SerVaas Laboratories Cleans Up with Business Intelligence
When a company's employee roster lists just about 100 workers, yet its products are sold in about one dozen countries, timely, accurate sales and inventory data is critical. Business intelligence (BI) solutions, however, have traditionally exceeded the budgets of small and mid-sized companies.
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SerVaas Laboratories, based in Indianapolis, Indiana, is a consumer goods company that produces and carries products under the Bar Keepers Friend brand name.
PowerPivotPro (P3) is a Microsoft data platform consultancy that channels business-critical data to drive outcomes.
That was the challenge facing SerVaas Laboratories. "We're international, but we're also relatively small," says Matt Selig, executive vice president with the Indianapolis-based firm. To gain timely insight into sales and inventory, Selig and his team turned to PowerPivotPro (P3), a provider of BI tools geared to mid-sized companies.
SerVaas Laboratories is the company behind Bar Keepers Friend, a cleaner that uses the oxalic acid found in rhubarb, spinach, and other vegetables, to break down rust, tarnish, and stains. While barkeepers originally used it to polish brass rails—hence, its name—millions of homeowners and other businesses now rely on Bar Keepers Friend.
Not only is the cleaner distributed globally, but it's also sold across a range of outlets, including online and in grocery stores, big-box retailers, and home improvement centers, among others. In England, Bar Keepers Friend is made under license with different labeling. To add more complexity, the company sources material from around the world.
To pay bills, receive orders, and purchase materials, SerVaas Laboratories used a traditional general ledger accounting solution. Although it handled these tasks capably, tracking production, inventory, and sales information was cumbersome.
Nothing Good to Report
Running a simple sales report could take 10 minutes and produce a report that extended to 40 pages. "The report consisted of hundreds and hundreds of lines of tiny numbers," Selig says.
It wasn't uncommon for Selig to spend 20% of his time extracting sales data from the accounting system, manipulating it, and creating reports for executives and others. The company's controller dedicated even more time to these tasks.
"We had a lot of information and no practical way to use it," Selig says. "Instead, it was isolated in that accounting system."
Gaining access to information on the production and operations side wasn't any easier. "The only practical way to find out how many widgets we had was to go out in the warehouse and count them," Selig says. Because it was hard to estimate inventory levels, safety stock levels tended to run high.
The system was like driving a car after a snowstorm with only a fraction of the window cleared off, says Rob Collie, founder and chief executive officer with P3. "SerVaas needed more accurate and timely data," he says. At the same time, it needed to work within its budget.
Selig had been reading about Power BI and came across a book Collie co-authored, titled Power Pivot and Power BI. Eventually, he contacted P3.
Turning Data into BI
P3 is a Microsoft partner focused on helping businesses leverage their data to generate insight and drive performance—in other words, turning data into BI. While BI has been around since about the late 1990s, it's generally been characterized by long, expensive projects that were available mostly to enterprise companies, Collie says.
The Power BI solutions P3 offers dramatically cut the time and cost typically required to execute these solutions. In part, that's because it sits on top of a company's other financial systems and pulls data from them, in its current form and regularly, Collie says. In addition, P3's consultants are skilled in communication and the nuances of business, as well as technology. Instead of weeks or months gathering project requirements, the process "gets compressed into fast-paced conversations," Collie adds.
When P3 hosted a class on Power BI, Selig attended, along with SerVaas' controller. Selig showed Collie several sketches of the dashboards he'd made and asked if Collie could replicate them. Three days later, P3 handed SerVaas "a pretty good functioning dashboard report" for its sales team, Selig says.
As important as the speed with which the solution was generated was the access to information it provided. "We were finding answers to questions we didn't even know we had," Selig says. And through his work with P3, Selig had learned enough about Power BI that he could, on his own, continue to refine the sales dashboards and create new ones.
The launch of the sales dashboards in early 2020 proved auspicious, as the pandemic took hold shortly after. In mid-March, the dashboard let Selig and his team know that several of the company's largest customers had placed orders for more than double their usual levels, while another had boosted its order by 40%. Had SerVaas not seen the dashboards, management would have had to wait several more weeks for this information.
Just as important, SerVaas was able to segment customers by channel. The dashboards showed orders at mass merchandisers, grocers, and home improvement centers were increasing by up to 60% while some other retailers had pretty much shut down, and SerVaas could reallocate products that otherwise would have gone to them.
Based on this insight, SerVaas decided to triple the size of its second production shift, confident that the spike in demand was real. "With the sales dashboard, we can monitor what's happening in real time," Selig says.
The dashboards also eliminate a great deal of manual work. Previously, one salesperson spent close to one day each quarter creating a report for one customer—and that was with the help of the accounting staff. "With the sales dashboard, we reduced that report to about 30 seconds," Selig says. And the salesperson can now create the report on their own.
Taking Stock of Inventory
With the clear success of the sales dashboards, Selig and his team set about developing inventory dashboards. "We knew we had too much inventory, but we didn't know of what," Selig says.
He provides an example of how record-keeping could go astray: Say the purchasing manager orders 1,000 widgets at $1 per widget, but only 950 widgets show up. The shipping employees count and sign for the widgets, put them in the warehouse, and complete the receiving report, which goes to accounting.
Eventually, accounting realizes the discrepancy between the purchase order and the delivery. However, it could be one month later, and the system grinds to a halt as employees research and correct the discrepancy. The system was both time-consuming and less than accurate, leading to higher levels of safety stock, Selig says.
Creating the inventory dashboards took longer, but only because the pandemic meant SerVaas and P3 were limited to virtual connections for an hour or two each week. As of late July 2020, they were up and running. Like the sales dashboards, these pull critical information from the accounting system and put it in an easy-to-use format.
When placing inventory orders, employees can easily find out, for instance, how many of every kind of widget the company has used for each of the past six months, the level of inventory on hand, and lead times for reorders. Using this information, employees gain a better idea of when to place orders to ensure they don't run out, but without having to amass large safety stocks.
The same dashboards also help track finished goods in SerVaas' external warehouses. Users of the dashboards can quickly see warehouse levels, as well as the number of open purchase orders, among other information.
"Those are questions that our materials people ask all the time," Selig says. "Now, you just click several times for the answer."
SerVaas and P3 are currently working together to build product and customer profitability reports. These will allow Selig and other executives to see the company's financial reports in a dashboard format. The goal is to build reports that allow company executives to analyze sales at the store level for some of its biggest customers, as well as by region and product.
Selig isn't stopping just yet. He's planning to develop dashboards that would provide insight on the company's digital marketing data. These might show, among other information, how different marketing campaigns perform and how digital marketing efforts complement nondigital marketing initiatives.
Also on the to-do list are dashboards for the company's production equipment. These would leverage the operational information the machines generate to show their maintenance requirements and performance.
The results to date have been promising. As of early September, SerVaas Laboratories had achieved about 15% of the $1 million inventory reduction that management is looking for, simply by using dashboards to guide inventory decisions.
Referring to the P3 solution, Selig says, "It's a work in progress but even if we stop at this point, it has more than paid for itself."