Food Company Goes All In With WebFocus BI
November 29, 2017 Alex Woodie
Measuring the return on investment (ROI) of business intelligence software is a notoriously difficult thing to do. But when it comes to Lipari Foods and its implementation of Information Builders’ BI suite, it’s safe to say that its employees’ relationship to data has changed in a profound and meaningful way.
Lipari Foods is a midsize company headquartered in Warren, Michigan, that distributes food to 5,000 customers in 18 Midwestern states, a range that extends from Minnesota to Pennsylvania. Thanks to the surge in popularity of specialty foods, such as gluten-free and halal, the privately owned distributor has grown quickly, and today it employs close to 1,000 people.
As a longtime user of the IBM midrange platform, the company has benefited tremendously from back-office efficiency and business process automation across multiple departments. Its core ERP system is Power Enterprise from NCR (formerly Retalix). It uses software from Kronos to handle payroll and human resources, HelpSystems‘ CCSS systems monitoring software, and S4i Systems‘ software to automate distribution of documents. The company sits on advisory boards of its software vendors, and is a solid advocate for the IBM i platform, even when its IBM i software vendors sometimes aren’t.
While the IBM i server plays a critical role for Lipari’s transaction processing activities, it didn’t hold up so well for analytical processes. Until 2008 or so, the company’s IT department hand-coded most of its reports using Query/400, a green-screen utility popular with nearly all AS/400, iSeries, and System i shops over the decades.
The company’s IT department managed to generate the reports that its sales department needed using Query/400 and other SQL tools. Lipari Foods even managed to output the reports in PDF or Excel, giving it the appearance of modernity. But under the covers, there were serious data issues.
According to Joe Beydoun, the director of business intelligence strategy at Lipari Foods, one of the biggest challenges was just agreeing on the facts. “It was a huge problem, especially with cost,” he says. “When it came to cost, we know what we sold, but what was our margin, what was our profitably on those sales?”
Depending on how the report was constructed, the cost may or may not have included critical values, like discounts and off-invoice rebates. The problem is that the data required to correctly calculate cost existed in different places in the Db2 for i database, and sometimes the report authors would miss them.
“There were a lot of discrepancies on how reports ran,” Beydoun tells IT Jungle. “A lot of the query requests came from people involved in different aspect of the business . . . . So if you’re a regional manager, and you ran your report [by region] and somebody else came in and ran it by product category, they might have missed a few elements.”
Shopping For BI
The company set out to address its information issues by completely re-architecting its reporting system and implementing a full-scale business intelligence solution that could generate that all-important single version of the truth.
“We definitely wanted a solution where everybody was looking into the same set of data,” Beydoun says. “That was one of the biggest problems we had, where board rooms were filled with Excel files that gave different numbers.”
Lipari looked at BI tools from several vendors, including QlikView, Panorama, Cognos, and Information Builders. Each of the vendors’ BI tools had plusses. For example, QlikView’s front-end interface dazzled the Lipari folks, but it was found wanting in other departments, including hosting the data mart. “We would still be using Query/400 if we were on the QlikTech platform,” Beydoun says.
One of the most important requirements for Lipari was that its new BI tool would be an end-to-end solution. With that in mind, Lipari whittled down the contenders until there was only one left standing.
“The field was massive with providers that provided a piece of the pie, but not the whole pie,” Beydoun says. “That’s the main reason we focused on Information Builders and the WebFocus product. We felt it could deliver everything and we didn’t have to piecemeal different areas of analytics to get what we were looking for.”
Information Builder’s familiarity with the IBM i platform and the fact that it can run its database on IBM’s Db2 for i also played a big role in Lipari’s decisions. In fact, Information Builders is the OEM supplier for Db2 Web Query, the IBM i-based BI tool from IBM. The New York City-based company is a strong advocate for the IBM i platform, and has been for years.
However, Lipari Foods opted to use WebFocus to build a data mart on Windows and SQL Server, not the IBM i platform. The company found that the availability of database administrators for SQL Server was much higher than for Db2 for i. And besides, it didn’t want to do anything that might impact its production system.
“For a transactional system, it [IBM i] is the best system in the world. It runs 99.999 percent of the time. I love it. Every one of our vendors is trying to leave it, but we love it,” Beydoun says. “But when it comes to data and analytics, it’s not the right system.”
After the platform decision was made, the real work began. Beydoun, other members of Lipari Food’s IT department, a third-party consultant, and representatives from Information Builders worked for nearly a year to scope out the work, define the data and metadata, and design the data transformations that would be required to get the right pieces of data to the right people at the right time.
“There was a lot of learning,” Beydoun says. “We had to define what measures do we want to do, how we want to break it all out, what files are involved. We did the data dictionary, we bought a molding tool. We did a lot of strategy before we started to build.”
In addition to developing the ETL flow within Information Builder’s Data Migrator product, Lipari Foods also wrote some RPG to ensure that the data is processed correctly before it reaches the data warehouse sitting on SQL Server. Once everything was in place, the development started.
Much of the actual development work at Lipari Foods centered on the creation of a sales dashboard. The sales dashboard has given all members of the company’s sales department team a degree of informational currency that they had never experienced. It’s also had the biggest impact on Lipari Foods.
“We used to run sales reports. People would run them and push them out to recipients,” Beydoun says. “With this sales dashboard application, I’m monitoring the sales . . . So all the way up the sales channel and all the way down to the sales rep, it measures their performance daily. We’re not waiting until end of week or the end of the period to say, ‘You missed sales.'”
Lipari Foods is also taking advantage of WebFocus’ ad hoc reporting capabilities. “Bringing in 200 reports and making one report out of them, where you can select options and run on demand — that solved a lot of our problems,” Beydoun says. “Plus, we push a lot of stuff through their ReportCaster package that goes automatically through email.”
WebFocus has done a lot to improve reporting at Lipari Foods. The company’s employees can slice and dice data across a variety of dimensions with the confidence that the results will be correct. They can also access the dashboard from any Web-connected device – even smartphones and tablets.
But in Beydoun’s eyes, the product’s capability to “parameterize everything” is his favorite feature delivered in WebFocus through version 8.2.
“I know it sounds IT-ish,” he says, “but the fact that I can manipulate a report in any that way I want, to parameterize any element of it — there’s no limit to what you want the report to do, whereas with other products, you’re limited to what data you can push to the product.”
In fact, the BI director recently finished an engagement with Information Builders that gives him a real-time view of work occurring in the warehouse. “They built me a map using D3 technology that puts the warehouse map in real time on my screens,” he says. “To do that with just an analytics package I though was pretty cool.”