By Mark McHose

Mountain Park Spring Water, of Winston-Salem, N.C., is a family-run company. Robert Douglas and his two sons, Andrew and Stewart, use industry-specific software, Palm Pilot computers and a mailing service that enables them to manage over 3,000 bottled water customers and a wholesale bottled water operation with no other office staff. Obviously, dividing up duties and making use of the most current software innovations have helped their business prosper.

Founded in 1979, Mountain Park has five delivery trucks covering the north central Piedmont area of North Carolina and the south central Piedmont area of Virginia. In 1997, the business went from a manual delivery and accounting system to an industry-specific integrated accounts receivable and route management software system tailored for their particular business. After running the software for a year, Mountain Park’s next step was ordering software that enabled them to use handheld computers for its route drivers. By using Epson handheld computer/printers, the route drivers were able to print invoices on route. Mountain Park recently upgraded to their software company’s Palm Pilot based-system for their delivery drivers to use in the field.

Typical day at the office
Division of labor is important in a company this size. Andrew opens in the morning at 6 a.m. to get the drivers loaded and checks out each driver’s truck using the Palm Pilot handhelds. Both the driver and Andrew verify the truck inventory is correct. When the truck data are processed at the end of the day, a route reconciliation report is printed that shows deliveries made, deliveries skipped, equipment deliveries or exchanges. Andrew’s additional duties include customer service, calling customers with delivery reminders for the next day, posting sales and other accounts receivable functions. Stewart handles the late shift and stays until the drivers are checked in as they return from their routes in the afternoon. As each truck comes in, the driver and Stewart verify what’s left on the truck. During the day, Stewart also handles customer service, collections and accounts payable. Robert is in charge of sales and, of course, assists with all other phases of the business.

In the afternoon, after the trucks are checked back in, the Palm Pilots are put in their cradles and the day’s sales are automatically uploaded into the main accounting system. During this process, the next day’s routes are downloaded to the Palm Pilots. These two communications take only two to three minutes to complete a 70-stop route. The handhelds also print out an individual truck reconciliation report for each truck that lists the sales, mileage, cash and checks received by the driver.

Control with your Palm
Stewart is quite pleased with the new handheld unit’s performance in the field. After their software company went to a Windows-based system, Mountain Park was able to utilize the Palm Pilots with an attached thermal printer. While the Epson units provided all the benefits of a handheld system, they were bulky and quite expensive to purchase and repair. Stewart says, “The Palms truly fit in the driver’s hand and cost less than $600 for each driver to have a handheld, a printer and holster. Additionally, the uploading process has been faster and the color screens with backlight on the Palm M515 are much easier to see in dim light conditions.”

Information retrieved from the Palm Pilots every day automatically updates each customer’s account. Payments received through the mail or walk-ins are the only payments that are entered manually into the computer. The handheld system prints a clear concise invoice as well as tracks and accounts for bottle deposits. The driver audit feature of the handhelds allows for truck inventory and eliminates customer confusion over math errors or hard-to-read handwritten delivery tickets.

Each Palm Pilot carries a complete list of customer accounts so every driver is able to bring up off-route customers and create will-call delivery invoices. So, if a customer calls during the day, the Douglases can contact their driver and give them the customer’s account number (or last name and the required product). The Palm Pilot routing program knows the bottle deposit balance, shows whether the account is current and displays the date and amount of the last payment. The driver can then create an invoice with confidence, even if the customer has stopped him on his set route and asked him for product.

One of the Douglases’ favorite features of the software is the ability to reprint invoices for customers. Each month, many customers request copies of invoices for payment. Before, it was a time-consuming process to find and photocopy invoices; now, a few keystrokes is all it takes to reprint invoices with the customer’s signature.

The Douglases used to stop all normal functions at the end of the month to get the statements out in a timely fashion—and work overtime the next few days to get things back to normal. Now, instead of printing their month-end invoices, statements and delinquent account notices, they’ve taken advantage of a mailing service offered by their software provider. The Douglases no longer print, burst, stuff or do the postage. Instead, their statement file is automatically emailed to their software provider. Within 24 hours, the statements have been printed, mailed and are available for the Douglases to view on a secure web page. Andrew says, “It’s great. Using this service is a tremendous time and cost saver. It costs us less to use this new mailing service than it did just to purchase the forms and envelopes when we did it ourselves. That doesn’t even take into account the labor cost savings. Our statements now have a professional, finished appearance that we could never achieve before.”

Conclusion
The Douglases rely on family and technology to keep their business growing and profitable. By implementing the technology discussed here, they’ve been able to have two less people in the office. Clearly, family and the careful use of technology have paid dividends.

About the author
Mark McHose is the southeastern regional sales manager for Nevada Computer and lives in Owings Mill, Md. Nevada Computer has provided technology solutions for water conditioning and bottled water businesses for over 40 years. The company’s products include WaterFlex for Windows, a fully-integrated accounting and customer management database, the RouteFlex Palm Delivery System and MailFlex, the mailing service used by Mountain Park. McHose can be reached at (800) 294-6222 or email: mrmchose@msn.com.

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