Grigg Brothers Turns to VOIP Service from ATC to Reduce Phone Costs and Improve Communication

I wanted to simplify the sheer number of points of contact and make it easier to communicate.
– Jared Grigg, Director of Communication and Information, Grigg Brothers

Toward a Streamlined Phone System

Grigg Brothers wanted to streamline and consolidate its corporate phone system. Its existing system was an assortment of phone lines and services for its headquarters and operational office in southern Idaho and seven branch offices around the U.S. Each office in Idaho supported several employees. Most of the branch offices where field technical reps were based had two phone lines – one for voice and another for fax – plus an Internet connection and mobile phone. “Communications and technology can be a big line item on the budget,” said Jared Grigg, Director of Communication and Information. “The reps were turning in expense reports with fax numbers and landlines and mobile lines, and I said, this is too much. This can be considerably more condensed. I wanted to simplify the sheer number of points of contact and make it easier to communicate.”

Grigg Brothers is a manufacturer and wholesaler of specialty fertilizers for the turf grass industry, including golf courses and sports fields. The company’s flagship products are liquid foliar fertilizers that are absorbed through the leaf tissue of a plant instead of through the roots. Nutrients applied in this way are almost fully absorbed, even during stressful times like summer heat, and create healthier turf. Grigg Brothers’ foliar fertilizers are also more environmentally friendly because they avoid toxic soil buildup, leaching and runoff.

In 2005, when Jared Grigg first started considering options for a new phone system, the owners of the company expressed skepticism about voice over IP (VOIP). They wondered whether it was mature and robust enough to support a business. Because of this and his prior experience managing a Nortel Meridian phone system, Grigg decided to focus more intently on traditional key telephone systems. He dialogued extensively with a local reseller, received several proposals and even proposed a system to the board of directors. The system offered greater flexibility and better features, but ultimately the directors turned it down because the cost was higher than what they were already paying and exceeded the technology budget.

Meanwhile VOIP technology was improving and gaining acceptance in the market. “I decided to look at the cloud again because more and more solutions were becoming available,” he said.

His first step was to deploy an Internet fax service. This service automatically converted incoming faxes to PDF format and sent them by email to the recipients. Everyone in the company received a new fax number. Technical reps who spent much of their time traveling could receive faxes immediately on their PC instead of waiting until they came back to the office. Outgoing faxes could be scanned in to a PC and emailed to the fax service for delivery. The electronic fax service cost considerably less than the dedicated fax lines it replaced.

A Serendipitous Opportunity

In 2007, ATC Communications, the Internet and phone service provider for Grigg Brothers headquarters, acquired a VOIP solution provider called Nextphone. Here Grigg saw an opportunity. One of his concerns with a VOIP solution was that if a problem arose, the VOIP provider might blame the Internet service provider and vice-versa, leaving the user caught in the middle. “If I went down this road, if I backed ATC with their new acquisition, then they would be responsible regardless of whether it was a phone problem or an Internet connectivity problem,” he said.

The ATC Nextphone service had the features they were looking for:

  • Hosted IP phone service that all offices around the U.S. could access over an Internet connection
  • Programmable “find me, follow me” feature for incoming calls that can, for instance, simultaneously ring a desk phone and cell phone, or one then the other, before going to voice mail
  • Four-digit dial connecting everyone in their geographically distributed organization as if they were in the same building
  • Internet fax service with solid features and technical support
  • Unified messaging that sends voice mails and faxes to a user’s email inbox
  • Conferencing capabilities so Grigg Brothers can set up and control its own conference calls
  • Web portal for centralized programming and administration
  • Automatic call routing to cell phones in case of local power outage
  • Significantly lower cost than their existing phone system

This set of capabilities combined with Grigg Brothers’ established relationship with ATC made it attractive. “It was the perfect solution,” said Grigg. The company deployed Nextphone across all its locations. Branch offices received Linksys PAP2T Internet Phone Adapters. To access the new phone service, they only needed to connect the adapter to the Internet and plug in any standard telephone handset. If a technical rep preferred to rely exclusively on a cell phone, the system could be programmed to route all incoming calls there. The company also standardized on Google Apps Premier, so users can access email, voice mail and faxes anywhere using a Web browser.

Headquarters initially experienced intermittent call quality problems, much to Grigg’s chagrin, though his strategy of using the same VOIP and Internet service provider proved advantageous. Grigg was concerned that VOIP would get a black eye because the owners were already apprehensive. But he believed the hosted service was solid and worked with ATC to address the underlying network quality issue. While on the verge of deploying a second DSL at headquarters and a dedicated switch for the phone system, ATC offered to try boosting the bandwidth of the existing Internet connection. “It automatically improved. I have not had a single problem since the day they did that,” he said.

In my twenty plus years of doing this, I have never been more synchronized across all platforms.”
– Jared Grigg

Less Costly and Easier to Support

As a result of switching to VOIP, overall communication costs fell by more than 40% in the first 12 months and have remained level. At the same time, the company streamlined the number of phone lines and points of contact and improved its ability to communicate and collaborate.

Grigg is also pleased that he spends much less time supporting this new phone system. He uses the Nextphone web portal to handle routine administration and support requests. In fact, the company’s entire IT infrastructure is set up for centralized, remote administration. “In my office I have several computers and monitors in a semicircle around me, and I am remotely connected to every single asset in the company – all desktop computers, all laptops and even some cell phones as we move to smarter phones. In my twenty plus years of doing this, I have never been more synchronized across all platforms,” he said.

Soft Phones for International Roaming

More recently the company started using soft phones for placing calls when outside the U.S. to expensive international roaming charges. Soft phone software runs on PCs and smart phones such as iPhone and Android. It lets users place phone calls through that device over the Internet as if they were at their office desk. It is another way Grigg Brothers is using VOIP to keep down communication costs.

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 Copyright © 2011 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Hagadone Corporation Embraced the Cloud – Before Cloud Computing Was Cool

First and foremost, we wanted to keep our costs in line with our limited manpower.
– Bill Tunison, IT Director, Hagadone Corporation

How To Streamline a Conglomerate

Hagadone Corporation is a privately-held, diversified company based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It owns and operates newspapers from Washington State to Wisconsin, a magazine and large printing operation in Hawaii, hotels and a lakeside resort in Northern Idaho, three marinas, six restaurants as well as other businesses. Hagadone is a true conglomerate.

Ten years ago, the company looked at ways to streamline and consolidate IT applications among its diverse businesses. “First and foremost, we wanted to keep our costs in line with our limited manpower,” said Bill Tunison, IT Director of Hagadone Corporation. “Most of the properties are not large corporations in themselves, and they just could not justify sustaining an IT staff. We wanted to centralize support – so that we had proper support but did it for the least cost possible.”

“The other side of the coin was that we needed to consolidate our information. We budget and review monthly. And when the month ends, we want to be able to roll up the numbers. The best and most efficient way to do that was to have the information available to us. So we didn’t want to wait on somebody sending a fax of information and then reposting that information in the general ledgers,” he said.

Consolidate Applications in the Cloud

To address these challenges, Hagadone implemented remote application delivery over public networks, i.e. the Internet. This was long before cloud computing and software as a service were industry buzzwords. It started in the year 2000 with their financial system, which was Great Plains Software at the time and later became Microsoft Dynamics GP. The application system and databases ran in the company’s Coeur d’Alene data center, and remote users at the various businesses accessed it over wide area network links using Citrix clients. The links were configured as virtual private networks (VPN) to ensure data security and integrity.

The Citrix solution, which includes Citrix XenApp and XenDesktop, allows users to run application sessions virtually and remotely on various platforms. The application sessions run in the main data center, and the presentation is displayed on the clients. “Citrix was a far better tool than terminal services or anything else. Citrix always had clients that were more or less universal. One of the things we ran into was, in our newspapers they preferred Macs, and in our hospitality and other areas they preferred PCs. I chose not to decide what type of workstations users would have and opened it up to support both,” said Tunison.

As remote workstations, they used Windows PCs, Macs and, for a while, thin clients. Thin clients are low-cost, scaled-down computers with a display and keyboard, and are completely dependent on the network and server for application processing. As PC prices fell, the price difference between a fully-functional PC and a thin client was merely a hundred dollars. It was worth paying a little more to have local processing for activities like email and Web browsing, so thin clients were no longer advantageous.

At about the same time as the financial system, Hagadone consolidated all subscriber services for its newspapers into a common system that ran in a cloud environment. It later consolidated newspaper production activities such as classifieds and ad design. It deployed a marina management and boat sales application called Dockmaster Marine Management for its three marinas. Again, all of them ran in the main data center and were accessed remotely over a network.

“Some of the systems are handled locally by the properties, some are not. It just depends on whether there is a need for multiple properties to have access to the same system and data,” he said. When an application can serve multiple Hagadone businesses, it is consolidated in the cloud to minimize operating and infrastructure costs. When an application is unique to a business, there are no synergies to gain so it remains at the local site.

Maintain IT Headcount, Reduce Costs

Hagadone has benefitted from its early adop­tion of cloud computing strategies. It has main­tained the same headcount in its IT department over a decade – a number in the single digits – while supporting nearly thirty businesses in various industries stretching from Hawaii to California to Idaho to Wisconsin. Tunison continued, “I feel very good about it. I think it has done everything we hoped it would do. We are able to support it with a small staff. We give good customer service. And the initial objective of consolidation – getting data in and having data accessible – has all come to fruition.”

I feel very good about it. I think it has done everything we hoped it would do.
– Bill Tunison

Looking forward, Tunison said the company is pursuing virtualization of servers and desktops. It is also working on disaster recovery planning and high availability systems. These initiatives will add to the efficiency and flexibility of the IT infrastructure. Clustered servers and redundant storage have always been part of the infrastructure. Now the focus is on network redundancy and load balancing from the corporate data center across the wide area network backbone to the “last mile” connections to the individual businesses. The goal is to provide high end-to-end resiliency in a distributed cloud environment.

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 Copyright © 2010 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.