My Planful Perform 2022 review left a few questions open. Start with the General Availability of Predict: Projections, the second offering in Planful's "Predict" Suite.
What does this mean for finance teams? Can Planful's approach to AI change their operations for the better? As I wrote:
All the customers and partners I talked to welcomed the idea of getting involved with Predict. They see it not as a job-killing threat, but as a potentially valuable asset to data accuracy, forecasting, and planning workloads.
But it will take a while to validate all this:
While it's early days for Planful Predict adoption, the customer interest in adding Predict to their Planful footprint seems to be high. I hope to write about a live customer before too long, but I did speak to a customer that is sandboxing Predict: Signals.
That customer, ProMach, sat down with me on the final day of the event. The interview surprised me on a couple fronts. I don't necessarily expect to hear about a thriving US-based manufacturer. But as Robby LeBourveau, Director, Finance at ProMach told me, their market approach is paying off. ProMach provides packaging machinery for the food, beverage, household goods and pharmaceutical industries. With over 40 global brands operating in separate facilities, ProMach is one of those companies you may not have heard of - but probably factors into products we all consume.
Managing acquisition finance - "Excel was just too error prone"
One key factor in ProMach's winning approach? Strategic acquisitions, to the tune of three to seven a year. Talk about putting the finance team on the hot seat - have fun managing acquired products in Excel! Yep, that's one driver for ProMach's Planful implementation. LeBourveau led the drive for a new system. As he put it:
When it was 5-10 different businesses, and then we just added one more, it was okay. Then it got to 20, and then it got to 30, and at some point, Excel was just too error-prone and too time-consuming. It felt like we could never produce a statement, whether it's a budgeted financial statement or an actuals financial statement, that didn't have some kind of issue somewhere in it.
Legacy finance software slows teams down. But in ProMach's case, you run the risk of holding back your company's growth plans. LeBourveau had to act:
Acquisition is a critical part of the overall strategy of our business. If you look at the five or six key strategies that we are focused on, business acquisition is on that list.
So, in 2018, LeBourveau put plans in motion. A longer list became a shortlist, with Planful and two other finalists: Vena and Adaptive Insights. Why did Planful (which was called Host Analytics at the time) get the nod? As LeBourveau told me:
The biggest thing with Planful that really got it to the top was the expected ease of adoption. We were rolling it out to at least 60 users, all finance/accounting folks, but at various different skill levels. Nobody had experience with any of these types of tools.
The Planful implementation began in 2019 - five months later, the project went live. And did the user adoption pan out?
Ease of use and user navigation was one of the really distinguishing factors from Planful. That was born out through the process - adoption went shockingly well.
The go-live was more of a rolling go-live, with plenty of moving parts:
We went live over the course of several months or so, with different groups and different processes. When we did implement, we actually implemented a full suite of Planful things.
ProMach did the Planful buffet:
We did consolidations and structured planning and dynamic planning, workforce planning, obviously reporting. We did a decent amount of Spotlight reporting - so we did the full shooting match.
Documenting the post-go-live results
Then came one of the most memorable go-live stories I've heard: the "I don't remember" go-live. Tell us about it:
I don't remember. So I think it went fine. It was a non-event, and it continues to be that way.
Of course, finance-at-scale always brings challenges:
There can be complexities - especially trying to map everything from our legacy chart of accounts into our universal Planful chart of accounts and all that stuff. But it went shockingly well.
Now for the true results test: how did Planful help with the acquisitions strategy? LeBourveau:
We ask new acquisitions to have a current fiscal year budget, not long after we close the acquisition... That almost always happens without any issues. They're even doing it at the employee level - loading workforce data - they're able to get in there and pick it up. These are businesses, some of which hadn't done an annual budget before.
It's been transformative. I don't know how we could have achieved the growth we've
had over the last two years without it. I also don't know how we could have gotten through COVID without it.
Tell us about that.
Planful enabled financial reporting, financial close consolidation, budgeting, and forecasting to continue - almost as though nothing was going on.
Planful Predict - why become an early adopter?
And how does Planful Predict enter the picture? Why did ProMach become an early Predict adopter?
What caught my interest - and why I decided to pursue it - is when they came out a couple months ago and said, 'Hey, Predict now works with actuals.' That was the thing that pushed me over the top, and said, 'Hey, I think this is probably worth looking at.'
What were the Predict: Signals use cases for ProMach? LeBourveau:
[With actuals], now there are two strong use cases that I could present in our business to do it. Both of them are around scalability. Now our accounting team can start to leverage this to increase their level of comfort with monthly financials, and we can start to leverage it to stress test all of our forecasts and our budget budgets - with an overarching initiative of increased forecast accuracy.
Predict: Signals is still in sandbox mode for ProMach, but that's about to change:
We activated it in a staging environment, so it's not live in the main application. That's something we're pushing for in the next two or three weeks.
LeBourveau's team is still testing Signals filters - some acquisitions have enough data to use Signals with, whereas others don't. He anticipates solving that soon, with a small rollout to a few core team members:
We'll ultimately roll it out to finance leadership to begin with, and have them be the stress testers of it. Depending on how that goes, we may push it further down in the organization.
As of now, LeBourveau sees two Predict: Signals scenarios:
- Stress-testing the budget for better forecasting
- Analysis of actual results as part of the closing process
Right now, our accounting team has been running trial balances and trying to look at company variances, and identify where there's anomalies. I think we have 100 different entities that all have full financial statements in Planful. It's becoming too much for them to actually analyze in any meaningful way.
One interesting thing about Planful's AI strategy is that the Predict products are an additional licensing cost - whereas some planning vendors are choosing to embed AI into their core products (of course, they could then choose to charge more for the core licenses as well). I am looking forward to learning more from Planful about how they will strike a balance there. I suspect Planful will look to do a bit of both (I'll report back on that when I have more info).
LeBourveau told me he did not have trouble getting budget approval for the Predict business case, and the cost, while we didn't get into specifics, did not sound like it was presenting any obstacles (nor have I heard any Planful customers noting the product stretches their budget, which is a good sign - sometimes even excellent products generate price feedback). So, the business case was made without difficulty - and now we can track ProMach's achievements as they move ahead on Predict.
Planful emphasizes ease-of-use, to the point where CEO Grant Halloran has a "zero training" mantra. That's an awfully high bar, but I don't mind it as a statement of ambition. When LeBourveau told me that "adoption went shockingly well," I had to know more - that's not a phrase I typically hear. He added:
We did a lot of back-end work so that would happen. I did a lot of documentation. I actually went on a training roadshow, where I did a two-day training in a couple different locations around the country, so people could all come and have an in-person training exercise and get them in the application and do all that stuff, while I'm there to give advice and guidance or whatever. So I think that was critical to the success.
Works for me - if you can get "shocking adoption" quickly, that bodes well.