APAX Partners

Epicor Reevaluates Its Strategy

A year ago at Epicor Insights 2014 the Epicor community was introduced to some new management. The owners, private equity investment group Apax Partners, had brought in a new CEO (Joe Cowan), who in turn brought along a new Chief Product Officer (Janie West) and new General Managers (GMs) for the Americas for both its ERP and Retail businesses. But all in all, not much had really changed. And the promise of “Protect, Extend, Converge” was still center stage.

This has been Epicor’s mantra for many years: promising investment protection and continued innovation that would extend the footprint of its customers’ solutions, while also converging multiple product lines acquired through the years. As I wrote last year,

The “protect” and “extend” part isn’t unique. Many vendors promise the same, although some do a better job of delivering than others. However, Epicor is unique in having delivered on a convergence strategy. The result was Epicor ERP version 9, originally called Epicor 9, reflecting that it was the result of converged functionality of nine different ERP products. The “9” has now become “10,” but that is not because it has merged a 10th product, but is more reflective of a traditional “version” level.

However, even last year it appeared Epicor was diverging a bit from this convergence strategy, primarily as a result of the merger of (the original) Epicor and Activant, which focused exclusively on the wholesale distribution market.

A Little Background

The lion’s share of Epicor’s ERP products target manufacturing. While these products have some distribution, capabilities, this was largely due to the overlap of the two industries. Manufacturers often distribute their own products and more and more distributors might engage in some form of light manufacturing. But Epicor ERP is a multi-purpose ERP, focused primarily on manufacturing, and more specifically discrete manufacturing.

Activant brought multiple products to the party but each was focused squarely on distribution. Not only were Activant products purpose-built for distribution, but also over time each has become even more focused and fine-tuned to specific segments of wholesale distribution.

And then there was the SolarSoft, which Epicor acquired back in 2012. This acquisition brought along an ERP which focused on more process-oriented industries, and also a “best of breed” manufacturing execution system (MES).

And finally there is Epicor’s retail business, which has actually been kept quite separate.

Moving Forward: More Than A Few Changes

So given this state of affairs, Epicor’s CEO, Joe Cowan, has made some changes. The underlying message throughout is that the company is “totally focused on the customer.”

The company has undergone a major reorganization, including spinning off the retail business. This group tended to address a smaller number of larger customers that were very different from the rest of the Epicor customer base. This provided no real synergies and the timing was good given other changes Mr. Cowan wanted to make. Even spun off, it will remain an Apax company and as Paula Rosenblum (@paula_rosenblum) from independent research firm Retail Systems Research (RSR) notes, this is really a “win-win.”

In addition, Mr. Cowan has simplified the remaining organizational structure and centralized key functional areas. The “old” Epicor tended to be organized around products, resulting in silos within the company, along with some redundancies. For example, support systems across different products used different policies and processes. Under the new organization, they will all be moved to a common support structure headed by Ian Ashby who came to Epicor with the Solarsoft acquisition.. The reorg also consolidates more than 20 data centers down to 8. And it has brought in some new talent, including new CTO, Jeff Kissling, only 40 days into the job as of the event.

But the changes most relevant and important to customers are the changes in product strategy. While “converge” was the mantra before, Janie West told me that moving forward, Epicor will “not be a slave to consolidation.”

One slide up on the main stage seems to have summarized the new approach:

  • Converge where we can
  • Build where we should
  • Partner beyond our core
  • Acquire as required

Of course the advantage of convergence was to remove any redundancies in development. Despite serving different markets, there are core elements Epicor needs to deliver to all its customer bases. For these functions, Epicor will favor the development of external components, which can be used across different product lines. For those products using Epicor’s advanced technology architecture (ICE) this is simply a no-brainer… which is why there had been a push to get all product lines on this new architecture. But Epicor now realizes this may not be a requirement in order to share the results of development efforts to deliver web portals, dashboards, mobile apps and other new features. So it will only re-architect where necessary, and not just for the sake of re-architecting.

While I believe the convergence to Epicor 9 (which is now Epicor 10) was the right approach at the time, I would agree with this new strategy. Where future acquisitions might simply expand the customer base in markets where Epicor plays, convergence makes sense. Where acquisitions (like Activant and Solarsoft) bring Epicor into new markets, it doesn’t. Where products are limited by older technology, it makes sense to replace the underpinnings with new architecture (like ICE) but where they are already technology-enabled, it makes sense to leverage what already exists.

The prior convergence efforts, coupled with more recent acquisitions leaves Epicor in a good position, with a manageable number of product lines – enough to specialize, few enough to maintain focus…on the customer.

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Plex Systems Announces Pending Acquisition by Francisco Partners

Yesterday  (June 6, 2012) Francisco Partners announced the pending acquisition of Plex Systems, one of only a very few SaaS-only ERP solution providers and the one that offers the deepest and broadest offering for manufacturers. If you look at Francisco Partners’ website you see the company describes who it is and what it does as follows: “Francisco Partners (FP) provides transformational capital to technology companies facing strategic or operational inflection points.”

It is pretty clear that SaaS ERP is at one of those strategic inflection points. While a short 5 years ago only about 10% of manufacturers would even consider a SaaS ERP solution, my research indicates that percentage had grown to 45% in 2011 and I expect to see another jump this year. While in the past I have called ERP the last bastion of resistance to SaaS, that resistance is fading and more and more ERP vendors are jumping on the bandwagon, which only increases the acceptance and the hype. But Plex is not following that trend; it is leading the way.

Unlike many other ERP solution providers that are new to SaaS, Plex has been offering SaaS ERP (exclusively) to manufacturers for the past 12 years. For years, deals were often won largely because of functionality and in spite of being SaaS. More recently SaaS has also been a key selling point. I would agree with Petri Oksanen, a principal at Francisco Partners who is quoted as saying,  “We believe that Plex Systems has the potential to lead the transition to cloud ERP for manufacturers, and that this will be as transformative as the adoption of cloud solutions has been to sales, marketing, and human capital management.”

As a result of this acquisition, Francisco Partners will own 100% of all existing shares of Plex. This is also a divestiture of shares by Apax Partners, which happens to have recently acquired Epicor and Activant and merged the two companies as Epicor Software. Mark Symonds, CEO of Plex called the sale of Apax shares “a natural course of events.”  Apax had invested for six years and this is a logical exit strategy for them.  However, unlike the Apax/Epicor/Activant deal, this acquisition is not a mash up of multiple solutions or solution providers.

Which means few, if any, strategic and operational changes for Plex. That is good news for employees and customers, both of which are extraordinarily loyal and engaged. Plex was recognized by the Detroit Free Press as one of the top workplaces in Michigan in 2011. I believe at least one of the reasons customers remain happy is because of the relatively instant gratification they get from Plex’s approach to rapid application development and opt-in enhancements. Unlike the traditional on-premise approach where customers request enhancements, which get put into 12-18 month planning/development cycles (and then those same customers often delay upgrading for another year), Plex updates software frequently, sometimes on a daily basis.

Mark indicates Plex will largely continue along the same path it has been on for the past several years, but Francisco Partners will bring added resources and possible relationships.  This might open doors to Systems Integrators that might have remained closed to a company of Plex’s size and I have to think it might also attract new channel partners. Plex will continue to serve the automotive, aerospace and defense, food and beverage and electronics industries and will also continue to seek to stretch the boundaries of those sectors to expand incrementally.

Plex and Francisco Partners see the market entering into a period of increasing replacement cycles. My research indicates one in four companies surveyed are planning to purchase a new ERP within the next three years and another one (in four) are still undecided. Of those planning a purchase, three out of five will be replacements, while one will be a new purchase for the entire enterprise and one will be a purchase for a new site not currently supported by ERP. Clearly there is lots of opportunity in the niche Francisco Partners calls “Manufacturing ERP.”

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My initial take on Epicor, Activant and Apax Partners

Yesterday Epicor announced it had agreed to be acquired by Apax Partners. While I am not personally familiar with Apax, its website tells me it is an independent global private equity advisory firm and holding company for the worldwide Apax partnership which is the lead investment adviser to the most recent Apax Funds. Apax Funds buy both majority and minority stakes in large companies that have strong, established market positions and the potential to expand. It has a strong heritage of technology investment.
At the same time, it was announced that Apax would also acquire Activant Solutions and merge the two companies. The combined entity will operate under the name of Epicor Software Corporation and become a privately held company. Of course it is too early to tell exactly how the merger will be executed, but Epicor itself has a history of acquisition and is the only ERP company that has grown through acquisition and successfully executed a product convergence/consolidation strategy. Epicor 9, released in December 2009, is built on Epicor Internet Component Environment (ICE) 2.0, a second-generation Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0 technologies and is generally recognized for its visionary architecture. But just as importantly, Epicor 9 merges capabilities of nine different products (hence the “9” in the name).  If Epicor remains true to past strategies, I would expect it to treat the Activant products similarly.
But then again….maybe not. Activant serves some very specific vertical industries including:
·         automotive aftermarket
·         farm-home
·         hardware and home centers
·         heavy duty truck and trailer
·         lawn, garden and nursery
·         lumber and building materials
·         painting and decorating
·         pharmacy retail
·         specialty retail
·         wholesale/distribution
While Epicor also serves retail and distribution sectors, Epicor also has products which complement ERP in support of a retail environment, and has never been that “niche” oriented.  It remains to be seen whether these industries are best served by separate product lines or whether Epicor will decide to continue the convergence and turn Epicor 9 into Epicor 10, or maybe even Epicor 11 or 12.
For now it is safe to assume the transaction will be good for Epicor and allow it to fuel more aggressive growth in the market. As for Activant, customers should take comfort in knowing that Epicor’s strategy has been very customer-centric with a motto of “Protect, Extend and Converge.” Whether convergence is in the future or not, I have a lot of confidence in the resultant management team preserving the part about protect and extend.
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