The ‘why not automate?’ philosophy helps Arena Holding’s circulations team manage its changing distribution network effectively.

When Arena Holdings began to overhaul its newspaper distribution network in 2019, the company knew two things. First, the new network would need to deal with an increase in the volume of customers it supported. Secondly, the new network had to efficiently handle the increased workload without increasing headcount. Speed of implementation was also a critical requirement. Working with UiPath partner NorthWind Digital, the company embarked on a journey of automating as many of processes in the circulation and subscription function as possible.

The circulation team is responsible for the distribution of Arena’s newspapers and magazines to large and small retail outlets as well to individual and corporate subscribers. It also handles the accounting and customer relationship functions for print and digital customers. This includes all delivery, invoicing, cash collection, reporting and customer services for this part of the business.

With the rollout of the new distribution network fast approaching, the team set an ambitious target to implement RPA within two months to enable the change and improve operations and customer service. It knew that it had to find a way to handle increased workloads while keeping a firm control on costs and improving revenue.

The team adopted a ‘why not automate?’ philosophy to ensure that Arena’s current staff complement could meet the increased transaction volumes with the same or better service levels.

Taking the pain out of repetitive processes

Richard Goussard, General Manager of Circulation, says: “Within circulation, we have a wide range of financial and operational processes. We record proof of delivery, we track sales, we store delivery quantities, and we match all those to work out revenue and debtors. We have many reconciliation and bank account activities that have all been done manually in the past. We saw that RPA could eliminate these important but repetitive tasks and that we could empower our staff to use automation to speed up processes and make their lives easier.”

The company began to automate its first three processes in March 2019. These processes were selected because they were simple to automate yet repetitive and very time-consuming to perform. Within a month, the first three automations had been delivered and the benefits were there to see.

Shaun Padayachee, Systems Manager at Arena Holdings, comments: “One of our first automations was bank account reconciliations. It involves bringing together data from a range of internal and external sources, such as CRM systems and 3rd party vendor portals. The process was very time consuming to do manually. Now the automation is scheduled to run at night, so our people just have the information they need when they start work in the morning.”

The automation that handles purchase orders and invoice processing has delivered equally impressive results. Previously, the task of reconciling purchase orders with invoices had taken three to four hours to complete for each production run, and there may be as many as five production runs every day. Working with NorthWind Digital, the company was able to implement a new robot within two days that has reduced an activity taking a total of 20 hours per day to around two minutes.

Receiving unexpected benefits

There are many accounts reconciliation-type processes within the circulation department where data must be brought together from internal and external sources and developed into reports. Effectively reconciling sales and cash collection is essential to ensure the company receives all the revenue that it is owed. The circulation team found that RPA was ideally suited for this type of activity. Where previously, it had taken seven people to handle the reconciliation processes, the company was able to take this number down to two using UiPath – freeing the team for higher value activities.

In addition, the ability to quickly and accurately reconcile sales gave another advantage to the circulation team. Richard explains: “Reconciliations is perhaps the area where automation has had the largest impact. Not just in terms of efficiency but in our dealing with retailers. We now have the exact sales figures at our fingertips – we know what’s been sold and what’s been returned. That’s help us improve revenue as we’ve been able demonstrate the actual situation to our retail partners. For us, it’s an unexpected benefit of RPA.”

Start fast and accelerate
Given the incredibly tight timelines that the company was working to, Arena Holdings implemented an agile development process that utilized the bots that were built in the proof of concept stages to move straight into developing automations for production.

Richard continues: “We needed to move fast, and we were impressed with the capabilities that UiPath could offer us. The entry barrier is low when it comes to RPA. We could get started and use UiPath platform to quickly automate the processes, test and move into production.”

Within the circulation team, a very simple process was adopted to identify and develop suitable processes. Users told them which tasks were most time consuming and causing the major pain points and they selected the ones that delivered the most benefit when removed. The team then worked with NorthWind Digital to design and build the automation and deliver it quickly into production.

The success of the initial automations launched an aggressive RPA program that has seen 35 processes automated in 14 months. The company estimates that it would have required an additional 16 FTEs if it hadn’t deployed automation.

“That’s an estimated 33,000 manual hours saved per year, which equates to a major saving in operational costs. In addition, we’ve made life better for our existing staff,” continues Shaun.

Key Benefits

– 33,000 estimated manual hours saved per year
– 35 business processes automated within 14 months
– 2 mins Purchase order processing reduced from 20 hours per day to two minutes
– 1 month Rapid implementation; automated first three processes in one month

Reimagining work through automation

The company set out to reimagine how its business would work when using automation to remove repetitive, low value activities. The team broke its automations down into three types: on-demand, scheduled and office hours.

Office hours automations handle activities that had to be completed during the working day while scheduled activities could be run at evenings or weekends ready for the next working day. In addition, employees were able to quickly spin up an automation by sending an email to trigger on-demand activities.

“We wanted to help our people to get rid of the mundane and time-consuming tasks. By implementing an on-demand system, they could tell the robot what to do and be notified as soon as the task was complete,” Shaun continued.

Making staff happy

By deliberately setting out to ensure the task of automation was to help remove unwanted work from its staff, the circulation team has witnessed a growing enthusiasm for RPA. Shaun tells the story of a staff member who preferred to work through the night and was very resistant to change.

He says: “She doesn’t like change due to the stresses it places on her. But in terms of the robot, she was the first person to actually say ‘You know what? This is really good.’ She named it ‘Bernie’ and now says it’s her favorite employee! That’s really been our experience. Once people see what automation does, they’re really happy with it.”

Improving the customer experience

As publishing moves into the digital era, the company’s strategy is to increase its online presence, and automation is at the forefront of helping to manage its expanding subscription business. Following the work to support the net distribution network, the circulation team is beginning to look at how RPA can benefit the customer experience it provides.

Richard explains: “Initially our automation program was heavily focused on getting the job done. Now we can concentrate more on supporting the company’s business strategy. We’re starting to turn our attention to customer service, and we’ve identified a set of processes that often get neglected or are not completed on time due to resources that are ideal for automation. These little things can have a major impact on customer experience.”

Shaun agrees and believes that UiPath technology will enable the team to increase the depth of automation within its customer service activities: “UiPath technology is always progressing. It recently introduced chatbots and solutions like AI Fabric allow us to look at ways we can better deliver our customer experience.”

Expanding into the enterprise

Although other areas within Arena Holdings are beginning to look at RPA, the circulation team is leading the way in showing the benefits. Grant Hesse, CTO of NorthWind Digital says: “We’ve developed a great working relationship where Arena identifies the processes, and we can quickly move into full production automations. It’s allowed the company to rapidly upscale to over 30 automations. I know that Richard and his team would like to be a lighthouse for the rest of the organization when it comes to RPA.”

Indeed, the work that the team has done is getting noticed elsewhere within the enterprise and Richard Goussard believes that the group finance function is likely to be the next area where automation will have a major role to play.

He concludes: “With the success of our deployment we have been canvassing the other brands within Arena to find the next logical area for automation. The benefits of the robots should be shared through the group.”

Author: Adrian van der Merwe