Case Study: A Single Version of the Financial Truth

For BJ’s Wholesale, Hyperion’s Essbase OLAP server makes for happier—and more productive—end users

Retailer BJ’s Wholesale Club, a retailer with 150 stores stretching from Maine to Miami, needed a less cumbersome way to pipe information from its mainframe systems out to the desktops of its financial analysts.

BJ’s partnered with systems integrator ThinkFast Consulting Inc. to implement a solution based on the Essbase OLAP server from Hyperion Solutions Corp. that gives its users transparent access to this mainframe data at the same time that it presents financial information in the context of the Excel spreadsheet.

“What we were really trying to do was get quick and easy access to data using a tool that people are comfortable with using, which is Excel,” explains Jill Reid, manager of accounting systems with BJ’s Wholesale. “We were really trying to have one place to go to so that everyone is getting the same information, because currently our financial systems are mainframe systems, and we have to write programs to retrieve data from the mainframe and then do some kind of file transfer or downloading into Excel, so that people can do their typical analysis.”

For the company’s financial analysts, this was anything but a straightforward arrangement, Reid concedes. “It was complicated because our users had to know how to run a program off the mainframe and then go through the process of downloading it and things like that,” she explains. “Really, what they want is just to be able to view [this data] in Excel, because that’s what they’re used to.”

BJ’s considered OLAP software from several of the leading players, but eventually settled on Hyperion because of its market reputation, the ability of its software to address the specific needs of its financial analysts, and because of its relationship with Hyperion business partner ThinkFast, says Reid. These reasons led the wholesaler to tap a Hyperion-based solution over one from Oracle, even though it maintains an Oracle data mart in-house.

“Standard operating procedure in our company is that our IT department does go through a process of evaluating products, and part of it was that we knew that Hyperion was the leader in this category,” she confirms. “The fact that the flexibility of it allowed us to tailor it to meet our needs—that was another big plus. There’s some things in the retail industry where we report on comparable sales data … and [Essbase] gave us the flexibility to tailor it to meet these needs.”

BJ’s Essbase rollout is taking a phased approach. The wholesaler first started with its budget department last year, but has since made Essbase available to other user constituencies. “[The budget department] was really the driver behind the first implementation, and the data that they used was geared specifically for them. But we wanted to broaden that out to a broader area of users,” she notes. “So our 'phase two' was to implement our general-ledger cube or database that really stored all of our balance sheet and P&L information, and really get that out to all of the areas of finance. Phase three is moving more toward our gross profit analysis, which we’re getting to this year.”

For the first phase of BJ’s Essbase implementation, financial information from each of its 150 stores is refreshed into Essbase each morning as part of a batch process, at which point it’s available to the company’s budget analysts. When BJ’s rolled out Essbase in support of its general ledger application, however, it tapped Hyperion’s Essbase Integration Services (EIS), a suite of graphical tools and data integration services that can link applications written to exploit Hyperion’s BI platform with data stored in relational databases. EIS lets BJ’s support new capabilities that aren’t possible using the batch method, Reid says. “We implemented [our general ledger] through EIS so that we could have the drill-through back to the transactional level data. In our phase one [implementation], the budget department doesn’t have that kind of drill-through capability. So now we have access to all of this data,” she says.

The measure of any effective product implementation is, of course, ROI—in one form or another. In this respect, says Reid, the ROI of BJ’s Essbase solution is incalculable, largely because of the amount of time it saves her company’s workers each day. “We know that now things that would take days now take hours, so giving people data with a click of a mouse and right at their fingertips, that’s been a very positive development,” she comments.

Because analysts can use Excel to work with Essbase data, little (if any) re-training was required, Reid confirms. “The ability to get to the data right in Excel, it’s a big advantage, because you don’t have to go through FTP or another [application] first,” she says. “With any system you have there’s a certain amount of training that has to take place, and if you have to learn a mainframe, or you have to learn a new PC-based application, that just makes it more complex.”

The upshot, Reid says, is that BJ’s analysts are more productive, so much so that they’ve starting drilling down deeper into their existing data. “We were able to add some attributes and things like that about our store, about our locations, that helped us to do new kinds of analysis,” she explains. “For example, the users themselves can look at which clubs have gas stations versus which ones don’t—things like that—to see what discrepancies there are. To do that before, you’d have to have someone do some coding to do that analysis. So you’re definitely giving the users the ability to analyze their data better [and] do the what-if scenarios that they couldn’t get to before.”

This frees up Reid to tackle other tasks, which may be the biggest ROI of all. “I actually create a lot of the programs for finance,” she says. “I’m actually in the finance department and act as that liaison between IT and finance. So [the Essbase solution] means that I get to focus more on finance and less on IT.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.