Problem: A computer system that couldn't support growth

Solution: An inexpensive, low-maintenance minicomputer

Payoff: Efficient management, despite a skyrocketing product line

Abbott's Premium Ice Creams Inc., an ice cream distributor in Conway, N.H., needed to upgrade its antiquated information technology. Its stand-alone PC just couldn't support the company's growth, which included a skyrocketing product line: in a single year, Abbott took on 400 new flavors of ice cream. In fact, the computer could barely support anything--it didn't have a hard drive. The company had to keep all its programs and data on an increasing number of diskettes.

Many companies might have gone down to the local computer store, bought a Pentium machine and an accounting package, and been done with it. But Abbott's founders, Margaret and Sut Marshall, knew that with the company's rapid expansion, they would have to upgrade in a few years if they went with a PC server. So they elected to leap past PCs, all the way to a powerful minicomputer.

After shopping around, they settled on the IBM AS/400 Advanced System Model 200 computer (888-IBM-9401,, just under $8,000), a new and compact database server. The AS/400 required so little maintenance, in fact, that some functions--such as backing up data each night--could run hands-free. The newest version of AS/400 is the Advanced Entry model, dubbed the "lite" version of IBM's AS/400 system.

Abbott's worked with an IBM business partner, Software Concepts Inc., in Wilmington, Mass. (508-658-7111), to find a program that could help run every aspect of the company, from inventory to billing. For around $30,000, Software Concepts customized a proprietary program that was designed to take advantage of the speed and memory of the AS/400 system.

Before the upgrade, Abbott's used to keep everything from financial information to orders in a paper ledger. The office manager, Nancy Calvert, would make about 60 calls a day to supermarkets, scribble down their orders, and then run them down to the freezer so that someone could pick out the ice cream and ship it. Now Abbott's takes all orders using electronic data interchange (EDI). All areas of the 25-person company, from accounts receivable to shipping, immediately and automatically share order and other information via six terminals scattered throughout the building.

"Switching to the AS/400 from our old machine was like going from riding horseback to driving a car," says Calvert. "The numbers aren't in yet, but I can say this: Despite the increase in our product line, we haven't had to hire any new people."