In this article:

Separated by hundreds of miles, employees at construction supplier Steeledale had only unreliable phone lines for live meetings. Relationships across the South African company eroded from lack of face-to-face contact, and power outages could shut down the intranet. With Microsoft 365, people use Skype for Business video calls to work with colleagues, saving travel costs. The company also gained a more secure and reliable environment for more productive mobile work while reducing on boarding time by 99 percent.

Steeledale is one of the largest suppliers of reinforcing steel products for construction environments in South Africa, with roughly a quarter of the total market share. In addition to small branches scattered across the country, Steeledale operates two factories and three distribution centers, which help it export finished items as far afield as Ghana, Angola, Mozambique, Australia, and South America.

The company began in 1969 as a division of Aveng Manufacturing; in 2017, it became part of the Kutana Steel Group. The Steeledale IT environment was designed and run by other business units, so Chris Harito, Chief Financial Officer at Steeledale, saw this latest transition as an opportunity to move to the right architecture.

“It was important to have an IT environment that enabled our many branches to connect with each other directly, instead of going through our main branch into the Aveng managed VPN,” says Harito. “If that main branch had a power failure or other problem, it affected our whole company.”

Communication presented other challenges. “We have some fairly small, remote branches and found it tough to keep everyone connected. Our telecommunications service was unreliable, and often the video portion of our online meetings didn’t work. Personal relationships start to break down if all you have is a voice connection,” remarks Harito. “And our shareholders wanted to be able to see everyone when needed, without physically traveling among locations. Meeting in person often involved a car trip of 10 to 12 hours. We needed a more robust video solution.”

The lack of a unified IT platform across its 15-branch network meant that Steeledale had no global address book to look up email addresses and no centralized place to access calendar or presence information, making it difficult to contact IT staff, for example. “When a server went down or systems weren’t exchanging information properly, we had to locate the hardware running the affected solutions, determine who had the expertise to fix the issue, and figure out how to contact them,” says Harito. “If I hadn’t already saved that person in my contacts list, or they were new to the company or an outside vendor, it could take a couple hours to reach the right specialist.” Disparate IT systems also hindered visibility into other systems too, such as the supply chain, sales, and accounting.

Moving to the cloud

To establish its new environment, Steeledale started from scratch. IT staff members knew they wanted to move to the cloud for robust performance and more flexibility, including support for remote work. Steel is a commodity, which puts Steeledale in a competitive industry, so the company continually looks for ways to attract and retain talent. Kevin Patmore, IT Manager at Steeledale, says, “Because of the frequent power failures at certain branches, we felt the cloud would help keep our mobile sales force connected better and support most any employee’s ability to work remotely. But our previous system was rigid. We had to battle to get additional access for someone, going through essentially a whole change management scenario. We wanted something more adaptable for IT staff and employees to improve the workplace.”

Steeledale already used some Microsoft products, like Office 2013, and it had begun migrating to Office 365 for email. The company selected IT partner Netology, a member of the Microsoft Partner Network, to lead a migration to Microsoft 365, the cloud-based set of business productivity and collaboration tools.

In December 2017, Steeledale finished deploying Exchange Online and Outlook for email and moved the rest of its applications to virtual machines. The company applies information rights management and rights management services to add online and offline data protection features for email messages and attachments, such as controlling who can access, forward, print, or copy sensitive data. The solution team also rolled out Microsoft Word, Excel, SharePoint Online, Power BI, Skype for Business, and Windows 10.

The migration went smoothly, in part because the team conducted it during a holiday break. Patmore also credits plenty of planning sessions with Netology before deployment. “From an employee perspective, it wasn’t a big shift,” says Harito. “As much as our IT backbone changed, employees still sign in every day, but now they use Microsoft 365 instead of the old network. Branches can rely on fiber optic and wireless connections to Microsoft datacenters, so local power outages don’t affect us like they did before.”

Money and time savings

With the new solution, Patmore says, “We’re saving an enormous amount on hardware with Microsoft 365—more than USD22,000 in the first half of 2018. And we appreciate how our move to the cloud means we’ll always have the most current software. The way we used to handle licensing made upgrading an extra expense.”

Staff also like the streamlined IT management. “Using the centralized Office 365 admin center is a huge improvement for us,” says Patmore. “We save days of IT time onboarding new employees because adding them to Microsoft 365 is so quick and simple to manage.”

Harito calculates the time savings at 99 percent, because Steeledale saves three or four days providing new employees access to the IT environment. “Now on someone’s first day, they’re set up and working in 5 to 10 minutes,” he says.

Built-in security features

Steeledale also has noted security improvements from using the Office 365 admin center to set policies that limit the apps people can download to their devices and restrict employees from visiting certain websites and copying or forwarding sensitive data. IT staff also track adoption and use of cloud services by device and user.

Harito reports that the overall IT infrastructure is more secure. “With our move to Microsoft 365, we achieved our goal to have a highly secure environment with more flexibility for everyone,” he says. 

Modern, mobile productivity

Employees’ work-life balance has improved. “The ability to work remotely—like attending Skype meetings from wherever they are—makes employees much happier,” says Harito. “They’re more engaged in the business. We find that people who work from home are more productive.”

Workers all have access to the same set of Microsoft cloud services from their desktop computers and mobile devices, which adds up to more productivity on the go and faster communication. “Connectivity is much improved,” says Patmore. He has also noted a reduction in phone calls now that people can collaborate and access files on the go.

If there’s an issue that needs resolving between mobile employees and a branch, workers no longer must interrupt their day with a trip to the office. Instead they can exchange photos and videos of anything they might need assistance with, from supplies to machinery. Communication with customers is faster too. ”Our reps don’t have to say, ‘As soon as I get back to the office, I’ll connect to our system and process your request,’” says Harito. “They can call in from a customer site and get answers and approvals on the spot from our engineers. Quick response rates are a great way to distinguish ourselves with customers.”

New tools, from automation to analytics

Instead of manually issuing requisitions, Steeledale has automated its supply chain. Workers initiate SharePoint workflows, which send requisitions to the central press to be produced, then route them to the right managers to be authorized. Crucial steps like manufacturing and payment won’t proceed without authorizations, and suppliers and internal stakeholders must be vetted, approved, and added to SharePoint workflows. “We have more information about suppliers now, which helps us control costs,” says Harito. “We’ve streamlined our supply chain and reduced the risk of errors, delays, and fraud. It’s easier to manage our cash flow, and there are no accounting surprises at the end of the month.”

Employees take courses in “Steeledale University” to sharpen their SharePoint skills. These online training classes are accessible on workers’ smartphones, and on company-issued tablets. Patmore reports that the company has begun supplying its sales team with tablets that run all the company’s applications.

The company uses Microsoft Power BI to capture and analyze accounting and fuel cell production data to monitor costs and production margins. Harito expects these capabilities to improve financial projections and reporting.

To improve communication across the finance, sales, and branch management teams, Steeledale uses Microsoft Teams, the hub for teamwork in Office 365. Each team has its own channel for consolidating project-related chat and email conversations. On the “file” tab for each project, Teams will act as an interface for accessing files stored in SharePoint.

Looking back, Patmore is happy Steeledale chose the new solution. “We consider Microsoft 365 simple to set up and use, and with it we get a more secure, flexible environment. I have much less to worry about these days.” Harito’s opinion is similar: “We’ve gained a cohesive IT environment and streamlined business processes. We’re advancing our digital transformation thanks to Microsoft 365.”

Find out more about Steeledale on Facebook and LinkedIn.