Plumtree helps fast-food firm build a whopper of a portal

Burger King franchisee AmeriKing sees big savings from an intranet portal that allows far-flung employees to access financial reports, send e-mail, and order supplies.

When Chief Information Officer Hernando Manrique arrived at AmeriKing three years ago, technology wasn't exactly on the front burner for the Westchester, Ill.-based Burger King franchisee. Though AmeriKing claims to be the largest Burger King franchisee in the country with some 374 stores scattered across the United States, its technology and applications infrastructures definitely weren't whoppers. Information ranging from financial reports to human resource policies was manually photocopied and distributed via monthly or bimonthly mailings and fax.

"The technology side of the business was definitely underdeveloped," says Manrique. "Much of the company viewed computers as a way to generate purchase orders and that was about it."

However, thanks in large part to the efforts of Manrique and his team, AmeriKing has put its technology efforts into overdrive, especially during the past year. At the beginning of 2001, the company began testing the first iteration of its intranet portal, which is powered by Plumtree's Portal Server. And in June, Manrique and his team officially launched AKInet, as the portal is called, to some 180 district managers, marketing directors, and marketing managers.

Field personnel can now access daily and monthly financial reports, use e-mail accounts, and order supplies from Boise Cascade online via the portal. Just the ability to access these reports online is saving AmeriKing some 20,000 sheets of paper and $1,500 in FedEx charges per month. "Those savings alone enabled us to justify the entire project, and we see it as just the beginning," he says.

While the portal is now providing tangible benefits to this far-flung company, it wasn't an easy sell. Because AmeriKing is in a business sector known for its low profit margins, each penny spent had to be justified and payback had to be almost immediate. Manrique also faced the additional hurdle of a general aversion to technology within the company. "There was little understanding that information systems and technology can be at the very center of a sound strategy, not simply an afterthought," he says.

To allow the company's other top managers to see the efficiencies and savings a portal could bring, Manrique built a prototype intranet site. For that task, he worked as a team with Wittman-Hart to develop and implement the portal.

Once upper management signed off on the project after seeing the prototype, the next step was to pick the appropriate portal software. Paul Brizz, who was with Wittman-Hart at the time, and his team of consultants evaluated Sequoia Software's Sequoia XPS, DataChannel's DataChannel Server, Viador's E-Portal, Epicentric's Foundation Server, and Plumtree's Portal Server, and quickly narrowed the field to Plumtree and Sequoia (now owned by Citrix). Though impressed with the XML capabilities of Sequoia, Manrique and Brizz determined it would be too tough to use and administer. "Because his internal staff is a little limited, we needed a package that end users could quickly get comfortable with and that wouldn't take months to implement," says Brizz. "Plumtree fit the bill."

Plumtree mostly lived up to its friendly reputation during implementation, Brizz says, but there were some snags along the way, the most notable of which had to do with the user interface. Though it was most expedient to use the product's out-of-the-box interface, AmeriKing's users quickly reported that they were having trouble finding information. To address the problem, Brizz and his team created a left-hand navigation bar that appears on every page of the portal. The bar contains links to each section of the portal, which today includes a home page with games, financial reports, and a procurement application.

Though Wittman-Hart took the lead on developing the AmeriKing portal and building its gadgets, maintenance and management is the responsibility of Manrique's staff. To handle the task, he appointed two full-time content managers who help keep tabs on the 71,000 documents currently accessible through the portal. These individuals not only ensure that the content is up-to-date, but they also assist in creating original site content designed to draw workers to the portal.

When the AKInet portal launched in June, for example, the duo helped create games: Employees would try to guess the answers to AmeriKing and Burger King trivia questions to receive a prize.

In addition to the two content managers, an editorial team that includes a person from each department within the company also contributes to generating original content.

Though the groundwork has been clearly laid, AmeriKing has plenty more in store for its portal. For starters, Manrique and Brizz want to take greater advantage of Plumtree's built-in community-building and collaboration features. In fact, Wittman-Hart is already working on a human resources community through which AmeriKing University training courses will be offered to employees. Additional applications on the drawing board include an online travel and expense application that should be rolled out soon.

More importantly, at least in the short term, AmeriKing will gradually begin making the portal available to its 374 restaurants later this year. The company recently launched a pilot program through which 14 store managers can access and test the portal from their homes, and six stores have been selected as pilot sites. "Once we get this out to the stores, that's when we'll really start to reap the rewards," says Manrique.