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See It Now

New budgeting-and-planning software offers increasingly sophisticated visual aids: dashboards and scorecards.

That’s a considerable accomplishment, considering that many CFOs would rather have wisdom teeth extracted with bailing twine than run a reforecast. Before deploying a B&P program and dashboard from Clarity Systems last April, for example, monthly reforecasts at Jim Beam Brands took two weeks to complete, says Don Rogers, controller at the whiskey maker. “We dreaded it,” he notes. “People were pulling their hair out.”

And now? “Reforecasting takes five minutes.”

Worts and All

Ironically, dashboards would have arrived on the scene much earlier if it hadn’t been for, well, dashboards. In the 1980s, software providers began flogging fancy dashboard products under the highfalutin name of executive information systems. While the systems promised plenty—and looked great—they took forever to roll out, and delivered little. Rejiggering a system required a phalanx of consultants and up to a year of recoding.

Today’s breed of dashboards are much easier to use and much easier to put up. Online loan broker LendingTree Inc., for example, rolled out its Hyperion-designed dashboard in a matter of months. “Most of the employees involved with the dashboard are financial folks,” notes CFO and senior vice president Keith Hall. “The tech people did not put this together.”

That ease of design, coupled with a generally improving data infrastructure at most corporations, has finance executives tracking all sorts of nonfinancial metrics on their dashboards. Gary Willenbrecht, manager of corporate reporting at medical-instrument maker Beckman Coulter Inc., says he uses his dashboard (from OutlookSoft Corp.) to monitor, among other things, the number of diagnostic machines the company has sold or leased to hospitals, laboratories, and the like. This installed base, he says, provides insight into future revenue streams from the company’s consumables line of products.

How? The Fullerton, California-based company’s medical-diagnostic machines require reagents to test blood samples, and only reagents sold by Beckman Coulter work with the testing equipment sold by Beckman Coulter. “As you place units out there, you have a semicaptive audience,” explains Willenbrecht. “If you see the installed base is growing, the consumables base is increasing.”

At Haas, CFO Krens is still evaluating the metrics he wants on his dashboard. He’ll probably include standard gauges like revenues (actual, historical, and budget), cash flow, and receivables. But given the unique nature of the hops business, it’s fair to say that Krens’s dashboard will feature some oddball items as well.

For example, Krens notes that some brewers place their orders for hops in January and February, although most hops aren’t harvested until the fall (hops serve double duty, protecting beer and adding flavor and aroma). Hence, it’s crucial for Haas to know how much product the company will have available to fill orders—not exactly a slam dunk when you’re talking about a crop.

To get a handle on crop yield, Haas maintains an agronomy department in the Yakima Valley in Washington State, and the company operates a production facility for each of its three 1,000-acre farms in Washington and Oregon. The department tracks temperature and rainfall information, predicts harvests based on past weather/yield patterns, and conducts testing of growth on the vines.

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