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Mining Company Hits The BI Mother Lode

U.S. Borax applies the skill it knows best to new ground -- its sales data.
Business intelligence technology is common among transaction-intensive, thin-margin companies, but mining firm U.S. Borax proves that even stable industries can make BI a critical part of their operations.

U.S. Borax, an industrial minerals subsidiary of $9.3 billion Australian mining giant Rio Tinto Group, mines boron that's used to make refined borates for fiberglass, ceramics, detergents and other industrial products. Its 130-year-old California mining operation competes with a single major rival -- Etibor AS in Turkey -- for a stable group of industrial buyers.

"We have a pretty static customer base," said Jon Ashton, manager of marketing information systems at U.S. Borax. "There's only a certain number of companies that use industrial chemicals in their processes. It's not like you have a sale and they come in and buy."

Stable market or not, U.S. Borax still wants to price its borate products as advantageously as possible. The company uses an OLAP-based reporting and analytical tool from MicroStrategy to track not just its own sales, but estimates of its competition's sales. The system monitors purchase levels by all the world's users of borates. The result is a solid gauge of global borate consumption. U.S. Borax sets prices accordingly.

MicroStrategy's Marketing and Reporting System (MARS) software resides on an Oracle database running on Windows 2000. A DataStage data extraction tool from Ascential pulls U.S. Borax's sales information from the company's QAD MFG/Pro sales order system into the Oracle database for processing.

For information on the global market, U.S. Borax relies on its field sales force, which remains in steady contact with customers. Sales people make estimates of customers' total borax use and store that information in Microsoft Access on their PCs. They transfer the information to headquarters on a monthly basis, and it's fed into the MARS system.

U.S. Borax employees who utilize MARS data, including executives, market analysts, sales representatives, production supervisors and others, access the application through a variety of interfaces. "Power users" who write reports can access data through a desktop application, Ashton said. Casual users can drill through reports on a Web-based interface. In February U.S. Borax deployed a MicroStrategy narrowcast tool that automatically e-mails reports to some employees.

MicroStrategy COO Sanju Bansal said the software maker is most successful in industries like retail that value transaction-level detail, but added that the slow economy prompted other industry segments to explore BI technology in an attempt to boost margins.

MicroStrategy charges a one-time license fee of $600 per Web-based user for its MARS tool, or $40,000 per CPU for an unlimited number of users. Annual maintenance fees range from 15 to 18 percent.

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