BOW - As the second shift gets under way at the new liquor and wine distribution center built by Exel on Route 3A, about 20 employees sporting red "high-vis" vests are clustered in a circle on the wide floor between 40-foot shelves. A team leader is taking them through stretching exercises in preparation for an evening of warehouse work on behalf of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission.
"There's a lot of bending and stretching that goes on with this kind of work, so we like to start the shift this way," Exel Vice President of Operations Greg Foreman says as he and Liquor Commission Chairman Joe Mollica lead a tour through the 244,000-square-foot building recently completed at a cost of $20 million.
Trucks have been delivering thousands of cases a day to the facility, as the state makes the transition from a 40-year relationship with Law Warehouses in Nashua to a contract with Exel that took effect Nov. 1.
The transition got off to a rocky start, with inventory and delivery problems among the many complaints voiced by distributors, brokers, bars, hotels and restaurants. One month into the changeover, the problems remain, according to some, while others say the situation is steadily improving. While critics say the changeover has been chaotic, there was no sign of chaos at the expansive Bow distribution center, where arrays of shelves that tower toward a 50-foot ceiling can accommodate stacks of six to seven pallets, each piled high with cases of "product," as they call it in the liquor business.
It's the week before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest of the year, and the warehouse is humming as workers maneuver a small fleet of high-reach pallet-loaders with fork-lifts capable of reaching the tallest point on the 40-foot shelving. Laser-guided technology points them to the right bar codes, while a computerized voice in their headsets directs them through the warehouse along the most efficient route possible to fill their orders.
Outside, the truck traffic is constant. Wholesalers and distributors unload at the warehouse in anticipation of eventually selling the inventory. They pay Exel a storage fee, called bailment, to hold the goods until they are sold.
Delivery trucks commissioned by hotels, restaurants and others that sell liquor and wine at the retail level load up at a separate set of docks. Exel also won the contract to deliver inventory from the Bow warehouse to the state-owned liquor and wine outlets.
The Bow warehouse employs 110 workers, part time and full time, in addition to 10 full-time drivers and five part-time drivers for the transportation side of the operation, said Foreman. That is peak staffing to accommodate the transition and the busy holiday season.
"We expected our number would be closer to 85 on an average basis," he said. "We still have about 15 openings, and that is evolving."
The fate of about 80 employees at Law Warehouses in Nashua has been an issue since the transition began. Foreman said the company has hired some former Law employees. Law spokesman Paul Young said those hires were part-timers whom Law had sourced through a temp agency. "They took one or two who had been working with us short-term through an agency, but none of our full-time people," he said.
When the Liquor Commission announced its decision last November to go with Exel, a wholly owned subsidiary of the German-based logistics giant DHL, superior technology was cited as one of the factors separating Exel from the other top bidders, XTL-NH and Law Warehouses, both of whom have pursued court challenges to the NHLC bidding process.
The evaluation committee that recommended Exel also alluded to the company's commitment to building a new warehouse near Concord, outfitted with the most modern amenities. Whether Exel will be able to deliver on its promise of superior service and cost savings remains to be seen, but the Ohio-based company, working with Pro-Con Construction of Hooksett, has definitely made its mark on Route 3A.
The building has ample parking at the entrance area and truck-high loading docks that line the back wall. A 5,000-square-foot walk-in refrigerator or "temperature-controlled space" was built to accommodate fine wines and other temperature-sensitive products.
Exel has acquired the rights to land next door to the existing site for possible expansion in five or six years and is working with the Liquor Commission to blend information technology.
"Ultimately, our plan is to integrate our IT systems 100 percent with the Liquor Commission," said Foreman.
The recently approved state budget includes $10 million in capital expense for new NHLC systems that will integrate with Exel's inventory control and tracking software.
In addition to creating more efficiency in the warehousing operations, the new technology will enable rewards programs and consumer promotions not currently available at state liquor and wine outlets.
Work on the new computer system is expected to begin in the spring and take 12 to 15 months to complete.