Canadian payday loan firm seeks to cash in on Microsoft BI tool

Spreadsheets can have huge limitations. National MoneyMart learned that lesson…the hard way.

The Edmonton-based payday loan chain – which until now has sought to sift through and analyze several years of business data using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets – decided there must be a better option.

Forecasting accurately, and developing effective business plans based on these forecasts are at the very heart of MoneyMart’s operations.  

And the company believes it can achieve these goals better with a little help from Microsoft Office PerformancePoint Server 2007.

MoneyMart plans an initial rollout of the product by February, and phased deployment by business unit in July.

PerformancePoint Server 2007 includes a bunch of tools and capabilities – scorecards, dashboards, management reporting, analytics, planning, budgeting, forecasting, and consolidation – that help companies monitor, analyze and plan their business.

MoneyMart is currently testing the product and says it is already delivering results.

The application has greatly reduced errors in MoneyMart’s data gathering process.

It has also streamlined the data-sharing and report-generation operations of the company’s planning and analysis group, said Ed Raffin, director of IT operations at the financial services firm.

He said the application also works well with the company’s existing Microsoft product set.

MoneyMart first set up shop in Edmonton in 1982. By 2007, the company had expanded its services to include cheque cashing, tax preparation, wire transfers currency exchange, bill payment services and debit card distribution.

It now has around 350 branches across Canada, and more than 1,000 outlets in the U.S. and U.K.

With business growth, data processing and forecasting became a far more daunting task at MoneyMart.

“We need a business intelligence (BI) system that can grow with us,” said Raffin.

He said MoneyMart’s business planning process is still largely done on Excel, which has turned into a sort of default BI tool because people are comfortable with it.

However, the firm’s planners and analysts are deeply aware of Excel’s limitations for what they need to accomplish.   

Poring through scores of Excel folders to extract regional data from outlets or pertinent statistics for quarterly performance tended isn’t the most effective use of their time, Raffin noted.

“We found our personnel were spending more time searching through spreadsheets rather than analyzing data for business planning and forecasts.”  

He said updates took considerable time because they were done manually by various departments and needed to be consolidated a staff member.

Delays in quarterly business planning are something that MoneyMart simply cannot afford, the MoneyMart exec said.

Two years ago MoneyMart began testing BI offerings from several vendors with a view to identifying one that would best meet its needs.

While other vendor’s products were found to be either too complex or way beyond its budget, early last year the payday loan company tried out Office Performance Server and liked what it saw.

MoneyMart’s challenges are common among businesses attempting to carryout complex BI functions with rudimentary tools, said Ryan Dochuk, product manager of business intelligence at Microsoft Canada.

He said organizations switching to Office PerformancePoint Server 2007 from Excel are unlikely to have difficulties adjusting because the applications have a similar interface.

But there’s one critical difference, Dochuk said.   

“Rather than keeping all your data on a spreadsheet folder, Office PerformancePoint stores information on a server which provides a layer of visibility, security and compliance control,” the Microsoft manager explained.

The higher degree of automation provided by Office PerformancePoint is also a key advantage, according to MoneyMart’s Raffin.

This feature, he said, speeds up data recovery and frees up planners and analysts to concentrate on essential duties.

The method also reduces errors because it automatically consolidates data updates and prevents the publication of multiple versions of a report, he said.

Users’ access to information is role-based. Users can only see versions of data that they are authorized to view, said Dochuk.

The product’s security features also guard against tampering of corporate books.

For example, users can edit the current year’s business forecast, but changes to the previous year’s records are not allowed. The system tracks document authorship and audits document changes.

“From an accountability point of view, this bolsters a company’s compliance standing,” said Dochuk.

Businesses, even in the SMB space, are starting to feel the crunch of energy cost, staff shortage and data overload, according to Joel Martin, research analyst for IDC Canada.

As pressures increase, there will be a greater demand for BI tools, he predicts.

Martin says “the BI market will grow to nearly $400 million within the next five years.”  

He notes that while there are numerous BI products with similar features in the market,  the ubiquity of Microsoft applications provide Office PerformanceServer 2007 with an advantage.

“Most people are already used to the look and feel of Microsoft Office. Customers will want a solution that’s familiar and easy to understand.”

And Raffin said an attractive price point also helped seal the deal.

The Microsoft package costs around of $200 per client access or an estimated outlay of $33,000, plus a possible $10,000 yearly server and licensing fee.

Packages from other vendors exceeded $100,000, Raffin said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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