Better Vision With BI
by John MacKenna
Energy marketers can gain valuable insight into operations by using BI (business intelligence) software to merge data from multiple databases and produce insightful reports and timely alerts, according to Rich Hathaway, Director of Business Intelligence at ADD Systems.
Based in Flanders, NJ, ADD Systems offers Atlas Reporting, a BI application that works in conjunction with the company’s core software for energy marketing (ADD Energy E3) and convenience stores (ADD eStore).
Oil & Energy recently spoke at length with Hathaway about how BI can help businesses leverage the data they generate to gain insight and make better decisions.
“A lot of companies in our industry don’t have the person power they need. Everybody has so much to do that things can slip through the cracks. BI can help you stay on top of your business by identifying exceptions and opportunities, so that busy people can be productive and make good decisions.”
BI software automatically gathers data from different applications in a single data warehouse where it can be queried holistically and used to create reports. “You can ask more all-encompassing questions,” said Hathaway. For example, a company can merge data from a payroll system with delivery and account information to enable a driver performance comparison that includes pay scales.
Without a BI application, companies can spend many hours using separate databases to create pivot tables and macros that can get at the same answers, but an employee could spend eight to 10 hours a week compiling reports that BI can generate automatically, according to Hathaway. “The key is to be able to gather that data from different systems and condense it down to meaningful pieces and identify those quickly and accurately,” he explained. “You have a computer doing the work and providing the actionable information. It kicks out a report that is waiting in your e-mail inbox every morning. It makes it easier to make decisions that impact the business.
“Another part of this is timing. BI can help you figure out what is happening right away, so you’re not waiting until the end of the month. If you’re analyzing your data in a timely manner, you can adjust prices if you need to, and that can make all the difference in your success.”
Atlas Reporting ships with a set of standard report types while also allowing users to create custom reports to meet their own needs. Companies with some IT expertise can customize reports easily, while others rely on ADD Systems to create custom reports for them. “With BI, you are never done,” Hathaway said. “There is custom work with every client. You can build what you want to build and get data the way you want to see it.” Companies typically run one report that leads them to new questions, and then they create custom reports to get answers to those. “As soon as you get one report done, then management sees it, and they want something more.”
Companies can use BI to gain insight into events in the field. “If a company is looking to improve delivery efficiency and driver performance, there are so many parts and so much data, it is difficult to gather it together and see what is really happening,” he said. “What tends to happen without BI is you get someone going by their gut feeling, because they’re not going to search through thousands and thousands of lines of data and reports to see which deliveries are more efficient than others.”
A BI application such as Atlas Reporting, on the other hand, can take all the company data about deliveries, find specific problems and help put them in context. “The software can identify problems so you can use your time reacting and correcting rather than spending all your time trying to find out which situations are issues,” Hathaway said.
For a fuel company that wants to troubleshoot run-outs, BI can merge data so managers can see whether the problem is in forecasting or scheduling. Analysis can lead to improved delivery efficiency, as well. “Run-outs are a symptom of another problem in most cases,” he said.
Companies that want to increase profit per account can use BI to merge data from delivery, service, billing and other sources to gain a comprehensive view. “You can show accounts by most and least profitable and use the data to look for similarities and differences,” Hathaway said. “Maybe the key to profitability is having the right tank size so you’re not going there every week. Maybe your least profitable accounts are all delivered by the same driver. The key is to look at all your costs and bring that data together. Unless you have the data, you are guessing.”
Analyzing Service Costs
Analysis of service contracts and service costs is a new feature in Atlas Reporting. “You can now bring in all the data about service costs and service contract prices and evaluate your performance there,” Hathaway said. “That helps you understand the actual profitability of each account.”
Atlas can also help analyze callbacks. “If you have to go back and do more work, that costs money and cuts into your profits. With a data warehouse, you can look at how many callbacks there were and what caused them. Maybe they were all from one or two technicians, and you have a training issue.”
Companies that sell wholesale fuel can also benefit from specialized modules in Atlas Reporting. Detailed reporting is particularly valuable in wholesale fuel sales, because the margins can be very small, and profitability is closely tied to accurate pricing and the use of assessorial charges. “You are earning only pennies on the gallon on large wholesale loads, so it is critical to know what is going on and have that information be accurate and timely,” Hathaway explained. Companies charge fees to some customers and waive them for others, and BI can help them set prices effectively and ensure profitable operations.
Companies that operate convenience stores can leverage the Atlas Reporting tools embedded in the ADD eStore application. Reports combine data from multiple streams such as general ledger, payrolls, inventory, price books and fuel sales. The system can automatically track rebates and promotions available to c-stores and file claims electronically to ensure that owners don’t leave money on the table.
Over the last year, ADD Systems has updated the Atlas Reporting interface to use HTML5, which allows for more intuitive interaction with data. Developers have also improved search functionality to make it easier to locate reports.
Users can also apply security with greater ease and granularity. Security is now integrated with user logins, so managers can easily assign report subscriptions to employee groups. “You can control access in Atlas to anything down to the report level,” Hathaway said.
Dashboards in Atlas have also been improved to enable users to view high-level data at a glance and then drill down into the actionable details. ADD Systems has also added alerts to help users find out immediately when important parameters have been breached. For example, a delivery manager can program Atlas to send an alert if more than two run-outs occur in one day in one delivery center. “Atlas is looking for exceptions and notifying you when they occur,” he said.