Pabst Brews Up Alternatives To BI Software

Beer maker hopes to avoid data warehousing and business intelligence suites and instead rely on a mix of ERP-based reporting and cloud-based performance management.

Doug Henschen, Executive Editor, Enterprise Apps

September 4, 2012

5 Min Read

Are the heydays days of big, do-everything business intelligence suites waning? If so, can companies rely on a mix of ERP reporting and performance management applications designed for focused budgeting, planning, and analysis?

It's hard to generalize, but consider the case of the Pabst Brewing Company, the outfit behind more than 30 well-known brews including Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schlitz, Colt 45, Lone Star, Rainier, Olympia, Strohs, and Old Style. Pabst doesn't actually brew these iconic beers; it's a marketing and distribution firm that uses contract brewers (including MillerCoors) to recreate "cherished American brands… that promote regional pride," as described on the company's Web site. (I got nostalgic perusing the list because my Dad favored a few of those brands when I was growing up in the Chicago area in the '70s and '80s. "From one beer lover to another... Strohs.")

Pabst is essentially a sales and marketing organization that manages orders and logistics from contract brewers through to sales to distributors. The technology it uses to manage those processes is a mix of on-premises packaged apps and home-grown systems. The company uses Microsoft Dynamics GP ERP for its general ledger, while a custom-built .Net/Microsoft SQL Server-based application handles everything from the company's distributor master data and product listings to its orders, logistics and CRM.

[ Want more on the evolution of business intelligence? Read 5 Resolutions For Better BI in 2012. ]

That mix is destined to change, says CIO Ben Haines, who says he's set on moving away from the home-grown app and toward cloud-based applications. "We've got a big opportunity to modernize our processes and systems, and I've slowly been chipping away at getting out of the infrastructure business," Haines says, explaining that he wants to get away from running servers and "keeping the lights on" wherever possible.

Pabst's revamp efforts started with reporting and analytics "because that's what everybody in the company uses," says Haines. Some 300 employees need access to reports and analysis, whereas a fraction of those people touch ERP.

Haines picked Tidemark, a cloud-based performance management platform launched last year, as the company's new reporting and analytics standard. Pabst's work on that platform began about two months ago, and the first application, a distributor-planning app, was set to go live Aug. 31. The new app, which includes data-entry interfaces and an approval workflow, replaces an Excel-spreadsheet-based approach to managing 600 distributors and 36 brands by state.

"The new app gives us a foundation for reporting and analytics, and it has been a fast win because we were really struggling with Excel," Haines says.

Pabst also considered business intelligence options including LogiXML and cloud-based vendor GoodData, but Haines says he wasn't interested in using "Cognos in the cloud" because he wants to get away from the complexity of data warehousing, data management, and conventional BI.

BI suites tend to have multiple modules and let you build out just about any kind of reporting or dashboard application you could imagine. Tidemark, like other performance-management products, is much more tightly focused on budgeting, planning and forecasting, with particular strengths in sales and financial reporting and analysis. Some performance-management apps go deeply into the corporate financial consolidation, but that's not Tidemarks' sweet spot.

"Tidemark meets our sales reporting and analytics needs, and it starts to break down the silos," Haines says. "I can do sales planning, I'll be able to do financial reporting and planning including margins, I'll do brand management and brand-profitability analysis, and I'll be able to look at volumes, shipments, and freight costs in one system."

Haines will roll out most of these functions next year, and the user base will include sales, finance, top executives, marketing, operations, and even IT, which will do a bit of internal departmental reporting. Some 80% of these employees need mobile access, so Tidemark's iPad- and iPhone-based interfaces were another reason for its selection, according to Haines.

What about day-to-day transactional reporting? Haines figures basic accounting and tax reporting can be handled by the ERP system. For now that's Microsoft Dynamics GP, but Haines says he expects to either expand the use of GP or switch to Microsoft's Dynamics AX, which he views as "less proprietary" and more customizable than GP.

Whatever the ERP choice, Haines says he'll run it in the cloud. Microsoft GP is slated to be available on Azure by the end of this year while Microsoft has yet to finalize a date when AX will be available on Azure.

Pabst has a small Microsoft SQL Server-based data warehouse, and it makes extensive use of SQL Server Reporting Services. But Haines is even rethinking the need for a data warehouse, citing all the complications of extract, transform and load (ETL) operations and database administrative work. "I'm moving my staff from infrastructure people to business analysts and business-insights people... and didn't want to have a deep bench of SQL people and database administrators," Haines says.

Where infrastructure is concerned, Haines wants the basics, which means having access to clean data, he says. He's hoping the combination of ERP-system reporting and focused Tidemark-based dashboard-style apps and analyses will fill the bill.

Haines is not alone in looking for a way around all the layers of technology and complexity involved in data warehousing and business intelligence. In response, enterprise apps vendors are building more business intelligence capabilities directly into their applications (so-called "embedded BI"). Even SAP, which caters to the largest companies, is pushing its Hana in-memory database as a way to (eventually) consolidate the separate layers of BI and applications infrastructure.

It's early days for Pabst's reimagined world of applications, reporting and analytics, so it just might find that it still needs a warehouse and reporting services. It's also significant that Pabst is not involved in manufacturing or direct selling. I've seen other sales-and-marketing organizations get away with a pared-down approach to business intelligence, but that might not fly at more complex businesses managing supply chains, manufacturing and direct-customer sales and service support.

Haines' vision won't be right for everybody, but with ERP- and CRM-embedded BI, packaged analytic applications, and performance management options getting more plentiful and robust, it's a good idea to at least consider the possibility of taking a simpler approach to delivering intelligence.

About the Author(s)

Doug Henschen

Executive Editor, Enterprise Apps

Doug Henschen is Executive Editor of InformationWeek, where he covers the intersection of enterprise applications with information management, business intelligence, big data and analytics. He previously served as editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise, editor in chief of Transform Magazine, and Executive Editor at DM News. He has covered IT and data-driven marketing for more than 15 years.

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