise, in December of last year I was asked to chair the event in 2010 because the individual meant to serve was not able to," she explained. "The honor to serve as NACStech chair was one of the greatest highlights of my professional career."

Bullard explained her involvement in the industry allows her to gain access to and understand the big issues faced by c-store retailers, as well as how technology can solve these problems. It has also given her the opportunity to meet a variety of other industry professionals.

"Many of these people I never would have known if I was not involved in the industry," she said. "They have become mentors to me as I have become more involved in technology."

Bullard also passed on her passion for technology to her son, David, who attended a technical school and received a degree in computer science. He is now working at The Pinnacle Corp. in the professional services department, visiting clients and helping install software.

In the future, Bullard plans to continue her active role in the industry, although "more in the background," sitting on committees and attending conferences. "I was hesitant to chair NACStech for the third time because I didn't want to wear out my welcome," she said.

But it doesn't look like the industry will tire of her any time soon.
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