Originally printed in the August 2023 issue of Produce Business.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Well, this phrase sums up the digital transformation we’ve undergone at Willie Itule Produce in recent years. We’ve made significant strategic changes, and we got there by balancing technology and tradition.
We’ve had “wins and learns” along the way, which helped us create a framework any family business can use to advance digital transformation and preserve tradition.
GET STARTED ON THE RIGHT FOOT
“That’s the way we’ve always done it.” versus “This is the way of the future.”
These unproductive one-liners tend to send people into their corners, with little room for compromise and less room for progress. Extracting emotion is one strategy for success in advocating for change. We worked on anchoring digital transformation discussions in business terms and asked questions with objective answers.
- Does this streamline processes?
- Will it reduce errors, increase accuracy and improve productivity?
- Will it improve quality and safety?
For 40 years, we picked orders on traditional paper pick tickets. When we moved to a warehouse management system (WMS), we departed the world of paper and picked orders on scan guns. While there were learning curves, it has made us more efficient and accurate in order selection, and enhanced our food safety traceability program significantly.
Even the largest skeptics in our workforce now say that this was a truly transformative change.
- What decisions will it help us make?
- How can it improve our inventory management?
- What value does this data have in our business? How can we reduce costs and increase profitability?
In 2018, we did a deep dive into our ERP systems, and realized the programs we were utilizing were underpowered and lacked nuanced insights into the produce industry. Moving to Produce Pro, the industry-leading ERP solution for distributors, gave us phenomenal insight into our business and allowed strategic analysis that has improved metrics across the board, from inventory to productivity and profitability.
- How does this technology improve experiences for each customer segment?
- What improvements are customers asking for?
No matter how great tech advancements are, old-school DNA is just as vital to the fabric of who you are and what you do.
One of the areas we recognized needed improvement was e-commerce. Customers utilize web and app ordering more than ever before, and building a strong website with advanced functionality was vital to meeting customer needs. It has also contributed to accurate ordering and reduced errors in the delivery process.
KEEPING TRADITIONS ALIVE IN TRANSFORMATION
Ask someone what comes to mind when you hear “technology” and you’re likely to hear: “computers,” “apps,” “artificial intelligence” or “robots.”
There’s not a whole lot of warm fuzzy in there. But ask someone what comes to mind when they think of your family business, and you’ll get many different answers.
I ran this experiment myself and here’s what I heard for Willie Itule Produce:
- “Your trucks!”
- “Very professional team.”
- “Cares to do the right thing.”
This is how we’ve made an impression over the years. My family would call this our heritage, and my wife would call it our brand.
Values are the most prominent part of the Willie Itule Produce heritage. My parents defined the values by demonstrating them every day. They were the fundamental business tools that shaped the business that exists now.
If you ask my wife what a brand is, she’ll tell you: “A brand is the sum of all experiences.” So, it starts with values for her, too.
Values and Culture
- How can we reflect our values in digital practices?
- Where can technology amplify values and culture?
- How can we capture the experiences of senior family members to preserve our business heritage?
Our industry has been built over decades of old-school behaviors, so it’s vital during technological transformations to keep traditions alive and remember that no matter how great tech advancements are, that old-school DNA is just as vital to the fabric of who you are and what you do.
If a brand is the sum of all experiences, a family business’ heritage contributes much to the future. Weaving technology and tradition together is a smart strategy for capitalizing on prior success to generate future prosperity.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. It isn’t just an axiom — it’s the balance family businesses can strike to be successful at digital transformation.
Billy Itule is in senior management at Willie Itule Produce, a multi-generation family business based in Phoenix, AZ. He directs and oversees process improvements throughout the company, works with both vendors and customers, and his leadership has led the company in new directions, including partnering with companies outside of produce. He is a member of the executive board at Produce Alliance, as well as a founding member of its Next Gen Committee.