Plex Systems

Plex Systems Hits the Acquisition Trail

Earlier this month Plex Systems announced its first (ever) acquisition. On August 9, 2016, Plex revealed it had acquired DemandCaster, essentially stretching the end points of its end-to-end cloud-based solution for manufacturers. Adding DemandCaster’s Supply Chain Planning (SCP) solutions to its enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution system (MES) means Plex now has the most complete suite of products of any independent cloud-native solution provider targeting manufacturing.

As I noted in a recent post, there are several reasons for one company to acquire another, one of which being to:

Fill a product gap: It can be far easier to acquire functionality than to develop it yourself. This can make the company more competitive, provide cross-sell and up-sell opportunity, or both. But don’t assume there is any M&A pixie dust that will magically integrate products overnight.

This is clearly Plex’s intent here, adding SCP to an already robust ERP and MES offering. But in this case, no M&A pixie dust is required. Plex and DemandCaster have been partnering together for about a year and already 10 out of DemandCaster’s 50 customers are also Plex customers. The integration is complete and bidirectional.

Partnering turned out to be a great way for the two companies to get to know each other and Plex was already positioning (and white labeling) DemandCaster as its answer to supply chain planning, sales and operation planning (S&OP), practical forecasting and demand planning, distribution requirements planning (DRP) and multi-site master production scheduling (MPS).

The solution, which is based on Microsoft technology, is highly graphical and was built from scratch as a multi-tenant SaaS solution. And the functionality is 100% complementary. The company is based in Chicago, but has a team of developers in Bulgaria, which could prove to be an additional plus in being a great entry point for Plex in attacking the eastern European market.

While acquisitions have a tendency to cause disruption, fear, uncertainty and doubt, if there ever was one immune to that disruption, this is the one. The entire staff of DemandCaster, including founder and CEO Ara Surenian, will come on board as Plex employees. Customers should only see a continuation (or perhaps strengthening) of their relationship. There is no sales staff to integrate. Previously DemandCaster was sold online with a “try before you buy” approach, with a little product evangelism thrown in. Plex intends to leave that channel open. Who knows, other (ERP and MES) sales efforts might even benefit.

Plex should also benefit from being able to natively satisfy the needs of larger, multi-national, multi-site manufacturing enterprises. The largest DemandCaster customer already handles over 300,000 individual SKUs. This could help Plex move up market and DemandCaster will also provide an additional entry point into Plex prospects.

Plex will also continue to make DemandCaster available as a “stand-alone” solution. We use the term loosely because DemandCaster alone is pretty useless unless it is tied back to an ERP. DemandCaster handles the integration by placing a very simple piece of software on the customer’s system. No APIs or web services required. Of the 40 nonPlex customers, DemandCaster already successfully interoperates with 18 different ERP solutions. So who knows, this might even be a “land and expand” opportunity for Plex to lead with SCP and eventually replace an incumbent ERP.

As acquisitions go, this one seems to be nice and neat and clean – adjectives rarely used in the same sentence as M&A. Kudos to Plex Systems for starting small but knocking one out of the park!

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Women in Manufacturing & Technology At PowerPlex 2016

I recently had the opportunity to participate in Plex Systems’ second annual Women in Manufacturing and Technology Forum. Held at PowerPlex 2016, Plex’s annual user conference, this year’s forum brought together over 85 women, providing an opportunity for networking and discussion. Plex also put together a moderated panel (on which I was honored to sit) to kick off the discussion. But in spite of the name of the forum, the topic of discussion wasn’t manufacturing or technology, but rather the challenges women face in working in what is still very much a man’s world.

So if the discussion didn’t touch on manufacturing or the Plex Manufacturing Cloud, or any kind of software for that matter, why did Plex do this? I believe it is ultimately because Plex cares deeply about its customers and their success. The depth of interest is evident in the level of customer engagement that strikes me as exceptional every time I meet Plex customers or attend one of its events. And while the software is the focal point of the engagement, customer success is always a combination of people, process and technology.

On the people side, amidst an overall skills shortage in manufacturing, women have so much to offer. Yet while our ranks are growing slowly, we remain a small minority. It is very challenging for a woman to get ahead and make it to the top and we need to support each other along the way. The best way to accelerate gender diversity in the worlds of manufacturing and technology is to create a supportive environment and highlight success. In the famous words of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, “There should be a special place in hell for women that don’t help other women.”

Plex happens to have some great role models, with three women among its C-level executives: Heidi Melin, Chief Marketing Officer, Lilian Reaume, Chief Human Resource Officer and Elisa Lee, Chief Legal Counsel. These three women actively sponsored the forum. I applaud them for that. I would also like to share with everyone a couple of the main themes we discussed, as there are some good lessons both men and women can carry away from them.

Don’t Limit Yourself

While some women are indeed shattering the “glass ceiling” today, many (not all) of the limitations that hold others back are self-imposed. While no two women are exactly alike (just as no two men are), when asked to rate themselves on skills and accomplishments, women tend to under-estimate their own effectiveness, while men tend to over-estimate theirs. A woman will say she is good at A, okay at B and has never done C. A man with the same skill set will say he excels at A and B and could very easily learn C. It’s all about the presentation and the self-confidence with which it is presented. I am not advocating for shameless self-promotion, but whether this reticence stems from a lack of confidence or an overactive sense of modesty, it is equally detrimental in seeking advancement as it is in interviewing for a new job.

Believe in Yourself, But Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

If you are a woman and have trouble believing in yourself, you’re not alone. Many of the most successful women in the world today grew up believing they could do anything they set out to do. Very often they had the support of family or an early mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams.

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Condoleeza Rice speak recently and walked away with a quote that I think is priceless. She was talking about growing up with the support of her parents. Dr. Rice and I are about the same age. But while I had the advantage in the 1950’s of growing up white in the northeast, she was a little black girl in Birmingham, Alabama where segregation was the norm. And yet she said, “Somehow my father believed that the little black girl that couldn’t order a hamburger at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, could grow up to be the president of the United States.” That belief system carried Dr. Rice very far.

But just as many women (probably more) didn’t have that level of encouragement growing up and still don’t have it today. But it’s never too late. Seek out that encouragement. It doesn’t have to come from another woman, but it should be someone who is successful in his or her own right, either in business or just in life.

Be Yourself

One of the most common mistakes women make in entering a man’s world is trying to think, behave, act or communicate like a man. A piece of advice from someone who has worked in a man’s world for over 40 years … Don’t. Yes, develop your ability to think, analyze and be decisive. Yes, work on your communication skills, both listening and speaking. Yes, be conscious of how you come across (confidently or defensively). The list of skills you should develop will vary based on your role. Regardless of your role, trust me, it will be long. But as you work on that list, work just as hard to be yourself. Don’t try to be a man. It’s OK – even good – to be a woman in a man’s world as long as you remain you. If you haven’t figured out who that is yet, don’t worry, you will. I may not see it before I retire, but if we all do that, perhaps the man’s world will indeed give way to a world of diversity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Enterprise Odd Couple: Plex Systems Partners with Workday

Pre-Packaging 2-Tier ERP for Manufacturers

Last week at its annual PowerPlex user conference, Plex Systems announced Plex Connect, along with several new partnerships and packaged connections. The goal of this new open integration framework is to “make it easier for manufacturers to connect people, things and applications to the Plex Manufacturing Cloud.” One of these partnerships stands out as being somewhat unique in that it is forged with another Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution provider… Workday.

At first glance these two might seem like the proverbial odd couple. As another ERP vendor, Workday would appear to be a competitor. But it is not, because Workday is not a solution that is focused on the needs of manufacturers. And companies that “make things” are the only targets for Plex Systems. So if Workday isn’t for manufacturers, why would any Plex customer be interested in connecting to it? Because typically corporate headquarters doesn’t make anything, but might have sophisticated accounting requirements to support global operations. This partnership is all about delivering a pre-packaged 2-tier ERP.

Making the Case for 2-Tier ERP

Operating across a distributed environment has become a way of life for a large percentage of manufacturers today, even smaller ones. In fact 77% of all manufacturers that participated in the 2015 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study had more than one operating location served by ERP (Figure 1). And 67% operate as a multi-national company. Even those with annual revenues under $25 million average just over 2 operating locations and that average grows steadily as revenues grow. This means very few companies today are able to conduct business as a single monolithic corporation.

Each operating division will have operational needs and must then feed to corporate financials for consolidation and reporting.

Figure 1: Environments Are More Distributed and Remote

Plex WDAY Fig 1Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

Note In Figure 1 company size is determined by annual revenue.

  • Small: annual revenues under $25 million
  • Lower-Mid: $25 million to $250 million
  • Upper-Mid: $250 million to $1 billion
  • Large: revenues over $1 billion

In years gone by all the different operating locations depicted in Figure 1 were likely to be left on their own to evaluate, select and implement a solution to run their operations. However, that scenario is quite rare today. The vast majority (90%) has established corporate standards for enterprise applications (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Have you established corporate standards for enterprise solutions?

Plex WDAY Fig 2Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

But this doesn’t necessarily mean a single solution runs the whole enterprise. Very often the ERP solution installed at corporate was selected for its ability to report and consolidate across multiple divisions. Very often these corporate accounting solutions (like Workday) don’t have the necessary functionality to run the operations of its divisions, especially if those divisions are manufacturing sites. In these cases, the standard solution for these manufacturing operations is a different solution – one like the Plex Manufacturing Cloud. Hence…

The Emergence of 2-tier ERP

In fact this 2-tier standard has become quite commonplace. Of those that have established corporate standards, less than half (47%) uses a single standard where all units, including corporate headquarters, use the same solution (Figure 3). At the same time, 31% have established a 2-tier standard and another 22% have a multi-tier standard. This latter category is most typical in a diversified corporation where you might see different types of businesses at the divisional level – you might have distribution warehouses or sales and service locations in addition to manufacturing sites.

Figure 3: Is this a single, two or multi-tier standard?

Plex WDAY Fig 3Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

It is this middle 31% that is targeted by the Plex Systems/Workday alliance, although it might work equally well in the multi-tier scenario. In fact if the non-manufacturing sites are sales and service operations, Workday itself might be the chosen standard for those divisions, eliminating the need for more than two different ERP solutions.

Plex Systems acknowledges that its solution is not the best for non-manufacturers. In fact Plex makes that point in its bold move to implement Workday for its own operations. The initial knee-jerk reaction might be, “What? They don’t sip their own champagne?” (An analogy I much prefer to eating one’s own dog food!) But while Plex knows and serves manufacturing very well, it isn’t a manufacturer. It makes software. While software companies that deliver on-premise solutions might burn CD’s, package them with documentation and ship a physical product to a customer, as a pure cloud provider, Plex sells software only as a service. The accounting for software, services and subscriptions is very different than accounting for shipping and delivering a physical product. But at the same time, this decision also underscores the fact that Plex is not afraid to make the right business decision in managing its own business.

But getting back to the 2-tier scenario, in the past we have seen solutions from SAP and Oracle dominate the corporate scene. Yet solutions like Workday, born in the cloud, are starting to chip away at the dominance of these two major players. And an alliance like this will only serve to accelerate this erosion. Very often a decision for SAP and Oracle might have been influenced by the efforts involved in integrating and rolling up financials from the distributed sites. While these have typically not been “out of the box” in the past, popular sentiment is that if you go with one of these “giants,” you will likely find systems integrators and other service partners who have done it before. That means they have a lot of experience with SAP and Oracle. You still pay for the connection, but you are at least dealing with a higher level of expertise.

With pre-packaged connectors, the need for this prior experience goes away and the expense of forging the connection drops dramatically.

Impact on Roadmap

So after hearing about this and other partnerships (with Salesforce and DemandCaster) the first question I posed to Plex was regarding the impact these might have on their own road maps. In terms of Workday, my specific concern was over enhancements planned to make its ERP more “global.”

Plex already has customers running the Plex Manufacturing Cloud from more than 20 countries, but it has let its customers essentially “pull” them into those countries and doesn’t necessarily support all the localizations and legislative regulations required in each… or all the complexities of growing multi-national companies. About a year ago Plex Enterprise Edition made its debut at PowerPlex 2014 along with an aggressive roadmap to support complex, global, multi-plant manufacturing organizations with multi-entity financial and supply chain management requirements.

In answer to my question, Plex has assured me none of these partnerships will result in taking planned innovation off the table. It will continue to invest in these globalization efforts. Similarly, other solutions such as DemandCaster will not prevent Plex from developing its own forecasting / demand and supply planning software. The alliance with Adaptive Insights will not prevent Plex from developing more robust financial planning and budgeting offerings. But I am thinking Plex doesn’t really need to compete against Salesforce for CRM.

 Conclusion

In the meantime and well into the future, Plex Connect should indeed make it easier for manufacturers to connect people, things and applications to the Plex Manufacturing Cloud. And in today’s connected, digital economy, isn’t that what it’s all about?

A Side Note: Is Workday ERP?

In the past I have posed the question about Workday: Is it ERP? Does it Matter? Many refer to Workday as ERP, but by my definition (an integrated suite of modules that provides the operational and transactional system of record of a business) an integrated finance and accounting solution that does not manage the “order” falls a bit short, But it does manage a contract, which for “talent intensive organizations” including software and Internet service companies like Plex) is equally, if not more important. Feel free to read my full analysis in the highlighted link above but for purposes of our discussion here in terms of 2-tier ERP, I am comfortable in referring to Workday as ERP.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Plex Systems Takes a Page From Manufacturer’s Play Book

CONTINUOUS INNOVATION DRIVES ERP DEEP ON SHOP FLOOR

Continuous improvement has long been the mantra for many manufacturers. Kaizen and other formal programs like Lean, Six Sigma, and Total Quality Management (TQM) have dominated the manufacturing scene for years. But what about the world of enterprise software for manufacturing? Not so much. Many of the solution providers that serve the manufacturing sector understand the concepts, but don’t apply them to software development. Sure, these software vendors innovate, but not in a continuum, especially when it comes to broad applications like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). Except for one: Plex Systems. Believe it or not, Plex can and often does deliver enhancements to its Plex Manufacturing Cloud on a daily basis. Too much, you think? Not at all; its customers love it!

Why Do Consumers of ERP Expect Less?

Many consumers of ERP are conflicted over innovation and upgrades. On the one hand, when functional gaps or missing features or cumbersome processes are detected, customers demand enhancements. On the other hand, we find manufacturers unwilling and unable to actually go through the upgrade process. So the whole process becomes a Catch 22.

If these enhancements are delivered through the normal upgrade cycle, customers can find themselves waiting a long time. Major upgrades to ERP are typically delivered once every 12 to 18 months, or sometimes over a longer cycle, partly by customer request. They simply can’t accept and consume upgrades any faster. But that doesn’t mean the typical ERP client waits “just” 12 to 18 months for a requested enhancement. If your enhancement request just misses the planning phase of the cycle, you might have to wait for another cycle before it is even considered, which means you might wait two to three years for it to be delivered. And even then, it might not make the cut.

But let’s say it does and your enhancement is delivered with a major upgrade within a year (or maybe two or three). Do you jump right on the release? If you are like most of the manufacturers participating in our annual Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study, the answer is, “probably not.” Only 14% of manufacturers tend to be early adopters of releases (Figure 1). About a third (34%) upgrade on a regular basis but not as early adopters. This means they will likely wait for those early adopters to shake out all the bugs and for the solution provider to smooth out all the rough edges. This might take three months? Six months? Another year?

Or you might be like the 31% that are likely to skip releases. You might not get too far behind, but if you skip a release, and upgrades happen every 12 to 18 months, you won’t experience any real innovation for at least two to three years.

Figure 1: Approach to Upgrades

Fig 1Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

Why? Largely because upgrades can be disruptive and costly. We asked our survey respondents to stack rank five individual factors in terms of the likelihood each will keep them from upgrading when a new release is available. We used a scale of 1 (least likely) to 5 (most likely). The results are shown in Table 1. As you can see, potential disruption to the business is at the top of the list, but the rankings are very close. Your typical manufacturer understands the cost and effort of a traditional upgrade and will be reluctant to spend the time and money without expecting a significant payback.

Table 1: Ranking of factors preventing upgrades

Table 1Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

 As a result, although software development is typically a continuous process, the results are not delivered continuously. Most solution providers create enhancements, bundle them up, test them out and issue major upgrades periodically, hence the traditional 12 to 18 month cycle, with just some bug fixes and/or minor releases in the interim.

Plex Customers Have Come to Expect More

While this type of upgrade cycle has been generally accepted and expected by those running traditional, on-premise solutions, Plex customers have come to expect more. Perhaps they were frustrated by delays, got impatient and dissatisfied and were seeking more from their software vendor. Or perhaps they chose Plex for other reasons. Either way, they soon became spoiled by the “Plex way” of innovating.

Of course any solution provider that offers its software exclusively as a multi-tenant SaaS solution has a distinct advantage of only having to maintain a single line of code. Solution providers that deliver on-premise solutions are forced to maintain multiple versions of the software. Very often the software is offered on a choice of platforms and databases, and the vendor must support multiple release levels determined by their customers’ ability to keep pace with upgrades. For every person-day they spend on innovation, they spend another multiple of that day making sure it works across various environments. The more choice they offer, the more permutations and the higher that multiple.

More and more we find vendors riding the cloud wave. They are taking on-premise solutions and moving them to the cloud and offering alternatives for deployment. Some of these moving to the cloud will be multi-tenant; others are single-tenant, delivering more of a hosting option. But even those that offer multi-tenancy will still be forced to maintain multiple versions and will be limited by their on-premise customers’ ability to keep pace with innovation. Only those that offer a multi-tenant SaaS solution exclusively can devote their entire development budget to innovation. That’s the real beauty of having (and maintaining) a single instance of the software, and nobody takes better advantage of that than Plex Systems.

The Plex Manufacturing Cloud is not the only ERP solution that is offered exclusively as multi-tenant SaaS, but it is one of a very few designed exclusively for manufacturers. And of these SaaS-only manufacturing ERP solutions, Plex’s is (by far) the most mature. But not all SaaS vendors take full advantage of the opportunity for continuous innovation. Some do offer more frequent updates and all relieve the customer of much of the burden of the upgrade process. But nobody else (that I know of) does it like Plex.

 Daily Updates – Responsibly

Plex can and often does update the solution every day. You heard (or read) that correctly: every day.

Of course Plex doesn’t pull the rug out from under its customers every day. The development team adds all new features in such a way that a customer must “opt in” to use them. Many of its customers evaluate these innovations on a periodic basis, much like a release cycle. But they are never faced with the “all or nothing” kind of scenario so common in upgrading on-premise software. If they know a valuable new feature is coming, they might jump right on it and not wait for that periodic review.

User Interface Refresh

Plex’s new, redesigned user interface (UI) is the perfect example of this. Plex is methodically updating every screen used by its users, including the navigation screens used to perform back office functions, as well as the control panels used on the shop floor. As each of these are completed, they are introduced into the live product, but the old screens and the old navigation methods are still there.

Of course Plex is only converting those functions its customers are actually using. Over time, newer and better features and functions may have replaced some of the screens, inquiries and transactions. Eventually people stop using the old functions and Plex can then get rid of them. In an on-premise environment, solution vendors have no visibility into what is actually being used and what is not used. So, once code is delivered, it tends to live on forever.

But because all customers are using a single instance of the software running in the Plex Manufacturing Cloud, Plex has full visibility into not only what is being used, but also how often it is used. While this might seem to be a bit big brother-ish to some, customers don’t seem to mind. And it puts Plex in the unique position of being able to eliminate code. In fact the development team recently deleted 30% of its existing source code. And as Jim Shepherd, Plex’s Vice President of Corporate Strategy noted, “If we couldn’t get rid of code, ours would get as big and unwieldy and ugly as everyone else’s.”

You know how good it feels when you finally clean off your desk at work, or clean out your closets at home. Think how good the software developers felt when they could clean out 30% of the code, making that much more room (figuratively) for all the new features, functions and innovation they continue to work on. And indeed the development team has been busy. Combine that with the fact that Plex perfected rapid application development processes more than a decade ago and you get a regular cadence of new features and new offerings.

Here’s an example of some of the areas they have been working on:

Investment in process manufacturing

In order to address the market sitting right outside its doors in nearby Detroit, Michigan, Plex got very good at addressing traceability. The strength of the traceability functions built for automotive discrete manufacturers have led Plex into a fair number of food and beverage and similar process-related industries. Further investment in lot management, lot attributes, lot tracing and unit of measure management will be made in 2015. That investment will also continue into the future with even more sophisticated unit of measure management, costing, yield management, recipes and pricing/promotion management, as well as further work on compliance and FDA validation.

Finite Scheduling

Plex has already released its Advanced Production (Finite) Scheduling modules, but work continues to bring attribute-based grouping (e.g. watch out for allergens!) and sequencing and sequence-dependent changeover time determination (better go from light to dark when applying coatings), and labor-driven capacity determination (knowing how many machines is not enough).

Plex Enterprise Edition

Plex Enterprise Edition is a suite of applications built to support complex, global, multi-plant manufacturing organizations with multi-entity financial and supply chain management requirements. It was first introduced at PowerPlex 2014, with finance and accounting capabilities (accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger and cash management). But work continues throughout 2015 on centralized sales and purchasing functionality, along with inventory work in progress. The team will then move on to enterprise manufacturing (engineering, scheduling, production) and enterprise asset management (fixed assets, treasury management and human resources).

Tech Gadgets and Automation

These are just a few examples of the types of feature/function development that has been underway at Plex. In addition, the team has also been busy experimenting with new technology. This team is led by the ultimate “gadget guys.” But this is not frivolous work. The team also “knows” manufacturing and is always in search of new ways to make manufacturers more efficient and productive. This means new ways of capturing data, automating processes and engaging with ERP both in the back office and on the shop floor. The shop floor was the prime focus of a very interesting demo the Plex team put together about a year ago, but has recently updated.

The demo a year ago was an interactive demonstration of a manufacturing process that took you from the receipt of material through to shipping of a finished product. It was, and still is, a good example of new and different ways of engaging with ERP. You see, we didn’t use a keyboard. But we did use scanners and sensors, a light curtain and yes, there was even a blue button that you might call the “easy button” that signaled an operation was complete. Never once did we go through a traditional menu structure. Each work center looked and felt a little different, and even the devices used for data capture varied, because the work being completed was different. This was a far cry from early days of ERP and confirmed my belief that the best user interface (UI) is really no UI at all.

And this year there were some new “wearables” on the (simulated) shoGoogle glassp floor, some of which were just being prototyped. Plex is participating in the new Google Glass @Work program including Google Glasses built into safety goggles. It is experimenting with smart watch and blue tooth technology and beacons that recognize when someone wearing these devices comes within range of a work center. The goal is to make smart watchdata capture as easy, automated and hands-free as possible.

Manufacturers are widely known for their pragmatism. Unlike some consumers today, they will not go out and buy the latest new gadgets just to look cool or simply because they can. These devices need to add real value Beaconand that is exactly what the Plex team is searching for in this experimental phase.

Not Slowing Down Anytime Soon

With a history that spans almost 20 years, and a product that has matured significantly, you might think innovation might be slowing down at Plex. Quite the contrary. The Plex development team has nearly doubled over the past couple of years. Even though it is already a complete manufacturing ERP solution, with particular depth in functionality in manufacturing execution (MES), there is still lots to do. Along with the wearable technology and the refreshed user experience, it is also working on a universal search capability, master production scheduling, advanced manufacturing intelligence, along with the additional process manufacturing, finite scheduling and multi-national, multi-location capabilities mentioned earlier. And much more.

As an industry analyst, it is my job to stay objective. But every once in awhile a company comes along that does something very unique. Plex’s combination of rapid application development, cloud delivery and commitment to customer satisfaction is the prefect trifecta for this uniqueness. And on top of that, Plex does it very well. Kudos to the Plex team for taking a page from the manufacturers they serve so well and delivering continuous innovation.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Think The Plex Manufacturing Cloud is Just for Small Companies? Think Again

Plex Enterprise Edition Makes its Debut at PowerPlex 2014

Recently at its annual PowerPlex conference, Plex Systems announced Plex Enterprise Edition, a suite of applications built to support complex, global, multiplant manufacturing organizations with multi-entity financial and supply chain management requirements. As always, Plex worked closely with its customers to define those requirements and has the first component of Plex Enterprise Edition — Financials — for centralized accounting and cash management ready to deliver the end of this month. Many of its competitors (and even some industry analysts) write Plex off as a non-threat except perhaps in small companies. Big mistake! Even without the multi-entity capabilities announced this week, Plex has been providing continuous innovation and steadily expanding the range in size of companies that are attracted to its Plex Manufacturing Cloud solution.

Clearing Up Some Misperceptions

Why do competitors assume Plex is just for small companies? One reason is the fact that Plex has exclusively offered its solution as Software as a Service (SaaS) since 2001, long before the cloud became popular. And many also wrongly assume SaaS ERP is only for small companies. Yet the Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study found the willingness to consider SaaS as a deployment option for ERP only grows with company size (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Willingness to Consider SaaS Grows with Company Size

Plex Fig 1Source: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

NOTE: Mint Jutras believes these percentages may be understated. We ask participants to select all deployment options they would consider if they were to purchase a solution today. “Hosted by your ERP vendor” is often confused with SaaS. Percentages of participants considering that option were similar to those shown in Figure 1 above.

Why Might That Be?

As companies grow, they become more distributed. Most companies, both large and small trade internationally and our ERP Study found 66% of manufacturers operate across multiple locations and the number of sites grows along with annual revenues (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Distributed Environments

Plex Fig 2Source: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

Defining Corporate Standards

In the past it was very likely that these different operating locations would have been left on their own to find and select a solution to meet their local needs for manufacturing. However, more and more companies are defining standards for enterprise applications. Companies have been talking about this kind of consolidation of solutions for years, but now it is really happening and World Class ERP implementations are most likely to have defined and executed a strategy that includes a standard ERP solution (Figure 3). What better way to control and enforce these standards than implementing a SaaS-based solution throughout the enterprise?

Figure 3: Have you defined corporate standards?

Plex Fig 3Source: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

Of course not all standards involve just a single ERP. In some cases we see two (or more) tier standards where one ERP solution is implemented at corporate headquarters and a different standard (or standards) is defined for the operating locations. This is most evident in manufacturing companies where the corporate solution is strong in financials, consolidation and reporting, but perhaps lacks the features and functions required to manage manufacturing processes. The operating locations require these manufacturing functions and also balk at the complexity often imposed by these corporate financials.

With a two-tier approach, a single ERP is also selected for the manufacturing facilities, in addition to an ERP for consolidated financials at corporate headquarters. In a multi-tier environment, often we see different types of operating locations (for example, distribution versus manufacturing, or significantly different styles and methods of manufacturing) requiring multiple standards (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Single, Two or Multi-tier Standard?

Plex Fig 4Source: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

While almost half of others with multiple operating locations choose this multi-tier approach, not so with Plex customers. A full 93% have decided on Plex and expect the solution to be their only solution. So it is not surprising that customers have collaborated with Plex to fulfill this need.

Of course, if a company has grown through acquisition, or the enterprise is extremely diversified or simply a holding company, there is an increased likelihood of multiple ERP solutions. But many view a single standard almost as a no-brainer when it comes to expansion in pursuit of green field opportunities. Many Plex customers have grown like this, leading Plex into parts of the world where it might not have previously ventured.

Case in Point: Shape Corporation

One such Plex customer is Shape Corporation, North America’s top manufacturer of automotive bumpers. Shape also manufactures impact energy management systems and performs advanced custom roll-forming for furniture, agricultural, recreation and health care industries.

While based in Michigan, Shape also has locations around the world, including China, Japan, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Germany, Korea and other locations within the United States. “All are running the same Plex system. Our users in China run on the same system as our users in Mexico, our subcontractors in Alabama, and everyone on the shop floor in our Michigan facilities. All our expansion is into new green field territory. We can have the Plex system up and running in a new location in a matter of weeks,” said Molly Hunting, Director of Information Technology

As Shape grew back in the 1980s and 1990s, it had acquired and implemented separate stand-alone systems, upgrading and linking them as needed. Maintenance became cumbersome and resource-intensive, inspiring the company to seek a single solution: the Plex Manufacturing Cloud.

The Plex solution replaced several separate systems for preventive maintenance, production, gages, problem controls, reporting, and more. While the solutions it replaced were not able to communicate with each other, all Plex functions are completely integrated.

The Plex Manufacturing Cloud now manages all core shop-floor functions for Shape, including bills of material, purchasing, receiving, inventory, manufacturing, basic quality, planning and scheduling, shipping, key measures, EDI, engineering change tracking, subcontracting, financials, and document control. Shape also implemented Plex’s advanced human resources, quoting, maintenance, advanced quality, and program management functions. “We probably use as much, if not more of the Plex solution than any other customer today,” according to Ms. Hunting.

The Desire for a Complete and Comprehensive Solution

This also is indicative of another consistency across the Plex customer base: the preference for and the implementation of a broad and comprehensive solution. While the majority of all manufacturers surveyed (92%) prefer an end-to-end integrated solution, the larger portion of that majority is cautious about sacrificing functional requirements for ease of integration or the luxury of dealing with a single vendor (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Preferences for a Suite?

Plex Fig 5Source: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

Only 26% have an overriding preference for a complete, fully integrated end-to-end solution supported by a single vendor. But that percentage more than doubles (to 53%) across the Plex customers we surveyed. Clearly these customers are drawn to the Plex Manufacturing Cloud, at least in part, by the breadth of the solution, shattering another misperception that customers only run shop floor-centric processes or an otherwise incomplete solution from Plex Systems.

Ms. Hunting acknowledged only one weakness in the past: support for multi-entity finance and supply chain operations. Tax and regulatory compliance requirements force companies like Shape into a multi-entity environment as soon as they set up shop in a foreign land. So while Shape’s preference is to have a single solution and solution provider, for now, it is using a solution from an independent software provider to manage the consolidation and financial reporting requirements.

But this type of solution has its drawbacks when it comes to managing the supply chain issues. Any movement of goods between multiple entities and any joint sales opportunities between these locations create not only financial requirements, but also supply chain issues. While operationally movement of inventory is a simple transfer, in fact behind the scenes it must be treated as a purchase of one entity and a sale to another. And that’s the easy part. What happens when multiple operating locations sell to a common customer, who of course, wants to take advantage of corporate discounts based on total volume? And what about your own purchasing? Do you have master purchase agreements that need to be managed across sites and across legal entities?

And all the while each of these separate legal entities needs to be managed as its own business, probably with its own language, localizations, tax and regulatory reporting, global labeling and printing. It doesn’t take long before you realize just how complicated your business has become. The typical Plex customer does not want to add to the burden of that complexity by adding new “add-on” software products or, even worse, different ERP solutions.

This is exactly why Plex worked closely with several of its customers that are large manufacturing organizations, to design and develop applications to support the complexities of multisite, global manufacturing operations. Inteva Products was one of these customers actively engaged in the design and development of the new Enterprise Edition.

Customers Help Define the Problem: Inteva Products

Inteva is a global tier-one automotive supplier with 14 manufacturing locations and two joint ventures covering three continents, six countries and four U.S. states. While many of Plex’s customers grew into larger multisite manufacturing organizations over time, as a former division of Delphi Corp., Inteva was an instant multisite, global enterprise with multiple entities and all the associated challenges. Needing to get off its former parent’s systems within 12 months and being tasked to reduce IT costs from 2% of revenue to less than 1%, Inteva chose the Plex Manufacturing Cloud and never looked back.

Plex met Inteva’s tight time frame for implementation and migrated all sites from Delphi’s systems to Plex in less than 12 months. Germany was first, followed by one in Mexico, then two manufacturing facilities in Alabama three months later. The remaining launches were completed three months afterwards at all of Inteva’s remaining locations in Mexico, Europe, and the United States. As a result, it certainly had the experience to bring to the design table to help Plex.

“Plex enables us to run more than 30 manufacturing facilities around the world, all on a single cloud platform,” said Dennis Hodges, chief information officer of Inteva. “Just as important, the Plex Manufacturing Cloud gives Inteva access to continuous innovation, so my team can take advantage of new opportunities to drive our business forward, whether that means deploying Plex in a new facility or enabling new functionality. Plex makes enterprise software a business decision rather than an IT decision, and that’s transformed how we run our operation.”

Sharp Corporation will be looking more closely at the phased delivery of Plex Enterprise Edition, but will continue to operate with its third party solution until more of the required pieces are in place.

 A Phased Delivery Planned

The first phase of delivery is Plex Enterprise Financials, available now. It includes centralized accounting and corporate cash management.

Centralized accounting includes

  • Entity relationship management, which may be hierarchical across a group and may include due to and due from accounts
  • General ledger chart of account management, with full chart segment replication
  • General ledger journals with inter-entity journal accounting
  • Transaction level drill down from consolidated financial statements

Corporate cash management delivers:

  • Consolidated cash disbursements, including accounts payable invoices for multiple entities
  • Consolidated cash collections, including invoices for multiple entities
  • Consolidated bank reconciliation with the option of a single bank account representing multiple entities

Plex Enterprise Supply Chain, scheduled for the second half of 2014, includes:

  • Sales Order Management, which enables central administration of customer sales orders and billing, allowing any facility in the organization to fulfill orders
  • Purchasing, which similarly provides for a single, central operating unit to order goods and services on behalf of any business entity and manage purchase orders executed by any unit across the group.

Both centralized sales order management and purchasing also support automated inter-entity billing as part of the distributed order fulfillment process.

Plex Enterprise Edition also enable provides consolidated visibility and insight across the entire business, as well as deep-dive analysis of specific plants and products — all through Plex’s embedded business intelligence.

Summary and Key Takeaways

This is a massive undertaking by Plex. It is not short-circuiting the process or shrinking from the complexities of this global world by any means. It “gets’ multi-entity financial and supply chain issues. It is working directly with customers to define real needs for real manufacturers. Those needs are complex, and impact multiple facets of a manufacturer’s business.

Those unfamiliar with Plex’s rapid application development capabilities might think the company is getting out of the gate too late to make a big impact in the world of complex, global, multi-plant manufacturing organizations with multi-entity financial and supply chain management requirements. But Plex has already carried many of its customers through growth phases. Its engaged customers and its aspirations to play on a bigger stage will help them continue that momentum.

In addition, Plex Systems is not your average software developer. It has mastered the art and science of delivering continuous innovation. Not only does it “do” rapid application development, and do it well, but also Plex has a distinct advantage over those that do not deliver a multi-tenant solution deployed exclusively as SaaS. Plex only needs to maintain one single set of code. It is not juggling multiple versions, running on different operating systems, different platforms, or even different databases. So it only has to develop innovations once and it is done. This too is a huge advantage.

Plex Systems also knows how to make money in a SaaS-based business. This is important for customers and prospects alike. Nobody wants to do business with a company that is living hand to mouth, nor does talent want to work there. Plex has been one of only a few SaaS-only companies that can claim this. While it has been self-funded in the past, investment firms Francisco Partners and Accel Partners have infused it with new capital and it has made more progress. Now more recently T. Rowe Price and another round from Accel Partners has resulted in a new infusion of $50 million.

Competitors say they don’t see Plex in deals. Look for this new round of funding to allow them to put far more feet on the street, both direct sales as well as channels. When that happens, look out! When they get invited to the party, they are typically a big hit. Look for that to happen more and more. Competitors that might be tempted to write them off: Be warned. Do so at your own risk.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

ERP with an Easy Button? Plex Systems Says “Yes!”

Last year I got on a Star Trek kick, writing a lot about next generation ERP. In case by some small chance you missed it, you can catch up on the 4-part series here. But if you didn’t (miss it) you might recall one of the four ways to distinguish an ERP as “next generation” was to provide new ways of engaging with ERP. The consumerization of IT and the introduction into the workforce of a new generation that never knew life before the Internet have combined to make stumbling through hierarchical menus unacceptable as the sole means of engaging with ERP.

Plex Systems has really taken this element of next generation ERP to heart, blending a deep understanding of manufacturing with an intimate relationship with its customers to deliver new ways of engaging with the Plex Manufacturing Cloud (ERP). While Plex doesn’t have the largest installed base (it has about 400 customers), I have never encountered a more engaged community. This level of engagement is a direct result of its unique approach to product development, which delivers more of what customers want, exactly the way they want it. So is it any surprise more employees are directly engaged with the product when running Plex?

Our 2014 ERP Solution Study found on average 52% of employees in manufacturing companies use ERP, not including those that only have occasional access through self service functions like paid time off requests, benefit administration, purchase requisition, etc. Overall this percentage isn’t bad, and represents significant progress over the past few years. Yet the average percentage of employees using ERP increases to 63% at companies running any ERP solution deployed as software as a service (SaaS). I believe this is directly linked to the access any time, anywhere nature of SaaS. But this percentage jumps to a whopping 76% at companies running the Plex Manufacturing Cloud. Very impressive and a clear indication that Plex has cracked the code, so to speak, in terms of providing new ways to engage with ERP.

This week I had the opportunity to experience this first hand. Along with Frank Scavo (@fscavo), Dennis Howlett (@dahowlett) and Vinnie Mirchandani (@dealarchitect), I spent a day with the Plex executives in their offices in Troy, MI. We were privileged to get a preview of some of the projects they are working on to be showcased in June at PowerPlex, and I think customers will be pleased. But a highlight of the day was an interactive demo of a manufacturing process that took us from the receipt of material through to shipping of a finished product. This was particularly interesting to me for a number of reasons:

  1. I “grew up” (professionally) in manufacturing, so for me, it was like going home.
  2. I used to do demos for a living. I spent about 10 years in pre-sales from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s. Although it was quite a long time ago, I still remember what is involved. Back in the day, before the Internet, before web-based access, before solutions were as robust and flexible as they are today, my best demos were the ones where my hands hardly touched the keyboard. I got very, very good at talking a prospect through a process. This was nothing like that. Although there wasn’t even a keyboard in sight.
  3. I got to actually participate … And yet, while I never touched a keyboard, that doesn’t mean I didn’t touch, feel or see the software in action.

No, we didn’t use a keyboard. But we did use scanners and sensors, and yes, there was even a blue button that you might call the “easy button.” Plex had a badge for each of us as employees of a fictitious company called Edge. We scanned our badges to “clock in” and were assigned to work centers and tasked to go make key fobs like the ones we all carry to open our car doors.

We received material (resin) by scanning the label attached by the vendor and we produced a label to attach to the bin where we were directed to put it. We then scanned it again to send it to be injection molded. OK, this part wasn’t really “real.” But when Dennis arrived at the work center the system told him he wasn’t qualified to work there. And the light curtain seemed real enough when it dinged Vinnie for scooping out several molded parts instead of one at a time. Those molded parts were then delivered to the next work center where Frank struggled with some decidedly low-tech assembly and I excelled. (What does that say about me?) And when we had collectively assembled all the parts, the Plex supervisor (aka demo guy) pressed a blue button to signal all were complete and a shipping label was automatically printed. Someone from the group then hit the button again but that just printed a label telling us we couldn’t possibly have made more because no more components had arrived to be assembled.

The demo concluded with the shipment of product and some back office investigation of potentially contaminated material.  This involved some backward and forward lot traceability, which the Plex Manufacturing Cloud handles quite well in terms of requirements of the automotive industry and some other sectors. But look for this aspect of the product to be significantly enhanced in the future.

Also look for Plex’s approach to corporate and product strategy to evolve. Some of the changes will be subtle, some not so much. Plex has been quite well known among its close followers as a company that has uniquely leveraged customer-driven development. This has been unique in two ways. First, the lion’s share of innovation came from customer-driven enhancements and customer-driven also means customer funded. So a customer would pay Plex Systems to enhance the product and other customers would benefit. This was a smart move for an early-stage ERP company in “boot strap” mode.

The second point of differentiation comes from the speed of development. Plex first started delivering ERP in a SaaS model in 2001, not because the company wanted to be a pioneer in SaaS, but because it was already a pioneer in rapid application development (RAD). A SaaS model was simply the only way it could deliver product as quickly as it could develop it. Back a few years ago, as the development team was demonstrating a new feature they were developing for a large customer, I was struck with a rather unique thought. In the time it would have taken your typical development team to tell you why they couldn’t do this, the Plex team had delivered the proto-type.

While this approach has served the company well, it does limit growth potential outside of the markets in which it is already successful. Letting customers guide product direction has many benefits, including an engaged installed base, and a more robust solution to meet the needs of its target market. But significant growth will likely require Plex to expand its target markets. To really grow significantly, Plex will have to take the reins and determine for itself where it needs to take the product. That means less customer-directed enhancements and more Plex-directed (and funded) innovation.

Now is definitely the time for Plex to make this next step. The product has reached a level of maturity that makes it very competitive in manufacturing, which is where Plex intends to stay. So for the markets where it already plays, there are fewer, if any gaps to fill. And with its acquisition by global private equity firm Francisco Partners in June 2012, followed by a $30 million strategic investment by global venture capital and growth equity firm Accel Partners, there is certainly less need to boot strap. But the expectations for growth have also been amplified and accelerated, and there has been a changing of the guard to reflect this. CEO Jason Blessing has spent the past year assembling a strong management team.

But in a category where the market leaders have tens of thousands of customers, Plex has a long way to go before it can claim the mind share it needs to be recognized as a leader. It has taken its first steps in that journey with a well-defined corporate strategy, supported by a strong technology and product road maps. But it also needs to increase its brand awareness and its marketing presence. If you have been following me over the past several years you have probably already heard of Plex. But obviously, a lot of folks haven’t and many of its competitors underestimate the company and the solution, assuming it can’t compete.

Well, you know what they say about people that assume.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

What’s New in the Annual Mint Jutras ERP Survey

I am excited to be preparing to launch my annual 2014 ERP survey. This will be my 8th and I’ve learned a lot through the years about how to ask the questions and how to best analyze the results. Since founding Mint Jutras in 2011 I have gradually shifted the timing of the survey, so that now (and in the future) it will be launched early in January, and I will use and reference the data throughout the year. As most of you know, I collect a massive amount of data. I try to be consistent with many of the questions from one survey to the next in order to make legitimate year over year comparisons, watching prior trends and spotting new ones. But each year I remove some questions that didn’t produce much insight (that’s how I learn) or that really don’t change much in one year. I do that to make room for something new.

It will be interesting to continue to watch trends, particularly around:

  • Buying cycles: Last year the percentage planning to purchase a new ERP within the next three years more than doubled from 24% to 47%, with another 15% undecided.
  • Deployment preferences: In the 18 months between the 2011 and 2013 surveys, the percentage of companies that would consider a traditional on-premise deployment dropped from 56% to 27%. Preference for both SaaS and hosted models increased.
  • ERP is reaching more users: On average 50% of employees actually use ERP today, including more executives. All executives have access to and regularly use ERP in 47% of companies, a far cry from just a few short years ago. We suspect the growing use of mobile devices has been and will continue to be a game-changer here.
  • Results measured since deploying ERP rose considerably with improvement percentages rising from the 5-7% range to double digits. These are improvements like cost reductions and improvements in on-time delivery, customer retention and inventory accuracy. “World Class” ERP implementations produced results in the 20-24% range. Was this an aberration last year or is new technology fostering better results?

What’s New This Year?

But what I am even more excited about is our new approach to capturing information about how the full spectrum of business applications, with ERP at the core, are implemented. Back when I started benchmarking ERP in 2006, I set out to quantify its usage. My first five annual surveys were done while I was at the Aberdeen Group where I came up with a formula for determining the percentage of ERP that was actually used. When I founded Mint Jutras I used what I had learned in those five years and modified that formula in order to get what I felt was a much more accurate result. But after eight years of this type of measurement, not only has this become old news, it is also harder to get an accurate read.

As I have been saying for several years now, the footprint of ERP has grown to the extent that it is becoming more and more difficult to determine where ERP ends and other applications begin. That is not only the case when covering, writing and talking about ERP, particularly as integration capabilities have improved, but for users as well. In prior blog posts this year I have discussed the relative advantages and disadvantages of “tightly integrated” versus “loosely coupled” applications. But this distinction is not intuitively obvious to the typical ERP user that takes our survey, particularly since typically less than 40% of respondents are in IT. Most are business users and may not have intimate knowledge of the purchase or the architecture of the product itself. They simply use ERP to run their businesses. And of course, that is primarily what we benchmark.

Modules versus Extensions: No longer the right question

In prior surveys I distinguished between ERP “modules” and “extensions” to ERP – those separate applications that might surround and complement it. I asked which modules were implemented (fully or partially) and then asked (separately) which additional applications were implemented. But as the footprint of ERP has grown, the overlap between these two lists also grew. While having both for any particular function might happen occasionally (e.g. a manufacturer might use supply chain planning functions of their ERP and also complement that with a separate “best of breed” solution), it would be the exception and not the norm. And yet, the number of instances where survey responses indicated they had both a module and an extension for the same function began to grow, casting a shadow of doubt on the validity of the responses. That told me it was getting too hard for the survey participants to answer the questions.

So this year I am changing it up with a different purpose in mind. This year, we will

  • Determine current state of implementations with a single list of functions, including traditional core functions of ERP (e.g. general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, inventory control, order management, purchasing, etc.) and more advanced or “edge” functions (e.g. warehouse management, cash flow planning, BI and analytics, employee expense reporting, supplier collaboration, etc.) that might be a module or a separate application. The survey respondent will indicate whether it is (perceived as) part of ERP or not and, if separate, the level of integration.
  • Ask “what if?” Maybe this current state came about because of limited functionality and technology at the time of purchase. If the respondent were making the same decisions today, how would they go about it?
  • Ask “What next?” Given the state of their current implementation, what are most likely next steps? Add new components? Trade it all in for newer technology? Replace certain embedded functions? Eliminate separate applications now that ERP does more?
  • Have them choose up to five areas they are most likely to invest in next.

While this will tell us a lot, we’ll also drill a little deeper into plans for two areas, which happen to be among the hottest categories on the market today:

  • Human Capital Management (is it a fluke the big ERP vendors are buying these applications?)
  • Business Intelligence and Analytics (Is it time to take these tools out of the hands of IT and put them in the hands of the business user?)

We have also added a couple “Mobility” questions, along with one that will determine just how “usable” ERP data is.

If you are an ERP user, look for a link to the survey in the beginning of the year. We welcome your response.

If you are an ERP solution provider and think

  • The data we collect will be useful to you in making product roadmap or go-to-market decisions
  • Mint Jutras might be able to develop some good educational content for you with our distinctive “call to action”
  • You might like to benchmark your customers against our World Class

Please shoot me a message or contact Lisa Lincoln (lisa@mintjutras.com)

Lisa and I both wish everyone health and prosperity in the coming year!

Best Independent ERP Blog

Best Independent ERP Blog

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What’s Different About Plex Systems?

 

Reflections From PowerPlex 2013

I’ve just returned from Plex Systems’ 12th Annual PowerPlex Conference. While in beautiful downtown Columbus, Ohio, I spoke with Plex execs and staff, customers and other industry analysts. At the conference, Plex introduced its new CEO, and made several announcements including:

  • New analytics capabilities that add real-time visibility into profitability
  • A brand new website to support “The Plex Community,” a virtual, collaborative ecosystem that allows Plex employees, partners and customers to contribute to addressing issues, solving problems and sharing best practices
  • The rollout of a new education services program that includes classroom training and live online instruction and Plex TV, which will offer courses so customers can learn at their own pace
  • Introduction of the next generation Plex Manufacturing Cloud user interface, which features an intuitive look and feel for an optimized customer experience

This is all great stuff, but throughout the event, first and foremost I was struck by how different this company is. I’ve been in this business almost 40 years and while others might share some of the characteristics, I have yet to find another quite like it. So what’s different? In short, it is its culture of engagement and sharing. The conference theme was “Get Connected,” which was appropriate but nothing new at Plex.

This culture of sharing has deep roots that reach back to when and why Plex first became a “SaaS only” company in 2001. It wasn’t because SaaS and cloud were the hottest topics back then. It wasn’t because the company wanted to be on the bleeding edge of new deployment options. It was because the founders had developed technology and processes to rapidly develop applications and SaaS was the only way they could deliver software as fast as they could develop it. They wanted to share new functionality and new technology as it was developed, not 12 to 18 months later, when the next release was scheduled. As a result, early on, customers didn’t buy the Plex Cloud because it was SaaS. They bought it because of the broad and deep functionality, in spite of the fact that it was deployed and delivered through the cloud.

So the frequency of updates is obviously one way Plex is unique. The company could be updating the software as often as every day. Does that mean the system appears to the user to be in a constant state of flux? Of course not. Most users don’t see anything different from day to day. All innovation is delivered in what Plex likes to call “opt-in” enhancements. You have to make a conscious decision to turn them on.

This spirit of sharing also created very close relationships between Plex and its customers. Of course back in 2001, ERP systems were not as full-featured as today and this naturally led to gaps. When you have a development team excited about new rapid application development tools and anxious to please customers, those gaps get filled quickly. Unlike most providers of multi-tenant SaaS solutions, Plex willingly “customized” the software. But the enhanced software wasn’t custom for long (if at all). Plex always incorporated these enhancements into the product. Remember, because the Plex Cloud is a multi-tenant SaaS solution, every single customer runs the exact same software. It just might not look or behave identically from customer to customer because of those “opt-in” enhancements.

As a result, the lion’s share of innovation came from customer-driven enhancements. In the world of the Plex Cloud, customer-driven also means customer funded. So a customer would pay Plex Systems to enhance the product and other customers would benefit. In other cultures this does not happen, at least not consistently. The typical way of thinking is, “I paid for it and it’s mine and only mine.” In the land of Plex, customers simply view this as making a contribution to the community. And they expect others to do the same. Each gives a little, and everyone gets a lot. When everyone is running the same software, literally, not figuratively, it creates a unique sense of community, one of being “all in” together.

In other ERP “cultures,” particularly those that grew up around traditional on-premise solutions, if an enhancement is put in the standard product, customers expect to get it for free, figuring they are already paying for it with their maintenance dollars. The mindset of a Plex customer is different. The customer has already chosen the Plex Cloud as the system of choice, which means that customer is willing to fork over the cash to subscribe to the software. But it is also willing to pay to make it just that much closer a fit. Of course having to pay also keeps customers from asking for something that doesn’t really add value. So there are built in checks and balances.

This is part of the “cloud DNA” that other companies that are new to SaaS are seeking, largely through acquisition. SAP admitted openly that the acquisition of SuccessFactors was more about acquiring the company’s “cloud DNA” than it was about expanding its human capital management (HCM) offering. I suspect Oracle was attracted to Taleo for much the same reason, although it failed to embrace that DNA and Taleo customer satisfaction was rumored to have plummeted.

Of course there is more to cloud DNA than customer community. There is also the struggle to get employees, particularly sales people, to buy in. When a sales person is accustomed to getting that big commission up front from initial software licenses associated with on-premises solutions, it is hard to get them to make the shift. Cloud DNA requires a new way of thinking. But that’s the natural way of thinking at Plex.

At Plex, nobody takes a customer for granted. They can’t afford to. All contracts are signed for one year. Admittedly, it isn’t easy for a customer to walk away from an ERP system, but if a contract has to be renegotiated every year, the smart service provider will do whatever it can during the year to make sure the renewal goes smoothly. Pricing, combined with this “year at a time” approach is also unique at Plex Systems.

Most ERP vendors price their software on a per user basis. Plex negotiates a fixed price for the enterprise, each year. Of course this is based on usage, which is closely related to number of users, but even if usage expands more than predicted during the course of the year, the price remains fixed until renewal time. When paying strictly on a per user basis, as usage grows with the adoption of a new module or the addition of new employees, companies are tempted to pull back so as not to incur additional cost, limiting usage and (in turn) limiting value.

Plex operates on the assumption that the more the ERP is used, the more value will be derived. Therefore it encourages companies to continue to grow and expand. Of course if usage has simply been allowed to expand with no added value, the customer has a chance to reconsider and scale back as part of the renewal process. This seems to be working. Our 2013 Mint Jutras ERP Solution study finds about 50% of employees at manufacturing companies use the ERP system, but that percentage grows to 73% at companies using the Plex Cloud. And I heard more than one conversation between customers indicating PowerPlex had energized them to do even more with the system.

Those Plex customers also help to make the company different. At conferences like PowerPlex, if you listen carefully in sessions or over lunch, you often detect an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. Customers come primarily to “network” with other customers and sometimes “networking” means hanging out, venting and complaining. Not only did I not hear this kind of muttering, I didn’t even see a lot of “hanging out.” When sessions were underway the hallways were empty except for a few Plex employees guarding the doors of those rooms that were already stuffed to capacity with eager and engaged Plex customers.

Many of these differentiators can be attributed to Plex being run as a small company. Yet with the infusion of capital from new investors (Francisco Partners and Accel Partners), a new CEO, to be followed by a new CMO and VP of Sales, I don’t expect Plex to stay small much longer. While it has grown quite steadily over the past decade, I also expect future growth to be both accelerated and more focused and planned. Growth means change. Can the company preserve this culture of sharing and engagement as it grows in this way?

Letting customers guide product direction has many benefits, including an engaged installed base, and a more robust solution to meet the needs of its target market. But significant growth will likely require Plex to expand its target markets. In the beginning, Michigan-based Plex focused exclusively on the automotive market. It then saw similarities in the requirements of automotive to those of aerospace and defense, and then food and beverage (think traceability). It leveraged its strengths and used customer-driven enhancements to push deeper into those markets. But to really grow significantly, Plex will have to take the reins and determine for itself where it needs to take the product. That means less customer-directed enhancements and more Plex-directed (and funded) innovation. Will that change the culture?

Although only time will tell, I don’t believe that it will. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some change. First of all, I expect to see less customization required. Plex will likely be more selective than it has in the past in taking on major customization efforts. This is partly because of the maturity of the product. There are just that many fewer gaps in functionality today. Significant gaps means the product isn’t a good fit for the prospect and Plex seems willing to walk away from that business. Furthermore, the ability to custom-configure the product without programming has advanced significantly, particularly with its VisionPlex (for customizing look and feel) and IntelliPlex (business intelligence) products.

To help make this transition, Plex has assured customers that customer-driven enhancements are not going away entirely. It has empowered both customers and partners with an SDK (software development kit) and made it easier for both to create their own enhancements. How does this work in a multi-tenant environment? Think of it as developing the enhancement in a separate compartment and registering the change with Plex.

But more importantly, it is also publishing its own road map, which shows active and planned projects, as well as those that are under consideration. Industry veteran Jim Shepherd, VP of Product Strategy, and his team own these roadmaps and will be updating them periodically and sharing them through the new Plex Community portal (also announced at the conference). This will allow customers to keep tabs on what other customers are requesting and is an important element in keeping the customers engaged while Plex holds a tighter rein on directing the product’s future.

The other announcements made at the conference, beyond this new community portal, are all important in helping Plex Systems scale its business without losing sight of trends in the market such as mobilization, the consumerization of IT, the demand for more and better data for decision-making and increased executive engagement with ERP.  But most importantly, they help Plex Systems to preserve its differentiation and its culture of engagement and sharing through this transition of high growth. It’s really about Plex being Plex.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Plex Systems gets a new CEO

I had a chance to talk to Jason Blessing, Plex System’s new CEO yesterday. I’ve worked with Plex and its former CEO Mark Symonds now for almost seven years, and have always enjoyed my interaction. Plex has come a long way through that stretch. Back in 2006, Mark was almost a one-man show. Not only did he drive product and company strategy, sales and development, but he was their chief evangelist as well. Today there is far more depth to the organization and it is also backed by two investors: Francisco Partners and Accel Partners. It is quite a tribute to Mark that he hands over a company that is poised for what could very well be explosive growth.

Jason comes to Plex after a short stint at Oracle, where he was senior vice president of application development after the acquisition of Taleo where he held a variety of executive roles. For those not familiar with Taleo, it has been a pioneer in cloud-based talent management solutions. So he certainly has the cloud credentials. But someone like me, who has grown up (professionally) in the world of ERP and manufacturing, but has also been involved with human capital management  (HCM) applications, including talent management, knows full well the difference in scope between ERP and HCM, particularly when it is ERP for manufacturing.

While those specializing only in HCM hate it when I say it, HCM is pretty intuitive. Everyone that has ever managed people understands the requirements for talent and workforce management. Anyone that has recruited talent knows what recruiting is about. We’re all human “resources” so we know about human resource data, benefits and compensation. But manufacturing is anything but intuitive. And the scope of ERP (and its role in managing the business) dwarfs that of HCM. And Plex isn’t the first ERP vendor to bring a former HCM executive in and put him in charge of something much bigger than HCM.

So Jason might have felt a little like he was on the hot seat yesterday when we spoke. And he will probably be a bit relieved to hear that what I heard yesterday was encouraging. While a lot of his background has been in HCM, including both Taleo and previously Peoplesoft, I learned he also worked as a management consultant for Price Waterhouse. And I also heard him acknowledge what he didn’t know about ERP and manufacturing, but that he was confident because the original founder of the company was still involved and he also had some great depth of expertise in the company, including Jim Shepherd, his VP of Strategy. Shep and I go back almost 30 years when we both worked for ASK Computer Systems, and our paths would cross more recently when he was an analyst with AMR, which was later acquired by Gartner. It was reassuring to hear that Jason understands the value of having someone with Shep’s depth of knowledge and vision for manufacturing.

Plex has enjoyed consistent growth over the past few years and even before the investment by Francisco partners had been self-sustaining. This is an incredible achievement in the world of SaaS solution providers, when many others far larger than Plex are still struggling to show a profit. It has one of the most active and engaged installed bases of customers in the industry. This is partly because of the close relationship between its customers and its product direction. For many years, the development organization was primarily driven by specific customer requested enhancements. Plex’s adoption of rapid application development methodologies allowed them to respond quickly and efficiently and deliver against these requests even with a multi-tenant solution.

But in order for Plex to take that next jump and grow globally into new markets, it will have to mix that strategy with more traditional product strategies to take it someplace where its existing customers won’t. Jason seems to understand this. His limited expertise in ERP and manufacturing won’t be what takes them there, but listening to his staff and using invested capital wisely very well could.

Its competitors have always underestimated Plex Systems. A word of caution to those competitors… watch out!

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Accel Partners Invests $30 Million in Plex Systems

Earlier this week Plex Systems announced global venture capital and growth equity firm Accel Partners has made a $30 million strategic investment in the company. As part of the financing, Accel Partners will gain a seat on its board of directors, where Francisco Partners, which acquired Plex Systems earlier this year, already holds three seats.  Accel Partners has invested in some pretty high profile companies, including Facebook, Kayak, Qlik Technologies, Dropbox, Walmart.com and Cloudera. According to Sameer Gandhi, a partner with Accel Partners and newly appointed Plex Systems board member,  “Accel’s investment philosophy is to invest in companies that have the greatest potential for success due to their market position, disruptive technology and prospects for future growth. Plex Systems represents an opportunity to help move a highly complex and diverse industry – manufacturing – to the next computing platform, based in the cloud.  We believe the manufacturing ERP market represents at least a $5 billion opportunity, and that less than 10 percent of the market has transitioned to SaaS so far.”

While I don’t get involved in market sizing, the $5 billion opportunity sounds reasonable and my research indicates the percentage of manufacturers that have transitioned to SaaS ERP in particular is somewhere around 6%.  However that doesn’t mean manufacturers haven’t made any investment in SaaS solutions, or that they won’t in the future. Based on a recent survey of 300 companies, 50% of which were manufacturers, only 21% of manufacturers have no business applications deployed as SaaS. Obviously that means 79% do. While many think manufacturers lag behind in terms of embracing SaaS, my survey found them more knowledgeable and more willing to move solutions to SaaS than those in other industries.

Why is that? Because manufacturers are generally pragmatic. Walk around a typical manufacturing facility today and you see plenty of automation. Sometimes you see more automated equipment than people. But manufacturers would much prefer to spend their technology budgets on equipment and technology that will produce more products. Business applications might make them more efficient but they don’t produce parts and product.  Manufacturers’ core competencies are in design and production, not business applications and the hardware and software needed to run them. Therefore many are quite content to let someone else worry about the care and feeding of those applications.

Does that mean most or even many manufacturers are going to run right out and switch to SaaS? No. My survey results indicated it will take 5 to 10 years before almost half (45%) of business applications will be deployed in a SaaS environment.  There are simply too many existing solutions out there and the vast majority of companies are not rushing to replace them. Although the number of replacements has been increasing recently and that still represents an enormous opportunity in general and for Plex in particular. It has a growing installed base of very loyal and engaged customers and a broad portfolio that dips deeply into the shop floor.

Indeed, this implies a lot of opportunity for companies like Plex Systems and Accel Partners’ investment is a further validation of the company’s viability in the market. Unlike other new entrants to SaaS ERP, Plex has been delivering it for more than eleven years. It made the move to pure SaaS long before it was fashionable or even widely accepted. In its early years, it was successful in spite of being SaaS, not because of it. As a private company now owned by Franciscan Partners it doesn’t disclose financials, but I do know that it was self-funded for many years, only tapping into another round of venture capital to accelerate growth. “Self funding” equates to profitable, something many other larger pure SaaS providers still cannot claim.

Many of its competitors make the mistake of underestimating the competitiveness of the company and the product. In addition, Plex has made some strategic and smart additions to staff recently, starting with the hiring of Jim Shepherd as Vice President of Strategy. I know Jim well and he and I worked together at ASK back in the 1980’s, but he has spent the better part of the last 20+ years building a strong reputation as an industry analyst, first with AMR and then Gartner. Plex has also brought on some other industry veterans lately and continues to hire.

An Infusion of Capital to Fuel Growth

Plex has always been very responsive to customers. It uses rapid application development methodologies to respond quickly to specific customer requests, including customizations that most SaaS-only solution providers would never touch. In fact those customer requests were what drove the majority of product decisions and development. I am sure that was a big factor in making them profitable. After all, they seldom built features, functions and products on speculation. While this is admirable in making the company customer-centric, and also mitigates risk, it also limited its ability to expand into new segments of the manufacturing market. This additional strategic funding should help them expand without having to sacrifice that customer responsiveness.

I’ll be watching very closely (and you should too) to see what directions this new infusion of capital takes Plex Systems.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,