Bill Priakos, COO, Dallas Cowboys Merchandising

Bill Priakos is an upbeat senior executive who loves his job and loves his team, which in this case is his job. Priakos is the chief operating officer of Dallas Cowboys Merchandising, the hands-on leader behind the NFL's most lucrative merchandising brand - with an undisclosed but estimated nine-figure sales business. This is a man with big plans.

But sitting in his office one year ago, Priakos was not feeling especially upbeat, as in, the-COO-who-reports-directly-to-Cowboys-owner-Jerry-Jones is not happy.

Starting in 2002, Priakos had co-engineered a plan to bring all Dallas Cowboys merchandising in house through contracted manufacturing and his own warehousing, distribution and direct sales, something every NFL team is allowed to do but no others have pulled off before or since. The plan was realized, but years into the project, Priakos was having a hard time running what felt like four businesses at the same time.

To manage the infrastructure, the Cowboys had invested in a technology overhaul and two years ago re-upped the stakes by purchasing point-of-sale, manufacturing logistics, Web and financial systems. As the enterprise resource planning, accounting and transactional centerpiece of the deployment, Microsoft Dynamics AX was expected to be the font of information for unified reporting.

As rollout neared completion, Priakos was still unable to gather visibility and connect the dots of his operations - the veritable heartbeat of any COO's daily existence. His expectation, in his own words, was to "look at one business at 10 a.m., look at another at 10:15 and wrap my metrics all up in one deal" shortly after that.

"We kept hearing that business intelligence was coming and that these four new software pieces were coming together," Priakos says. "And now I was beginning to get very worried because we'd bought it under one umbrella with one throat to choke, but I couldn't see reporting in aggregate." The ultimatum went straight from Priakos to everyone listening. "I said, 'guys, we've invested all this money on software and made all this effort and if I can't report, this is an utter disaster, a ship that never gets out of the dock.'"

One year later, the ship has been righted and has begun its proper journey, with the help of BI visualization and analytics software, and key contributions from a local systems integrator. Priakos now has the kind of visibility sales teams can expect will lead to increased guidance and scrutiny that one source, who preferred to remain anonymous, said might turn the COO into "a real monster." That seems a likely outcome because the Cowboys have big expectations that include a new stadium and many more business opportunities to exploit.

Another Look

In September, 2008, Bill Luisi, a VP from Irving, Texas-based systems integrator Teknion Data Solutions, had his first meeting with then head of technology and now Dallas Cowboys CIO Pete Walsh.

"The first 25 minutes were about the woes of what they had tried to accomplish in changing out the whole IT system and moving the application environment to Microsoft," says Luisi.

Teknion is a Microsoft partner and the central purpose of Luisi's visit was to talk about business intelligence and what kind of reporting and analytics he'd be able to get from the new system. Luisi and Walsh discussed the possibility of building an enterprise data warehouse, something both men calculated might balloon into another costly and time-consuming commitment.

Short of that, the two discussed creating a less intensive data mart that would store some older customer and sales information and also breaking operational data on the sales, shipping and stocking Priakos wanted to pull together and keep tabs on. While the Cowboys' core system investments - manufacturing and distribution software from Manhattan Associates, Web retail management from Ignify, Microsoft point-of-sale software and the aforementioned Dynamics transactional system - were required for the heavy lifting, none offered the right sort of unified reporting. Luisi suggested visualization and analytics software from an outside vendor to fill in the missing piece.

"We knew there were certain things within Microsoft that could be done, but frankly we were pretty excited about what we had already seen in working with Tableau Software," Luisi says. "We thought that was actually a better fit for what they were trying to accomplish than the reporting services and the PerformancePoint products Microsoft had available at the time."

Tableau's specialty is not back-end transactions, but visualization and complex number crunching. The software sits agnostically atop embedded systems and aggregates information into dashboard views that can be compared and manipulated through drag-and-drop menus. After a hands-on demonstration with Priakos that included a mockup of the new Cowboys Stadium (and views of negative performance that showed opposing team helmets), Priakos thought he might have found the "fourth party" that could deliver the reporting he and his managers needed.

But he was not sold yet. "I grilled the poor guy doing the demo," Priakos says. "I was still very skeptical, having gotten a lot of the same promises before, but he kept answering my questions and before I could move on, he coached and showed me more information I might want to drill into."

The next step was a proof of concept in which Teknion would extract production data from the Cowboys' back-end systems into a data cube for analysis with the Tableau visualization tool. (See Sidebar: Under the Covers, below)

"Teknion came in and did an initial cube just for proof of concept and more or less nailed it out of the box," says David Brigner, business systems director for the entire Dallas Cowboys enterprise. "We made a few refinements, but essentially we gathered sales data, and incorporated historical data from an old system along with our current real-time data. What we saw told us we'd be sitting pretty good, and we are now, with the reporting we want."

The View From the Top

The front end of Tableau is where Priakos starts his day, with data from the cube that is also fed to sales or inventory managers. As with any hard-balling COO, Priakos' attention tends to move around, though mixing and matching centralized data keeps him focused. "Some days I'm a retail guy, some days a distribution guy," he says. "I tend to work in kind of three-day periods: what happened yesterday, what do I do today and what I can affect tomorrow." (See Sidebar: Dashboards that Work, below)

The COO spends most of his time working with three color-coded dashboard views that can be combined as needed. The first deals with at-risk stock in shipment up to and after due date (see figure on page 14), and Priakos has good reason to keep a close eye on open shipping orders. A late delivery gives the customer three choices: the customer keeps the order even though it's late; they cancel the order; or in the case of outside retailers, they renegotiate. "You'd think one team could react pretty well, but this industry has problems with shipping," he says. "What I see is all my data building up across a time period, so I am constantly haranguing my distribution staff to see how are we looking 14 or seven or three days out or tomorrow for that matter."

The second view deals with sales through the Cowboy's 35 retail stores across Texas; the third looks at wholesale purchases by retailers and chains. Beyond drilldown to sales and trending, the views reveal potential credit risks and measures of customer satisfaction.

But when it comes to sales, the best skill any sports or entertainment merchandiser can possibly have is timing and having the right stock on hand when it is needed. A fashion designer can create a fall lineup, but a football team needs to shift ordering and stocking based on draft day, trades, injuries and game-day surprises. What happens when your rookie running back breaks three tackles and scores the game winner has an immediate outcome on what comes off the shelves.

Priakos has a long history in retail and can recall the days when he could hit an annual forecast within a point or two. "Now I have 16 weeks of antacid. I don't know if we're going to go 13-3 or 3-13, so my year can change weekly, and few businesses in the world have to deal with that."

He also wants forecast information and other reports directly in the hands of his sales managers. "Bill wants people to know what his top seller is, not just today or for the season, but maybe last week only," Luisi says. "What's the best jersey or the best women's product? You have no idea what it means to someone's day to drill down to this in two minutes instead of five hours or tomorrow."

Going Deep

The Cowboys had bet long on technology because the stakes and potential benefits were high. With 35 owned retail outlets, direct sales to big box and department stores including Wal-Mart and JCPenney, there is a lot of money on the table. According to Forbes, the Cowboys also have the largest game-day stadium sales in the NFL. While other franchisers farm out stadium merchandising to third parties such as Aramark, Priakos counts a couple hundred concessionaires among his roughly 1,000 employees.

At least five other teams have visited the Cowboys since 2002 to have a look at the program, but so far none have tried to bringing merchandising in house as the Cowboys have. Many are held back by legacy technology of the same kind the Cowboys decided to change out.

"We've been number one in merchandising pretty much ever since they began keeping records in the 1970s," Priakos says. "There was always demand, we just needed to figure out a better way to make sure our brand was placed where we wanted it and have a touch point so fans would feel they were getting the merchandise directly from our equipment manager."

The Cowboys are near to completing a new 400,000 square foot distribution center in Irving, which more than doubles the space of three existing centers that will soon be retired.

Most especially, there is the new Cowboys Stadium, which at three million square feet is nearly four times the size of the old Texas Stadium. At a cost estimated between $1.2 and $1.6 billion, there was pressure to make the most of modern technology by the time the 2009 football season started.

The new stadium is a "whole different animal" the Cowboys would like to leverage through real-time monitoring to distribute merchandise and much more according to Brigner. "Even though we have retail stores in the stadium, we also have the opportunity to look at food and beverage operations and a lot of the other things. By itself, the stadium is a powerful tool with a lot of technology built in from the ground up."

Brigner is referring to modern hardwiring, server infrastructure and common Microsoft technology that already includes point-of-sale data. With Tableau on top, it might be the case that stocking and sales will be monitored in real time right up to the owner's box at some point in the future, though no one wants to say where this stands.

The facility also hosts conventions and concerts, including the 2009 U2 360° Tour, where the Cowboy's owned Blue Star Graphics design and manufacturing business might be called to produce security and other staff apparel. Blue Star is already making apparel for at least three universities, and looking into unbranded casual wear. Production managers are looking at work in process, raw materials and finished goods and are considering visualization that measures work performance to predict factory shift turnaround of factory on short notice.

It all boils down to visibility. Priakos doesn't pull many punches but said the scope of the project required a foundational investment in Microsoft and other systems it could not have succeeded without. But as he found, when you layered on the reporting, it was a revelation to see how everything underneath suddenly looked that much better too.

"You were happy you did it," Priakos says. "It was like a mobile that was not all put together, and when you put the top piece on everything seemed to move kinetically, where before you were looking at a big pile of things on the floor."


(Sidebars that were included with this story appear below)

Dashboards That Work

Effective dashboard displays are a combination of presentation and context, according to longtime dashboard designer, consultant and BI archivist Hubert Lee. Lee publishes commentary and a huge archive of dashboards at the easily searched "Dashboard Spy," and offers a design framework called Users FIRST, with the letters of the latter word as a mnemonic device:

F equals Features: This is about business vision and goals, the functionality and key performance indicators that drive reporting. Lee suggests storyboarding exercises and tracing use cases.

I equals Interface: The user experience is defined in this stage that considers the advantages of at-a-glance views and uses proven best visualization practices.

R equals Roles: Who needs drill down and who needs ad hoc query and analysis? As the dashboard moves up the management chain, the typical amount of numbers shown becomes fewer.

S equals Specifications: Dashboards should be developed with agile, not waterfall methodologies. The "dashboard in progress" often is the specification, so don't get hung up on specifications. Remember WYSIWIG (what you see is what you get)

T equals Testing: Not QA but testing, keep iterating with KPIs and release them to gather user feedback.

Under the Covers

Though they get less ink than hardware and software vendors, systems integrators like Teknion are the gatekeepers of deployment expertise and take an involved role in their clients' projects and business goals. In the Cowboys' case, Teknion played the key part in building actual data cubes for analysis by the Tableau front-end tool and provided consulting for requirements gathering, data quality and data governance functions that are must-haves for BI or performance management success.

Gathering the requirements for the system that would be used by Priakos and dozens of others was a mix of interviews and some intuitive work. "The end users may not articulate what they need and Teknion was pretty adept at getting that information from our sales team and other managers," says David Brigner, business systems director for the Cowboys.

User segmentation was light across the sales group, the retail group and the warehouse managers. As is typical, Teknion VP Bill Luisi says, managers were initially using common terms that didn't add up to the same numbers. Profit in one group was not profit in another. "In most organizations, sales commissions are paid on reports and there are ways people can work the system, not maliciously, but they didn't have the right information to know how the sales were broken down by location and salesperson."

The data mart or operational data store has its own repository and structure according to best practice for analysis so it performs fast and does not strain or corrupt production systems while running. Some of the data tables and logic that drive reporting are assembled from subsystems, some in the cube and other data is pulled together in the visualization layer.

Tableau helps train users, which is usually a brief chore, but otherwise stays out of the way. Brigner is confident that ease of use and self-service will let IT move on to new projects and avoid time-consuming work building reports on an as-needed basis. While no one is satisfied with out-of-the-box reporting, and people move into and out of roles, a dynamic visualization tool eliminates much of his support role.

"Anytime you can take that out of my hands I'm happy," Brigner says. "A lot of dynamic business intelligence tools have some commonality in the way you can drag and drop, but some are more feature rich and intuitive."

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