Evaporative Cooling Touchdown
If you’ve ever watched an NFL game taking place on a hot day, you’ve probably seen the large portable coolers on the sidelines made by Portacool LLC. Those aren’t large fans circulating hot air. Evaporative coolers use water to cool air naturally. Water flows from the top of the evaporative media, over, down, and through the media, and then back into the reservoir. Hot air is drawn into the cooler by the fan, using the evaporation process to chill the air.
The innovative cooling units were created in 1990 when building manufacturer General Shelters of Texas wanted to diversify. What the founders invented was the equivalent of two multi-million-dollar products: first, the evaporative portable cooler, and a few years later, the specialized media that chills the air, which they began selling in 1996.
Portacool is a major employer in Center, Texas, which borders Louisiana. In addition to being the only U.S. manufacturer of its evaporative media, the company is the largest rotational molding manufacturer in the nation.
Portacool’s portable evaporative coolers are used in many industries and corporations ranging from agricultural and horticultural applications to manufacturing, industrial, business, entertainment, sports, automotive, home, and hobby — anywhere cooling is needed, and traditional air conditioning is impractical or cost-prohibitive.
The company’s founders sold the business after launching and dramatically growing it for 16 years. Swiss investment firm Meier Capital took control of Portacool in 2014. The investment firm hired Ben Wulf as Chief Executive Officer to transform Portacool with new product development, improved manufacturing capabilities, and advance the company’s world-class customer service.
Legacy System with No Visibility
Throughout Portacool’s lifespan, executives used a legacy financial system that was heavily supported with spreadsheets. “Everything was a challenge and we lacked visibility,” says Bill Ferren, Director of Information Technology. “I realized we couldn’t run a business this way. The legacy system had pre-defined workflows that were quite a challenge. It had extremely limited and minimal use on the shop floor and only worked for basic finance, purchase orders, and sales orders. We weren’t using the MRP; it was too clunky.”
Data was exported and manipulated in Excel. There were no dashboards. The team typed financial statement data into a separate reporting package every month for basic financial reporting. “Tracking costs at a detailed level or reporting by channel, SKU, or at the account level was impossible,” Ferren says.
“We didn’t know what happened until the end of a month after we consolidated everything on spreadsheets,” says Kimberly McElroy, Director of Operations.
Major New Investments
Soon after its purchase, Meier Capital made major investments in research and development, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and customer service for what was later rebranded as Kuul Evaporative Media. At the same time, equal investments were made in its Portacool units, including innovative and sleeker units sold through distributors in all 50 U.S. states and 65 countries globally.
Portacool opened a manufacturing facility in Malaysia in 2017 to support growing demand in Asia. The company also manages a distribution center in the Netherlands to service European customers.
One Version of the Truth Requirement
One of the new investments included replacing its legacy financial system, which could no longer handle the company’s accelerated growth. Executives wanted a single business solution to eliminate spreadsheets for a single, accurate, and real-time view of the business. It sorely needed supply chain features to streamline and automate manufacturing, warehouse, and inventory processes.
“One of our goals was to move away from Excel spreadsheets and gain one source of the truth,” McElroy says. “We struggled to know if inventory counts were accurate, and we knew our legacy software wasn’t going to take us from producing 5,000 units a month to hundreds of thousands.”
Portacool realized just how broken the financial system was when it failed to provide the critical data needed to navigate the pandemic. “We had been running the company very well on Excel, but it didn’t adapt to changes or supply and demand issues. We had a very good sales year, but we didn’t have as much visibility into sales operations,” says Ferren.
“We saw orders coming in but had difficulty with logistics and our supply timelines. Our shipment times went from 40 days to 100 days, and we had inventory challenges, and that’s where Excel really hurt us.”