wholesale distribution

Epicor Announces It Will Grow Business, Not Software

Epicor has a new tag line: “[We] grow business, not software.” The declaration is not quite as radical as it would first appear. In fact it appears to me to be much more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Epicor’s mantra for years was “Protect, Extend, Converge.” As in:

  • Protect its customers
  • Extend its solutions
  • Converge its product lines

However, in 2014 it appeared Epicor was diverging a bit from the convergence strategy, primarily as a result of the merger of (the original) Epicor and Activant. Both had grown through acquisition, but while Epicor’s ERP solutions were multi-purpose ERP (focused primarily on discrete manufacturing) and therefore ripe for rationalization, each of Activant’s products was purpose-built for distribution, and over time each had become even more focused and fine-tuned to specific segments of wholesale distribution. And then there was the SolarSoft acquisition (2012), which brought along an ERP which focused on more process-oriented industries, and also a “best of breed” manufacturing execution system (MES). And finally there was Epicor’s retail business, which was actually spun off last year.

So while the “Protect” and “Extend” sentiments of the message are still very much alive, convergence gave way to a new message. Last year, Epicor’s (new) CEO, Joe Cowan declared the company would be “totally focused on the customer.” This year’s tag line seems to me to be a simple extension of that customer focus. Software is not the end goal. The goal is to help Epicor customers grow their businesses. It just so happens Epicor will develop software and provide services to make that happen. And a lot of the software will be delivered as a service, as evidenced by the appearance of a fluffy white cloud in the middle of the tag line.

Epicor tag line

Of course in having a tag line like this, Epicor needs to be careful not to make the message itself too fluffy. And in promising to help customers grow, Epicor will have to execute a delicate balancing act, balancing what the customers say they want and what Epicor knows they need. This is particularly true of those customers still running older legacy solutions. Epicor has promised not to sunset those products. And yet if you really understand the demands and opportunities of the new global, digital economy, you know you can’t be competitive without modern, advanced technologies.

Customers running legacy solutions won’t benefit as much from the latest and greatest development, but that’s not to say they won’t benefit at all. Epicor has been a bit quiet on the technology front for the past few years, but that is not the result of lack of attention. In fact it has been doing a lot, sometimes at the expense of new features and functions. Its advanced technology architecture (ICE), visionary at the time of its initial release circa 2009, has undergone a technology refresh of its own, and it also paves the way forward for both strategic products like Epicor 10, Prophet 21 and others, as well as legacy solutions like Vista and Vantage,  etc.

Now that that refresh is complete (for now… after all, technology continues to advance at an ever-accelerating pace), you’ll see more aggressive development of features and functions. Epicor is picking up the cadence of releases, shooting for twice a year (spring and fall) for its strategic products, which of course will garner more of its resources. But even legacy solutions will benefit from the development of external components, which can be used across different product lines. Prime examples include web portals, dashboards, self-service functions, mobile apps and other new features. And developing these components as web-based services (delivered through the cloud) will have the dual purpose of extending solutions and gently pushing those running primarily (or exclusively) on-premise towards the cloud.

I agree with Epicor’s new CTO, Himanshu Palsule, who called the transition to the cloud “inevitable.” But it won’t happen overnight (Figure 1). Part of the reason for this slower, yet steady growth is the fact that there are so many on-premise solutions in production today. And many remain reluctant to simply rip and replace solutions that are essentially getting the job done.

Figure 1: What percentage of your business software is deployed as SaaS?

Fig 1 EpicorSource: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

In his main stage keynote, Himanshu also (very astutely) observed that for a topic that is so widely discussed, “cloud” is still misunderstood and means different things to different people. My research supports his observation. While many use the terms cloud and SaaS interchangeably (I find myself guilty of this at times), they are not the same. While all SaaS is cloud, not all cloud is SaaS. While only a small percentage (12%) in 2015 didn’t know how they preferred cloud to be delivered, that percentage didn’t shrink in 2016 (Figure 2). There is still some education to be done. If you count yourself among those that “don’t know,” don’t be afraid to ask. You’re not alone.

Figure 2: How would you prefer cloud to be delivered?

Fig 2 EpicorSource: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

I’ve written extensively about the anticipated appeal of SaaS, along with the benefits actually realized. But I wouldn’t disagree with Himanshu’s conclusions about what cloud should stand for:

  • Choice
  • Convenience
  • Cost Control
  • Customization
  • Collaboration

However, I would qualify two of his bullet points. A few years back, my survey participants placed a high value on choice of deployment options. They seemed to like the idea of portability and the ability to move from on-premise to SaaS and from SaaS back to on-premise. Today many are looking for a path that helps them move from on-premise to SaaS, but once they move to SaaS, they almost never go back unless forced to (e.g. they get acquired by a company running a licensed, on-premise solution). So having multiple deployment options available is no longer such a high priority. Prospects simply pre-qualify those solution providers based on the deployment option they prefer.

I agree that choice is important. But it is more important to Epicor as the solution provider than to its customers and prospects. There are still some environments where a real multi-tenant SaaS solution might not be the best choice – at least not right now. These might be heavily regulated industries that require solutions to be certified, and re-certified when they change. Or a heavily customized solution may be required. And customization is the other bullet from Himanshu’s list that needs to be well-qualified.

Not all customizations are created equal. First of all, some simply aren’t needed. They might be left over from an implementation of a solution with far fewer capabilities than available today. Or they might have resulted from a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. If customization does not differentiate you in your market, I would seriously question whether it is justified.

Furthermore, customizations can be implemented in a variety of ways. Invasive code changes and SaaS don’t make for a good combination. But if customizations can be added as external components and linked back to ERP through Web APIs, or if they can be implemented through configuring the software without mucking around in the code, they may be perfectly compatible.

So Epicor’s announcement this week of its “cloud-first focus to support digital transformation of wholesale distributors is spot on”. The Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study found wholesale distributors lagging behind other industries in preference for and adoption of SaaS solutions. We also found 47% to 73% still relying heavily on paper for their operational and transactional system of record (customer and purchase orders, expense management, payments, etc.). They lag behind other industries in spite of the fact that ecommerce and their proximity to consumers puts them at a higher risk of disruption from the digital economy. Perhaps this “cloud-first” focus will be the gentle push wholesale distributors might need to start down the path of digital transformation.

Indeed, Epicor says it will be “…doubling-down on helping distributors adapt to these shifting dynamics of the marketplace—with an added focus to ushering customers’ journey to leverage the power of cloud-based solutions to drive increased productivity and achieve a differentiated customer experience to grow their business.”

Indeed wholesale distributors aren’t the only Epicor customers that will benefit from this “doubling-down.” I heard similar plans from the Epicor 10 side of the house, including planned features and functionality, along with efforts to improve simplification and usability. Yes, it’s about the overall user experience, but those driving the products seem to understand it’s not just about the “pretty software” you hear so much about today. As business models change, as technology advances and as new innovative products come to market, Epicor’s product must be easy to use, easy to install, easy to manage, and easy to change when the need arises.

Epicor “gets” it. We’ll be watching to see if it delivers.

 

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Epicor Insights 2014: Epicor Responds to Trends in ERP

Epicor Software held its annual user conference this week. True to its name, Insights 2014 did just that… provided insight into recent innovations and roadmaps for the future. Epicor experienced some management changes this year, bringing in a new CEO, Chief Product Officer (CPO) and new General Managers (GMs) for the Americas for both its ERP and Retail businesses. But there were some familiar faces in the executive ranks as well, some with tenures between 15 and 20 years with the company, striking a nice balance between old and new blood, so to speak. The goal of these management changes is to raise the game in terms of technology-enabled products that turn customers into “raving fans for life.”

Throughout the conference, attendees heard reference to what have emerged as the top trends in the enterprise software industry: cloud, mobile, “big data” and social. In addition I believe Epicor addressed the different components that I have been touting as characteristics of “next generation” ERP: providing better ways to engage with ERP in order to encourage more and better use, focus on configuration to replace customization, more innovation and better integration.

Towards that end, Epicor made four announcements:

  • The availability of Epicor ERP version 10, redesigned for device mobility, deployment choice, accelerated performance and social collaboration
  • Support for SQL Server 2014: Not only is Epicor ERP version 10 fully optimized for SQL Server 2014, but Epicor has “purified the technology stack.” That means it only runs on SQL Server in a Microsoft .Net environment.
  • The introduction of the Commerce Connect Platform, fully integrated with Epicor ERP Version 10, to drive rich B2B and B2C online experiences for consumers, customers and suppliers, supporting mobile access and secure PCI-compliant payments
  • New Epicor Windows Phone 8 touch-optimized apps for time and expense tracking, supporting multiple devices and “bring your own device (BYOD)” strategies

Amidst these announcements and as a result of speaking with both Epicor executives and customers, here are my key take-aways from the event.

Protect, Extend Converge Lives On

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

With the merger of Epicor with Activant a few years back you might have expected Epicor to bring those new products into the fold, so to speak. Yet instead it appeared to diverge a bit from this convergence strategy. The lion’s share of Epicor’s ERP products target manufacturing, and to a lesser degree distribution, 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 I would call Epicor ERP a multi-purpose ERP. 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.

So it seemed to me at the time that Epicor was diverging from its convergence strategy. Rather than bringing a new ERP to wholesale distributors, instead Epicor began to converge them on a technology level, bringing its ICE technology to the distribution party. This seemed to me to be a smart move. Don’t get me wrong; I applaud Epicor’s convergence strategy. Back in 2012 I wrote:

Thus far Epicor has been not only first, but also unique in promising (and then delivering) a single rationalized ERP solution. Other ERP companies have toyed with the idea and even announced such plans, but then either pulled back upon encountering resistance from their installed base of customers or subsequently decided against such a strategy. While at first glance these decisions may have seemed to be in the best interest of their customers, these ERP solution providers may in fact have done customers a disservice in tacitly encouraging them to remain on old, outdated technology that simply cannot serve them well in today’s fast-moving and connected world.

And yet, the resistance from customers was typically not resistance to new technology (like Epicor ICE), but resistance against a perceived, or real forced march to a new product. Each customer wants to move forward and/or make a change at its own pace and on its own terms. And if its current ERP is not perceived to be “broken” the customer is not in any rush and procrastination is the result. At times this procrastination is the product of an older generation of IT professionals who would be content to manage familiar solutions right up until retirement. In fact many of them would benefit from a gentle push.

While Epicor has never forced anyone to move, by boldly declaring Epicor ERP as the future, it provided more incentive to consider moving to it, encouraging those stuck in the past to replace solutions with aging, legacy architectures. Most saw the value in re-implementing rather than carrying forward decisions that had been constrained by limitations of applications and technology in the past. Instead of a mass revolt, as feared by others, many customers embraced this and saw it as an opportunity to justify moving forward.

I still strongly believe in what they are doing with Epicor ERP and in fact Epicor executives still say they have a long-term convergence strategy that includes distribution and the Activant products. But I am not sure they need to bring the two together into a single ERP for two reasons:

  • Epicor is big enough and strong enough to manage two product lines, particularly if they are supported by the same underlying technological architecture (ICE)
  • ICE provides a framework whereby development efforts can be shared across product lines

There will be features and functions shared by all companies, some shared by distributors (or manufacturers) only and some required for niche markets or micro-verticals. For like needs, the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0 capabilities of ICE allow Epicor to build once and deploy across multiple solutions, freeing up resources that would otherwise be required to satisfy those requirements in each product line – freeing them up to work on more targeted functionality which has the potential of helping its customers in wholesale distribution (and possibly other markets) achieve a measure of competitive differentiation. This could also help Epicor reach into more narrow micro-verticals that might require more specialized features and functions. But (at least for now) Epicor will leave that opportunity to partners.

Developing “shared” components is the top priority for Epicor right now, not only to share across manufacturing and distribution, but also to add more value to its suite of solutions for retail. An example might be using the ERP functions to strengthen financial management options for retail. You will hear Epicor talk in terms of developing more “granular” functionality and other vendors and influencers will talk about “loosely coupled.” Regardless of the terminology, the net effect is to allow customers to add more features and functions on top of what they already have (with less disruption) and to allow vendors like Epicor to build features and functions once and re-use them across different products and customer bases.

Why is this so important? The obvious answer: to deliver more innovation.

Accelerating Innovation

I’ve written a lot about “next generation” ERP over the past year and I have also written a lot about cloud and SaaS. When it comes to more innovation, the two are connected. First of all the increased pace of innovation is supported through the use of web-based services, object-oriented data models and component architecture. All these combine to support more rapid development of new features and functions, which are more easily consumed as needed. ICE is a key factor in helping Epicor keep pace. So how does SaaS fit in?

A vendor that delivers a product exclusively in a multi-tenant SaaS environment has a clear advantage in delivering enhancements. 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 its customers’ ability to keep pace with upgrades. For every person-day vendors spend on innovation, they spend another multiple of that day making sure it works across multiple environments. So if the vendor only delivers innovation in a pure, multi-tenant SaaS solution it needs only support and develop a single line of code. This means it can spend more time on pure innovation and that raises the bar for all vendors.

Epicor’s convergence strategy has helped it compete, but it does support both on-premise licenses and SaaS deployments and until now has offered its converged ERP on multiple platforms. Purifying the stack and limiting the solution to a SQL Server based Microsoft .Net environment reduces development efforts and allows Epicor to optimize for this environment, which adds (2X) speed and (4X) scalability. So while it doesn’t enjoy the same economy of scale as a provider of a pure multi-tenant SaaS solution, it has helped stack the deck for improved development productivity. In addition, it has honed its skills in rapid application (agile) development. And in case you are wondering how this will be received by existing customers, I am told that 90% of Epicor ERP customers are already running on the Microsoft stack. As a result, I expect user resistance to be low, particularly with the demonstrated improved performance.

So I would expect the rate of innovation to start to accelerate from here, at least in terms of Epicor ERP 10. To effect further gains, it will have to carry this strategy over to the distribution side of the house, or it will need to complete the convergence to include the Activant products.

In the meantime Epicor is leveraging the ICE technology to bring more “next generational” characteristics to all its products. Bringing its Epicor Business Activity Query (BAQ) tool to Prophet 21 (an Activant product) is an example. New features of Epicor ERP 10 like…

  • a social collaboration framework that lets users collaborate with one another and “follow” business activities and events
  • a live-tile-style browser interface that’s touch-enabled for any tablet

are enabled by ICE and therefore it is likely these features will be also made available to other Epicor ICE-enabled products as well.

So while Epicor doesn’t enjoy the luxury of maintaining a single code base, it is positioning itself to more rapidly replicate functionality across those different sets of code, thereby accelerating the delivery of new user experiences, better configuration replacing the need for customization and easier integration… all hallmarks of next generation ERP. Time will tell whether customers will turn into “raving fans for life” but if the mood and tone of Insights 2014 is any indication, Epicor has a clear runway ahead to achieve its goals.

 

 

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