Ballard uses business intelligence to fuel financial reporting

When you’re in the business of finding an alternative fuel-source for the automobile, you tend to burn cold hard cash the way an SUV goes through old-fashioned fossil fuels.

At Burnaby-B.C.-based Ballard Power the company is developing,

manufacturing and marketing zero-emission fuel cells for transportation and power applications. But in the process they must be cognizant at all times of how they are spending money and make sure it’s clear to shareholders where the cash is going.

“”Ballard is a very dynamic, fast-moving environment. We’re a young business that is focused on product development, specifically fuel cell development. Any kind of new company is going to be going through some rapid changes,”” said Jim Martineau, manager of financial operations for Ballard Power.

“”Especially with the nature of our business right now. We burn cash because we’re in product development and we have to manage that very carefully. We’ve told shareholders this is what we’re going to do — there’s going to be a cash burn and we have to manage that and that’s why we need to produce reports so we can understand our cash flow requirements,”” said Martineau.

But budget time wasn’t always a seamless operation at Ballard. Getting information from and to different departments was a complicated process that often took weeks to complete.

“”We needed to do budgeting quicker and more efficiently and push responsibility back to individual managers,”” he said.

The company wanted a better way to manage financial planning and reporting. After reviewing a number of vendors, Ballard chose Hyperion Planning and implemented the product as a means to consolidate reports from across the company. Since then the company has increased the kind of information it is feeding the system.

According to IDC Canada, Hyperion has about a nine per cent share of end-user query and report tools market and about seven per cent of the overall BI tools market. (In business intelligence, IDC tracks revenue in three markets: end user query and report tools, data mining tools and packaged datamarts/warehouses).

“”They are a fairly large player because there are few companies that have more than 10 per cent share,”” said IDC Canada software analyst Warren Shiau.

The Web-based tool Ballard is using from Hyperion allows users (there are currently about 200 using the system) to create templates and enter data whenever they need to and required little in the way of end-user training, said Martineau.

“”There are other choices, but we wanted to start reporting actuals so people could get information from their actuals a lot easier than sending out paper copies. We wanted them to be able to go online and look at their actuals and then compare them to the budget as well,”” said Martineau.

Recently Ballard used Hyperion to consolidate information coming from a number of its worldwide locations. “”I was quite impressed with our last planning cycle as we brought in our German operation, our Dearborn operation and we took the people in Germany through a two-hour training session and they were great. No problem at all.””

Budget time at Ballard previously took anywhere from days to weeks to complete, and even then there would be inconsistent structures with spreadsheets said Martineau. “”So we’re able to get a good clear picture of budget now. We incorporated all components of our budget into Hyperion: departmental expenses, our project budgets, our capital budgets, our working capital, sales, revenue, production, everything within Hyperion.””

He says the company found inconsistencies with its data. “”The more people we have that can look at it — we are definitely improving the quality of our information.””

Making the budget process more streamlined is something customers are demanding said Donald MacTavish, director of product marketing, Hyperion Solutions in Vancouver.

“”We have customers who just couldn’t get a budget out or they could get it out but it was such a labour intensive activity. We find they spend more time on data collection and re-keying of information and far less time on actual working with information to analyze and it and test scenarios,”” said MacTavish.

A thin-client install made it easy for Hyperion to deploy to its users.

“”For them, the ability to go in and work with the solution and make it easier to work with, the outcome is better planning,”” said MacTavish.

Ballard is also using the Hyperion Planning software to track projects in development. Payroll information can be broken down into detailed work packages indicating who are the individuals working on something and how many hours were logged.

“”We use it extensively for project management purposes because we don’t have any other system where we can capture the actuals of what people are doing. We can identify all our department managers, who they are, who is responsible for what,”” he said.

Martineau could not say the cost of implementing the Hyperion tools, but says the company is well on its way to recouping its investment.

“”With software tools, you never know the value until you take it away. But definitely, just being able to pull a budget together now we will shut down our budget input the night before or the afternoon before we meet with the CFO to review the results. That was just unheard of before,”” he said.

“”People expect this type of stuff these days. We have this kind of information within our company and we expect to be able to report on it. It’s a given you’ll be able to do this, which is a good thing.””

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