New Zealand’s supply chain leader Kotahi unlocks new opportunities with AI

 |   Ashlea Lynch

Kotahi Shipping

Industry leader Kotahi was founded to simplify the import and export supply chain in New Zealand. The organization set out to keep New Zealand competitive on the world stage by working with exporters, importers, and industry partners to create a sustainable, more efficient supply chain. Kotahi’s team set a deadline to bring larger ships to New Zealand and accomplished its goal in only two years. Kotahi then set its sights on making exporting easier for New Zealand business.

Transformation in the new age of shipping

“We knew technology was going to disrupt the shipping industry, so we accelerated our transformation not only to make ourselves more efficient, but also to act as a platform for growth and development of advanced products and services in the new age of shipping,” says Matthew Wright, General Manager of Digital Technology at Kotahi. Today, the company enjoys enhanced business efficiency and data security. It has the capacity to create new revenue streams through innovative products and services.

“All technology pieces needed to click together to create value for us, and one of the ways we did that was with machine learning for our customer’s demand forecasting, to help our customers get their products to market more efficiently and with less risk,” explains Wright. “We can now provide forecasting outputs to our own staff and customers to help them do their job more effectively in minutes, rather than weeks. This simply wouldn’t have been possible without Azure.”

Working with over 50 exporters, importers, and industry partners toward a sustainable and efficient supply chain, Kotahi ensures that New Zealand remains competitive on the world stage. Acting on the insight that technology would inevitably disrupt the supply chain sector, the company took a regional leadership position. “We aligned our strategy across the executive team and board. We knew what the big building blocks were that we had to put in place: an ERP, a data lake, and a scalable integrated platform,” says Wright.

“Kotahi was an Office user for a long time, but the tipping point for us to wholeheartedly commit to Microsoft solutions was when we decided to migrate all of our technology to Azure. We’ve had a really good relationship with Microsoft around the cloud. We know Microsoft is in it with us for the long haul,” says Lauren Percy, Head of Architecture at Kotahi. “Microsoft keeps us informed on updates and developments. They let us know how to save costs and make better use of the platform. So, we continue to tweak, change, adjust, and sometimes restructure our technology to make the most of Azure. We have put a lot of effort into that over the past three years. We still have work to do, but we’re in a good place.”

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New and unique products and services to innovate shipping

When Wright and the Kotahi team went to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, they met with Microsoft experts and had several valuable conversations over a period of just two days. Upon returning to New Zealand, the Kotahi team decided to go beyond demand forecasting, and look at innovative products that the company’s data could enable.

“The meetings got us interested in Databricks. I think we’re the only player in the logistics industry in Oceania with a full publish-subscribe integration model that sits on top of Azure,” says Wright. “It’s super scalable. We can publish core data to our new revenue-generating products and services, as well as create business efficiency by pushing the data through all the systems we use today,” continues Wright. “We have a way to go on our data journey, but we now have a single core data set that we can use across our applications to make sure we reduce operational risk and greatly speed up processes.”

Huge opportunities have been unlocked in how Wright’s team can understand Kotahi’s customers, what they need, and what’s valuable for them. The team processes the data and then creates new products and services for customers by combining the potentials of Azure Data Lake, Power Apps, and Power BI. Kotahi’s new products and services not only help business efficiency, they also reduce commercial risk for its customers.

“Some of our customers export high-value chilled food products. These products cost several hundred thousand dollars per container. If there are any issues outside our control—such as issues at ports around the world—it’s important that our customers are able to view this [data] quickly,” explains Wright. “We have launched a chilled container report, possible with the data lake, Databricks, Power Apps, and Power BI. That enables the customers who receive the report to understand what they have to do to mitigate the operational risk associated with the delivery of the product they’ve got on the water. The service has reduced the time it takes customers to clearly understand what they need to do by around 75 percent,” he notes.

New products don’t happen overnight. Wright and his team use a design-led approach and focus on understanding and addressing customers’ business needs and issues.

“Thinking about our products holistically, we engage with our customers to understand what creates value for them. We have a New Zealand coastal online product built using Microsoft infrastructure,” says Scott Hurdley, Commercialization Manager, New Products and Services at Kotahi.

“Our new user interface is easy to use, and through this, we’ve reduced the time it takes to make a booking by more than half,” continues Hurdley. “The added value of building this channel is that our team no longer spends time trying to source information. We have the information we need, and the work is either executed internally or we pass it through to our vendors,” he adds.

“In shipping, we sometimes take things for granted. Creating these new products is about having the insight to make the most productive use of the data, so it adds value for our customers. For example, we ingested a lot of data sets from different places, layered it, and served all that through the integration layer using a global geographical map. The map is like a graphical user interface (GUI) that shows real-time updates from different feeds. It makes a massive difference in the way our customers make decisions. All the digital transformation that we’re enabling is to help the New Zealand exporters win on the world stage. That’s the heart of everything we’re doing,” explains Hurdley.

Transparent supply chain

As part of the transformation, the finance team was tasked with focusing on a cloud financial system that was simple to use and could integrate easily with Kotahi’s transport management system (TMS). The team wanted something that could be upgraded and updated with minimal effort. Kotahi opted for Microsoft Dynamics 365 and have used automation to manage accounting and finance processes that used to be manual and time-consuming. “We’re combining components of our TMS into Dynamics 365 to handle invoicing and billing of products that aren’t our core ocean freight product. Once we’ve perfected that, we’ll look at utilizing Power BI to add dashboards that will help us make decisions across the business,” says Michelle Hart, Business Change Manager at Kotahi.

The finance team executed these initiatives as separate pieces, but with a good view of how they were all going to fit together. “With Dynamics 365 and the Azure Data Lake, we’re going to be able to do some really good management reporting that sits at the intersection of finance and customer demand. It will help us understand how the revenue, customers, and operational aspects of the business all fit together. That’s going to be exciting,” explains Hart.

An inspired Kotahi community

Kotahi’s digital transformation has been led by a strong shared purpose and vision. “The cultural transformation is the secret sauce that makes all of this work worthwhile,” says Wright. Prior to embracing Microsoft 365, Kotahi was using an intranet page as a one-way communication tool. It was a way for employees to join the company’s digital journey. Building a collaborative culture with open communication was key.

“When we started our journey, we looked for opportunities to put technology into the hands of our people. We now look for experiential opportunities in everything we do. We launched Microsoft Teams a little over a year ago. That provided us with an instant community,” says Belinda Leslie, Head of People and Communications at Kotahi. “People create their own teams around projects and forums. Company-wide announcements now go on Teams as we focus on reducing emails. Kotahi Team has become our community hub which also provides a document landing platform for policies, goals, and Kotahi Hauora, which is our well-being program. It allows our employees a direct line of sight to company strategy.”

When Kotahi refreshed its company values, Leslie and her team created an application. “We used Power Apps to put our values in the hands of our people. It’s a mobile and laptop application called Kudos where we nominate people for a shout-out or for quarterly values awards. Our nominations ladder up to our company strategy. It’s all interconnected. People have fun with it. And we’ve seen a number of social and business initiatives that come off the back of it,” says Leslie.

Leslie and Wright note that while Azure, Office 365, and Dynamics 365 are invaluable, they often run invisibly in the background. “It has taken time to make the transformation from then to now,” says Wright. “The most awesome thing for me is the fact that the conversation is no longer about whether or not something is a business conversation or technology conversation. It’s just a conversation. There’s no longer this dividing line between people who are traditionally tech and traditionally business. Now we just get in a room together and figure out our problems.”

Change and opportunity

Hurdley notes that tech-intensive players have disrupted the consumer space, but in the supply chain industry, there are changes ahead. “It’s just starting to come to life. The revolutionary work that changes how people in an industry operate—that’s the kind of work we’ve been able to do over the past few years. We lay down the foundation to understand the data and how we can piece everything together. It’s now enabling all these new opportunities for us.”

“We can now provide forecasting outputs to our own staff and customers to help them do their job more effectively in minutes, rather than weeks. This simply wouldn’t have been possible without Azure.”

Matthew Wright: General Manager of Digital Technology, Kotahi