I started writing about the WMS industry around 1998. At the time, it was still a nascent industry, in its terrible teens with a lot of growing ahead. While warehouse management systems had been around for years, WMS was about to take off in 1998, driven by the demands of big box retailers like Walmart for label compliance. I’m probably exagerating, but capabilities like inventory and workflow management appeared almost to be side benefits given the cost of non-compliance on labels.
The next 5 to 7 years was a pretty exciting time in the WMS space. It was a best-of-breed world then, with at least 200 established vendors and more entering the market every day. My inbox was flooded with new vendors who wanted to talk about what they were bringing to the market. That period saw the introduction of concepts like supply chain inventory visibility and event management. Everything was new, new, new. In retrospect, it was a lot like what we’re experiencing today with the robotics boom.
And then, it seemed to a layman like myself as if WMS had matured. The hot new feature was often something like an improved GUI interface. Fast forward, and it feels as if the WMS space is seeing a new round of energy as it adapts to distributed order management, WES, workforce management and the integration with robotics and high levels of automation.
With that in mind, it seemed like a good time to catch up with a WMS executive. That led to a call with Jim Hoefflin, the new CEO at Softeon. Still flush with the 2019 minority investment of an undisclosed sum from Warburg Pincus, Softeon brought on Hoefflin, an industry veteran, as its new CEO last November. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
SCMR: Tell us a little about your background?
JH: I started my my career as a software developer, and I worked on WMS capabilities at McHugh Freeman. I did some of the early work on the WMS for P&G. I then co-founded Software Architects, where we built WMS technology in a component-based architecture. About 8 years later, we were acquired by McHugh Freeman, which then became RedPrairie. I stayed there until 2010. In the years since, I worked at a number of technology companies, including Roper Technologies, where I was the president and CEO of CBORD Group and Horizon Software, which provides tech stacks to higher education and hospitals. That’s where I was working when I was given the opportunity to come back into the supply chain space. It’s a chance to bookend my career with WMS.
SCMR: As someone who has been around this space since the 1990’s, give me your take on today’s WMS market?
JH: Back in the 1990’s WMS companies like McHugh were acquiring companies to build out their broader supply chain execution suites, or platforms. I’m not sure that anyone achieved the vision we all had for a supply chain execution platform but it was an exciting time. Today, influences like e-commerce and the labor shortage are driving the market. Plus, technology is shifting. We have the move to the cloud and microservices. Those are allowing customers to consume bits and pieces of technology without trying to swallow the whole supply chain execution platform at once. Add onto that what’s happening with robotics and WES systems. So, the traditional boundaries of what it means to be a supply chain execution solution are blurring. The visionary WMS provider has to be in the middle of that eco-system. Our opportunity is to be a first mover in that space, and I think we’re well positioned to do that.
My biggest challenge as the CEO is to change our mind-set. Historically, we were a one-stop shop aimed to provide a full set of solutions inside the 4 walls, like most WMS companies. We have to become more collaborative and partner friendly because that’s what our customers are demanding.
SCMR: I know you’re just 60 days into the job, but what are the challenges your customers are bringing to Softeon?
JH: The first is that they want to move to the cloud. It’s about getting complex systems out of their infrastructure because no one has large IT staffs. They want quicker and easier integration to robotics and high levels of material handling automation. They want warehouse execution systems that will create better flow. And, they are trying to move forward on digitization strategies. Customers are trying to identify the blind spots in their operations and then be able to plug in solutions to address those.
SCMR: Softeon recently acquired GetUsROI. What is behind that acquisition?
JH: We did the acquisition for three main reasons: People, process and technology. First, the acquisition brings a highly tenured team of supply chain resources, with advanced experience in warehouse automation. That includes senior leaders joining our team, helping us organize more efficiently. Second, GetUsROI has a well-honed implementation methodology that will elevate our ability to delight all our customers. Finally, we get the LUCA technology platform, which provides the ability to create “no-code/low code” composable functionality, which will enhance our integration capabilities and accelerate our ability to open the Softeon ecosystem to systems integrators.
SCMR: We just went through ProMat, which is the place where everyone unveils their product roadmap and strategy. What can you tell us about what’s next for Softeon and why?
JH: From a roadmap perspective, Softeon has been very customer oriented, which is great. But we haven’t been as proactive about driving our software product forward. Our plan is to invest in strenghtening what we do in WES, which is already in the market. We have to be more intelligent and clever to drive efficiency, which means being more collaborative in our ability to plug in microservices. And, finally, we have to create an ecosystem of people and product. For instance, in the past we haven’t worked with the big systems integrators, and I think we have to leverage that ecosystem.