Normally, it would take Steve McDonnell a year and a half to bring a new product to market. But the president of $5-million natural-foods supplier Groveland Trading Co. (formerly Jugtown Mountain Smokehouse) recently created a new organic turkey-and-chicken potpie in a record eight months. The big time-saver? Lotus Notes groupware. Less than a year after the company installed the software (a 10-person license cost $1,900), "it's become our general manager," McDonnell says.

Groveland, based in Branchburg, N.J., outsources its food production, and Notes keeps all employees informed of where product development stands. Instead of waiting for McDonnell's approval, employees can move ahead on their segments of a project as soon as they receive the necessary information in Notes.

Producing the organic potpie was a many-layered affair. One employee, whose duty was to find sources for producing the pie, started by locating a food processor and packager that could create the product; he promptly listed that information in a Notes product-tracking file to which a dozen employees from around the country could gain access. A sales rep visited natural-grocery chains to learn what ingredients were acceptable if those stores were to carry the new product (sugar, for example, is not acceptable for some); he typed the stores' comments into Notes, which instantly incorporated the new information for all to see. The employee in charge of sourcing was able to call the processor that day to find out if it could work with ingredients such as sugar substitute Sucanet. Meanwhile, a second salesperson located sources for Sucanet and other raw ingredients and secured USDA label approval, all the while reading and updating the Notes file from a laptop computer. When yet another salesperson taste-tested the product with a group of chefs, they advised him to use sugar for a more reliable piecrust. The rep didn't have to resort to the usual time-killing reply, "I'll get back to you on that." He knew, from Notes, that the company needed to use Sucanet, and asked for the chefs' advice on working with it.

"Before, I was making some decisions without complete information, but because I was the boss, everyone would listen to me," admits McDonnell. "That's costly, because you can move down a particular avenue too fast and end up doing things twice." He recalls missing the peak of the turkey-hot-dog craze a few years ago because he wasn't fast enough to market. "If you're not among the first ones on the shelf, you're not in the game."

By late fall the potpie was in the final stages of production, scheduled to hit store shelves shortly after New Year's. And McDonnell? Well, he was cooking up his next creation. "Instead of putting out fires, I'm really focusing on strategic planning -- exactly what you always dream of doing."