Greg Laurin, vice president operations, outlines how the combination of technology, systems and equipment creates a high level of service at Conestoga Cold Storage.
CT&L: You’ve been in the business of providing cold storage for more than 30 years. What are the most significant ways that your customer demands have changed over this time and how have you responded?
Laurin:One area of change has been our customers’ increasing requirements to provide food safety and quality control continuity in the food chain. This includes increased traceability for recalls, security procedures, and monitored temperature controls at each step of product movement. We have addressed these issues by implementing an advanced radio frequency based warehouse management system and have implemented HACCP controls to ensure compliance to food safety regulations. Our customers business has also become more complicated over the years and many have moved from full pallet shipments to an increased percentage of case picking. Customer expectations involving accuracy, real-time information and reporting tools has also increased. The timelines for warehouses to perform our services has also been reduced over the years and we have relied on automation and advanced computer systems to allow us to react quickly.
CT&L: You operate four cold storage warehouses across Canada. Can you outline the services you are capable of providing?
Laurin:All of our facilities are federally approved by the CFIA. We operate as an extension of our customer’s distribution network and handle any requirements from receiving, storing, and blast freezing to picking, loading and transportation.
CT&L: Companies exporting abroad must ensure they are working with service providers that can provide secure facilities. What steps has Conestoga Cold Storage taken to ensure its facilities are secure?
Laurin: Conestoga Cold Storage has recently undergone a major security upgrade. Access control and closed circuit video surveillance are the major additions to Conestoga Cold Storages facilities over the past 12 months. Every entry point to the facility has been fitted with electronic door lock devices which are connected to a central computer system. This allows fully controlled entry of all persons both visitors and employees, and can be centrally managed by a system administrator. All employees now carry a unique and personalized Proximity Tag allowing them to gain access to areas of the building they are responsible for. Once the tag is initialized, the system administrator has the ability to limit or grant access to an employees tag without having to make direct contact. All employee tag details and activities are kept in a central database for reporting if required by management. Issuing and collecting keys from employees is a thing of the past. Visitors are also required to carry a Proximity Card. When a visitor/truck driver first arrives at any of our 4 facilities they are set up with a photo identification tag which allows them access to certain areas of the facility. Conestoga Cold Storage invested heavily in a fully integrated closed circuit digital surveillance system. Cameras were placed strategically throughout the interior and exterior of the buildings allowing monitoring of both vehicle and pedestrian movement. The images are recorded in a central database and held for a length of time in storage. The digital surveillance system is fully integrated with the access control system. Every activity on the access control system ties in with a camera in the related area allowing management to track potential problems. The security system is designed in such a way that it can monitor all sites from one central location. The system carries both security monitoring and plant management sensors allowing huge flexibility for utilization and monitoring. It uses the latest technology for problem notification including email & web interface.
CT&L: Can you comment on your technological capabilities?
Laurin: When it comes to technology, our strategy is to combine the best technology and software available with innovative systems and customized automated equipment. This winning combination has enabled us to achieve the high level of service our customers have come to expect. With experience in automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/R) dating back to 1980, we were the first in Canada to invest in a cold storage high rise that incorporates AS/R with cutting edge inventory tracking and control systems resulting in better service and lower costs for our customers. At a height of nearly 30 metres, each of these innovative structures is fitted with two 35-ton robotic stacker cranes capable of moving hundreds of pallets per hour. Our customized warehouse management system (WMS) is designed to control all the automated components of our facilities, the conventional storage areas and our day-to-day business transactions. We use Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) to exchange product information with our customers. We continue to be the only third party storage provider in North America to provide our customers with low cost, reliable, leading edge automated solutions. Nearly one half of our warehouse capacity is fully automated and we are currently adding another automated building in Mississauga due to open in June 2006. Our innovative ideas, technical capabilities and our refusal to accept the status quo have perpetuated the need to develop further technological advancements. The changes we have chosen to implement have allowed the company to become more efficient and provide increased flexibility as the needs arise. We take pride in our ongoing commitment to investing in and developing the most advanced technology available to our industry. From our automated warehouses to remote applications allowing customers to work from their own offices as if they were a part of ours, we are continually investing in the future of our business. All products in our warehouses are tracked and stored using full windows touch screen PC’s using a Web based pick screen or stored by robots in 30 metre high buildings that operate completely in the dark. All our handling equipment is fitted with RF scanning and bar coding terminals ensuring information on all products is continually tracked and data is instantly transmitted over the Internet to customers all over the world. Product movement is tracked using a WMS system. Incorporated into the Warehouse Management System is a customized program to track customer billing and give remote access to customer account information. This precise and efficient method of storing and tracking frozen products not only reduces the amount of time our employees spend in the cold, it reduces the amount of energy needed to freeze and manage vast quantities of inventory. Our state-of-the-art engine rooms are computer monitored 24 hours a day ensuring temperature consistency throughout our facilities.
CT&L: I understand you are in the process of developing a fully automated individual case picking system to be incorporated into your existing services. Can you outline the reasoning for this investment and the benefits to your customers?
Laurin: We have proven with our full pallet automated warehouses that we can provide a high level of service at competitive prices to our customers. We hope to continue this success by automating our case pick processes. This high level of automation will eliminate costly product damage and misspicks, allow for flawless inventory control and increases energy savings.
CT&L: Of course, the best technology and systems are still dependent on having quality people to run them. How does Conestoga go about ensuring it attracts and retains the best people?
Laurin: It is well known in the industry that the largest single expense for a public refrigerated warehouse (PRW) is labour. Therefore the ability to attract and retain employees is critical. The industry requires competent, people-orientated employees. Higher than average wages, exten
ded benefit packages and an informal no-layoff policy are combined with ongoing socialization and team building events such as barbecues, picnics, golf tournaments, Christmas parties, years of service awards, pizza days, and prize raffles. Once hired, our new employees are trained by dedicated, fellow employees in a hands-on capacity in the warehouse. This not only allows the new employee to learn the job in real time, it also provides the opportunity for the newcomer to feel like part of the team from day one. Once trained, an employee is given the freedom he or she needs to complete the designated tasks and, over time he or she will achieve the high level of skill we have come to expect from our employees. Three month and six month reviews are effective in helping management assess the progress of new employees but all employees are encouraged to approach executives, warehouse managers or foreman at anytime if they feel the need.
CT&L:You have formed a strategic partnership with Erb Transport, which included constructing a cross-docking facility. What was the strategic thinking behind that decision and how does it help you better serve customers or attract new customers?
Laurin: Conestoga Cold Storage has formed a strategic partnership with a leading trucking company through the purchase and development of land in the Montreal area. We have designed and constructed a cross-docking and trucking facility in conjunction with Erb Transport. By combining these two integral services, our existing customers will benefit from working with Canada’s leader in refrigerated trucking as well as the superior warehousing and distribution services they have come to expect from Conestoga Cold Storage. More importantly, our decision to join forces will help us attract new customers currently using Erb Transport for their trucking needs.
CT&L: How do you see your company evolving over the next five years?
Laurin: Conestoga Cold Storage plans to continue to grow aggressively in the Canadian market. Over the next 5 years we will invest heavily in the automated and technology solutions that have provided our customers with the high levels of service they have come to depend on.