Johnson Brothers: enabling organic growth through digital transformation

Johnson Brothers: enabling organic growth through digital transformation

In the alcohol distribution business for over 65 years, Johnson Brothers has built a digitally enabled workforce that delivers outstanding customer serv...

Alcohol is big business. Amounting to more than 16% of total beverage volume across the US, total alcoholic beverage sales in 2017 exceeded US$234.4bn, a figure which continues to rise. While beer remains a key staple with 185.57mn barrels produced in the US in 2017, demand for wine and spirits is also on an upward trajectory. As US consumers continue to drive up sales across the industry, opportunities have ascended for strong, market-savvy players to take full advantage and transform their service offerings.

Providing exceptional services to its customers and supplier partners since 1953, wine, spirits and beer distributor Johnson Brothers has a long-term vision to leverage their longstanding values of excellence and team work to drive innovation as it enters new markets. Proud of its strong heritage in Minnesota, the business has acquired a number of businesses, launched a new distribution center and strengthened its supplier relationships as part of its ongoing strategy to enable organic customer growth. Michael Johnson, Chief Executive Officer, and Todd Johnson, Chief Operating Officer are the Johnson Brothers who run the company that was founded by their father Lynn. Todd describes how technology strategy will enable growth, “My dad started the company in 1953. He bought a used truck, rented a small warehouse and opened his doors for business. There was no technology back then - everything was done by hand. Over the next 65 years, we’ve grown across multiple states and developed partnerships with some of the best suppliers and customers in our industry. Today, technology is critical to our business, from providing tools to our sales consultants, sharing market trends with our customers, as well as improving the efficiency of our distribution operations.”

Bringing this strategy to fruition at Johnson Brothers is Vice President of IT, Tim Dokken. Working for established Fortune 500 organizations, such as American Express Global, Thrivent Financial and Merrill Corporation, with a career spanning accounting, finance, consulting and all aspects of technology including leading large IT modernization programs, as well as launching a technology start up. Dokken’s passion to develop companies from the ground up led him to join Johnson Brothers. “The focus was to support the infrastructure side: our data centers, servers, all of our networking, end user computing, IT service delivery, etc. It’s really the operational side of IT. Everything that all the applications and data run on, that's what I own,” he says.

“A lot has changed in the last year.  We’re moving to a brand-new data center which will go live in January with an entirely new production environment. That's literally from the ground up. Storage, compute, networking, plus we've implemented a new IBM Power Series for our ERP system. We have experienced a dramatic amount of growth in the last year and part of what we're doing is to prepare the organization for future growth and ensure that technology is an enabler and not a barrier.”

Moving what had previously filled an entire room in its former data center onto two racks in its new environment, Johnson Brothers has invested in a hyper-converged infrastructure, and has embedded cutting-edge technologies, whether compute, all flash storage, unified backup or network, including a full SD-WAN.  The company has developed strong relationships with Dell, Nutanix, Datatrend and others in turning its three-tier architecture into a state of the art hyper-converged infrastructure, delivering optimal compute and storage capacity, and most importantly, speed.

“Our new production environment is at least 10-20x faster to accommodate for growth and the ability to process more business. For example, our backups for our ERP system used to run all night long on Sunday night and take everything offline. Now we're down to less than two hours and that’s not even on our new IBM Power 9 Server yet,” adds Dokken.

The complete modernization of its technology stack remains an important part of its strategy, leading Johnson Brothers to leverage the capabilities of its vendors. Putting workloads into Azure for sales applications and Amazon Web Services (AWS) for offsite storage, the business has sought to ensure both resiliency and redundancy, as well as recoverability through offsite data storage. Investing in Microsoft’s entire suite of security tools and capabilities, as well as third party products such as Cylance has also formed part of its ‘defense in depth’ strategy.  All of this has worked to support Dokken and his team adhering to its internal slogan: ‘Always on, Always fast, Always secure.’

Cloud technology has also been adopted to support both local and remote workers as the business continues to expand, becoming one of the fastest and most vital investments across the business. Utilizing sales tools and platforms from Inventive and Dimensional Insights has enabled our mobile Salesforce to effectively serve our customers.

“Cloud has remained a key strategy for growth, where our sales team are now entirely cloud enabled, running all data and applications through both computers and iPads.” Promoting full accessibility for customers who wish to speak to the sales team, anytime, anywhere will allow the business to deliver services in a rapid fashion, removing the constraints of an onsite data center.

“We're expanding many of our applications, so our core systems are cloud delivered versus having to host those in our data center. That frees up our team to focus on the systems which really drive business value. On the corporate systems, it's a way to make sure that our resources can focus on what creates the most business value and leaves the other things to the SaaS providers,” explains Dokken.

Nonetheless, the most important investment throughout the digital transformation of Johnson Brothers has been its team. The decision to move away from legacy technologies, overhaul the entire production environment, move to a new data center and rebuild the network has been met with excitement, and provided new opportunities for the personal and professional growth for team members.

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“The team are the ones doing the heavy lifting; the most significant role I’ve played is to really clear the deck. I saw an opportunity and helped craft a vision, but the team is responsible for its success, looking at how to achieve this vision, the technology to use, as well as evaluating things like ‘what should our recovery strategy look like’ and ‘what data center should we run out of?’ So, they've been instrumental in these decisions, which has been very engaging and motivating. My team is really proud of their work,” he states with pride.

Making a conscious decision to partner with a consulting firm or provider has also proven advantageous in enabling employees to work on systems and technologies that drive the most business value without burdening the team and has allowed the company to reach some of its key goals in a shorter amount of time. “In terms of core engineers, I have a small team so we have to supplement that with outside resources. At the same time, making sure our employees get to work on the high-quality work is a core strategy.”

Dokken went on to say, “My focus is to continue creating opportunities for the team. If I'm gone tomorrow, my objective as a leader is that they will be self-sufficient and will provide a seamless service the business can be proud of. The team can pick up the ball, move forward, are enabled and ready, and are open to new opportunities to take the business forward.”

Clearly demonstrating that technology is an enabler and not a barrier at Johnson Brothers, Dokken remains keen to promote its internal slogan ‘Always on, Always fast, Always Secure’, which will see the business reach new heights in the upcoming years and ensure its longevity and competitiveness across the industry.

“As we continue to grow, we are thrilled that our IT infrastructure is ready to support our business and be a key part of our company’s success,” added Johnson.

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