CATEGORY: Data Mining & Visualization

REVIEWER: Joy Fetting, director of information technology for Otter Tail Corporation.

BACKGROUND: Otter Tail Corporation is headquartered in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota. It has interests in the electric utility, health services, plastics, manufacturing, construction, transportation, telecommunications, energy services and entertainment industries. In 2001, Otter Tail Corporation generated more than $650 million in operating revenues and employed more than 2,500 people.

PLATFORMS: Windows NT 4.0 and 2000 Servers; Windows XP Pro, 2000 Pro, NT 4.0, ME and 98 workstations.

PROBLEM SOLVED: As Otter Tail began acquiring companies, it recognized the increasing difficulty of drawing financial information from various charts of accounts as each company had its own system. To accommodate these varying sources, Otter Tail Corporation required each company to submit summary financial information every month and left it up to the internal financial reporting team to build the consolidated reports in spreadsheets. It was not an option to have a system that required all companies to have the same accounting system, chart of accounts, etc. Rather, Otter Tail needed a consolidation package that would respect the unique needs and systems of their operating companies, but that was robust enough to consolidate the data at the corporate level. Key issues included getting each subsidiary to submit data in a consistent format and deploying a consolidation tool that could be modified easily as new companies were acquired and the business changed. Otter Tail also wanted to give its subsidiaries a tool to create fundamentally sound budgets more easily.

PRODUCT FUNCTIONALITY: Because FRx Software's Enterprise Reporting works in a distributed environment, Otter Tail is able to create data forms for its subsidiaries, which allow them to convert data from their own chart of accounts to a common corporate chart of accounts. Financial information can then be submitted to the corporate office accurately, electronically and in a consistent format. Enterprise Reporting includes error-checking capabilities. That feature, combined with the fact that data is transferred electronically rather than being entered manually, reduces the amount of time spent rechecking data once it reaches the home office.

STRENGTHS: Enterprise Reporting's flexibility is a key strength and has allowed Otter Tail to collect budget, forecast and actual data on a monthly basis, while providing a tool to develop a working, 24-month rolling forecast process. The unique expansion group functionality within Enterprise Reporting's forms and reports allows them to be developed quickly and easily. The application's use of tree structures also improves reporting capabilities.

WEAKNESSES: There is no drill-down in reports as the application's database only contains summary transactions for each accounting period.

SELECTION CRITERIA: Initial criteria for software selection included the ability to do both consolidations and budgeting, work in a distributed environment and pull information from multiple general ledgers stored in multiple database formats. Enterprise Reporting had the flexibility and functionality to meet all criteria.

DELIVERABLES: The ultimate benefit of Enterprise Reporting for Otter Tail has been the increase in quality, quantity and timeliness of the information delivered to the executive management team. When Otter Tail acquires a new company, the accounting team can incorporate that company's data structure into the Enterprise Reporting model quickly, implement a distributed Enterprise Reporting database at the new company and begin folding the new entity's information into consolidated corporate reports. Enterprise Reporting greatly reduced the effort Otter Tail put into creating consolidated financials, allowed us to capture much greater detail, gave subsidiaries a planning and forecasting solution and simplified the process of adding new reporting entities when acquisitions were made.

VENDOR SUPPORT: The importance of working with a knowledgeable, committed partner cannot be overstated. Our Microsoft consultant was excellent. He was able to identify how Otter Tail's organizational structure maps to the product and determine precisely what needed to be done to build our reporting requirements with different charts of accounts into the model.

DOCUMENTATION: FRx includes built-in help files and electronic (PDF format) manuals. Additional documentation and technical support information can be accessed by customers with current maintenance plans by logging into a secure area of the vendor's Web site.

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