Atlas Cold Storage streamlines budgets through Web tool

Atlas Cold Storage plans to upgrade a Web-based budgeting system it used to replace Excel and potentially offer it to the parent company which recently acquired the firm.

Atlas Cold Storage, which owns 47 cold storage facilities in North America, first installed Clarity Systems‘ Performance Management 5, a templates-based management tool for budgets, in 2005. After Atlas discovered accounting irregularities in 2002 and 2003, manager of financial analysis Sam Gallo was brought on board in 2004 to improve its financial reporting.

At the time, said Gallo, the company’s main focus was “trying not to go bankrupt. Budgeting and forecasting were not the main points of interest.”

All budgeting information — including customer revenue, labour, capital expenditures, maintenance, and property information — was stored in a vast network of Excel workbooks, according to Gallo. “It was workbooks with a lot of worksheets, and as you got into it, there was no way to link back to previous ones: you were never sure if you were looking at the final version or not.”

In addition to Clarity Systems, contenders included Applax TM1, Microsoft Forecaster, and Hyperion. In the end, Atlas went with Clarity Systems’ product, which Gallo said was less expensive than the competition and only required one additional server instead of up to six. Plus, said Gallo, the fact that the system is Excel-based made the learning curve easier for Atlas users.

“It’s very easy to deploy to multiple plants in varied locations,” adds Clarity’s vice-president of professional services, Glenn Cullen.

Atlas worked together with Clarity Systems to craft templates that would keep track of its budgeting information. Clarity was in charge of making around 70 per cent of the templates, while Atlas made up the remaining 30 per cent. The templates, which would be used by general managers and operational managers, include: capital expenditures, customer revenue, rental income from Atlas’ leased warehouse space, labour (including a benefits rate template accessible only by the head office), and repair and maintenance. The program also allows users to pull from templates information for summarizing into reports.

The ease of use came into play immediately, Gallo said.“People who had never used the system before found it easy, and these aren’t the most technically-savvy people in the world, especially in the warehouses.”

While the program was easy to use, however, Gallo said it took a lot of time to create and open templates. The system was also not ready to go live in time for budget season, despite Clarity’s assurances.

“There were false promises on Clarity’s part to us. They told us that they could be live by October,” said Gallo. ”Doing the budget for 2006 was hell . . . we were ready to drop the system and go with another system.”

Atlas put a hold on all cheques to Clarity. This raised a major red flag, according to Clarity Systems CEO Frank Pizzolato. “We see payment as showing that the customer is satisfied and happy. . . We then identify the issues, and who we need to involve. In Atlas’s case, it was a server issue and a network issue.”

Clarity responded by bringing in additional expertise. “They sent new consultants that were top-notch. (The original implementation consultants) were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Gallo.

The solution lay in beefing up Atlas’ bandwidth and server quantity, said Cullen: “The issues really were around deployment with Atlas and were related to network bandwidth and their ability for remote sites to transfer information back and forth.”

The two companies worked together to “create more horsepower at their remote sites,” according to Cullen, who said that they were able to get better bandwidth by splitting up the application from the Web server, ending up with two different servers: one for the Web component of the program, and one for the application’s databases.

“Once the 2006 budget was completed, we said toClarity, ‘Okay, now prove to us why we didn’t just tell you to take a hike.’” Clarity obliged, redeveloping a couple of the templates they had designed, fixing up the back end, and increasing the speed of the reporting function.

Now that all the kinks have been worked out, Atlas couldn1t be happier with its vendor, Gallo said. “They worked their butts off and did a phenomenal job of stepping up the plate — now the system works as once promised and we’re very happy,” said Gallo. He is especially pleased with the self-sufficiency that the application provides; Gallo said that if they need to change a template, he can usually do it himself. While Clarity offers consulting on an as-needed basis, this feature is key when it comes to cost savings, according to Cullen.

This time-saving measure has also resulted in a more streamlined business process for Atlas. Said Gallo: “(General managers and operational managers) can reduce the time to prepare budgets, which they hate, and give them more time to deal with customers. It ensures that everyone spends more time operating the business than spending a couple of hours doing spreadsheets.”

Atlas Cold Storage has since been acquired by Eimskip/Avion.

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