Bowie Resource Partners, LLC (“Bowie”) is the largest bituminous coal producer in the western United States, operating one mine in Colorado and three in Utah that combined produce approximately 14 million tons of high-BTU, low-sulfur bituminous coal annually.
For any mining company, with cost reports and budgets based on an always-changing per-ton calculation, financial and operational reporting tools are mission-critical to the business. Bowie is no exception, especially because its SAP ERP instance is located in its Louisville, Kentucky, headquarters, about 1,500 miles away from its mines. This distance prevents business analysts from impromptu field visits for old-fashioned information exchanges to manually reconcile any inconsistencies or variances.
Bowie was fortunate, then, to hit the ground running with a reporting framework when it began operations shortly after its 2006 founding. The majority owner started Bowie by taking over the infrastructure of a nearly idle mine. His CFO had come from a mining company that ran SAP software, and made the early decision to implement SAP ERP at Bowie modeled after this previous instance, moving off the mine’s legacy system. In essentially duplicating this SAP instance, Bowie also decided to use the same reporting platform for its financial and operational data.
Not Starting from Scratch
Duplicating the system also led to deploying Global Software, Inc.’s Spreadsheet Server. From the first day of operations, then, even before that first ton of bituminous coal had been extracted, Bowie had real-time access to live data from its SAP ERP system.
Spreadsheet Server is a Microsoft Excel-based add-on that pulls live data from SAP ERP, giving individual users access to custom reports specific to their line of business or geographical location, with the tool’s spreadsheet functions supporting nearly unlimited formatting options. This also means users can access the data when they need it, without the usual IT query. (For more information on Global Software and Spreadsheet Server, refer to the sidebar at the end of the article.)
In another fortuitous happenstance for Bowie, it already had the in-house expertise to predefine those spreadsheet cells specific to financial and operational reporting requirements of a mining company. Bowie’s Controller Jennifer Stromquist had worked with Bowie’s CFO at the previous mining company that had run SAP ERP, and had also implemented Spreadsheet Server.
Stromquist had built the reports for that mining company, and she used that experience to build and expand the SAP product and Spreadsheet Server reports at Bowie.
Deploying to Field Personnel
Stromquist’s experience with the tool helped her train the roughly 20 analysts who regularly use Spreadsheet Server with little more than an hour-long WebEx session. Because of its prevalence in the financial organization, this is on the day-one checklist for new hires.
“We use Spreadsheet Server for every financial report,” Stromquist says. “I created all the files, and with the Microsoft Excel tables, it’s very easy to make changes to the input page. You make a change, recalculate the report, and it’s done in minutes. All of the checks and balances are built in, allowing you to see all of your proofs. There’s no manual effort.”
One expansion of the tool included rolling it out to the four business managers in the field, one at each mine. The reason for this rollout was to create a more proactive reporting environment, with business managers able to access or run reports on a weekly basis rather than having to wait until a day or two before the monthly close. With multiple variables in the coal extraction business, this added visibility is a significant change for Bowie.
A concern over this wider report distribution that Bowie had to address when it started with Spreadsheet Server, however, was security. Providing unfettered access to field personnel would give business managers the ability to look at the finances of the other mines. The remedy was two-fold. With the Distribution Manager component included in Spreadsheet Server, Bowie could prebuild reports for specific end users and then automate the saving and email distribution of these reports directly within Excel. For additional reporting, access was limited to business managers from within SAP ERP, so they could only view financials and pull data particular to their own mine. Now, with empowered users at the individual mines, Stromquist and her team at corporate headquarters are having to put out far fewer fires.
“Being able to quickly see variances to budget or any strange anomalies going on throughout the month helps drive down errors and expedite the close process,” Stromquist says. “We’re no longer looking backward for a whole month but only a week at a time.”
A New Look at Dashboards
In another planned expanded use of Global’s Excel Automation suite, Bowie is in the process of deploying Spreadsheet Server’s operational reporting capabilities, which provide users the ability to build dashboard-type views of critical business data. These capabilities allow for the retrieval of information from any data sources in the network, which can be returned to a working spreadsheet.
“We do a lot of internal control reporting out of our plant maintenance environment, and the goal is to beef up the standard reports,” says Stromquist. “We also plan to use Spreadsheet Server in accounts receivable and sales to create reports for managers to give us more visibility in those areas.”
With Spreadsheet Server, Bowie will move beyond closing the books into more operational analysis such as cost per-ton assessments. The tool can take something like cost reporting data from an existing spreadsheet and use that information as parameters for a query, pulling other needed data in from other sources but remaining in an Excel-based environment. “Today, everything is manually created in Excel and not tied to financials,” Stromquist says. “Tying it to financials ensures consistency, so we’re looking at an apples-to-apples comparison without having the manual work.”
According to Stromquist, Bowie is evaluating another Global Software, Inc. tool called Enterprise Budgeting, which works off Excel spreadsheets as a budget-building tool for greater timeliness, accuracy, and consistency. “This would be a nice tool to distribute to the different department heads to send in their budgets and would create a cost-center budget vs. the profit-center budget we have now. This tool would also allow everyone to centralize their efforts because they’d all be working off the same prebuilt reports to run their variance analysis and see the impact of budget to actuals.”
Like its current financial reporting framework with Spreadsheet Server, this tool would permit budgeting without having to upload spreadsheets into SAP ERP and then manually check the upload. However, with Enterprise Budgeting, users and report writers would use the same familiar tools to run reports, but the spreadsheets would go directly into an exclusive enterprise budgeting database.
“This could save a significant amount of time in our budgeting processes,” Stromquist says.
An Instrumental Tool
Having worked with Global Software, Inc. now for two companies, Stromquist attributes Bowie’s out-of-the gate, trouble-free financial close and use of the tool beyond standard financial reporting to its ease-of-use, especially important for small and medium-sized businesses lacking the IT resources of a larger enterprise.
“A good report-writing tool is essential because you can’t rely on IT to process changes timely,” she says. “And a tool that does more than general ledger-based reports provides the flexibility of inputting any necessary information and moving it around as you need, giving you visibility into any line of business.”