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In business, you need to know where you’re going. You must have a strong sense of direction and a reliable vehicle to take you from where you are to where you want to be. But you get there by looking forward—not just looking back. If you’re only looking at the past, it’s like driving a car while only looking in the rearview mirror. Of course, it’s important to look back, to ensure your blind spots are clear and to know what’s coming up behind you; a 360-degree view of your journey is certainly ideal. But you want your focus to be forward-looking. This analogy is much like business-critical data in a company. You need to understand where you’ve come from, but to succeed, you need to look forward, to the future.
Business intelligence is like driving a car. You can’t only look back—you need to look forward.
We’ve had to think about this approach at Afrimat. We are an open-pit mining company. We mainly operate in South Africa, with two small operations in the northern part of Mozambique. We have several divisions, including construction materials (also known as aggregate mines), industrial minerals, such as dolomite and limestone, and iron ore mining for export to China.  Afrimat is the outcome of two family businesses—dating back to the 1960s—merging to create a new organization. Soon after, Afrimat was first listed on the Johannesburg stock exchange in November 2006, and has continued to grow. Over the past decade since the merger, we’ve acquired 11 businesses. The compound annual growth rate of our profits over the past decade is close to 20%. The company now has a market capitalization of about 5 billion rand and approximately 2,500 employees. 

The Push for Consolidation and Automation

The Afrimat group now comprises more than 50 companies—many of them were originally small, family-owned-and-operated businesses. The challenges for me began in 2008 when I joined the organization as the group accountant. Each of these businesses had different accounting software and packages to manage their finances. Few of these companies, if any, were running an ERP system. From a consolidation point of view, I had to send out Excel spreadsheets for each company’s accounting team to complete. We would typically complete monthly reports to reflect upon and use to plan for the upcoming month. But the sheer volume of reporting, compounded by the reporting tools each division used, meant we didn’t have month-end reports until six weeks later.  The delays were staggering. We were already finished with the next month when we were able to report on the month prior to that.  The impact of such delays is that you get crucial business information quite late in the process, causing a sluggish reaction. If you are too slow to react to the market, it can kill a company. Finishing processing information six weeks after it’s submitted means we only implement corrective measures after those six weeks.
A slow reaction to constant market changes and disruption can kill a company.
That meant it took two to three months to react to what was happening in the market. In most cases, that was too slow. Even if we reacted well to the data, we wouldn’t know whether our corrective actions were working until six weeks after the current month ended. It became a vicious cycle. As new technology came into play, and industries evolved quickly, there was more disruption taking place. The model of the market was changing more rapidly than it had in the past. And if we couldn’t react to what was happening in the market in real time, we might miss something that could make or break our company.

Shifting Gears: From “Just Accountants” to Strategic Business Partners

I believe the state of your finances are a direct result of your business decisions. You need to make good decisions and then quickly see the results reflected in your finances. Proper data analytics would allow my team to become more active in charting the course for the company, but with our systems half-implemented, we weren’t able to achieve that. Our systems, as they stood, clearly weren’t working for us, so we decided to go the ERP route. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money on the ERP system, so we chose a vendor and got to work implementing the system. Working with Insight Consulting, we also decided to add Qlik as our business intelligence (BI) tool at the same time.  We chose Qlik because it was easy to use. The many features that encompassed the user experience (UX), such as the manager dashboards, made it user-friendly.  Qlik ETL capabilities would allow us to easily extracts key data from our database. This was crucial for us because implementing our ERP system was starting to take up a lot of time, and we were still extracting data from a combination of Excel spreadsheets, our partially implemented database, and an assortment of other sources.  We didn’t have all of our data in one system yet, which meant we were not receiving full value from our Qlik investment. We had the right tools, but without a full implementation in place, it was as though we were facing forward but steering the car with our eyes shut.  If there’s one key lesson we learned from this implementation process, it’s to set up your ERP system quickly; don’t delay. Otherwise, you won’t have the necessary data in place to make meaningful decisions.  It took quite a while for us to implement the ERP throughout the entire group. When I took over as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) in 2016, we were still busy implementing the ERP. We decided to accelerate that process because you can’t layer a BI tool like Qlik on top of a database if you don’t have all your data in it. So it became my mission to fast track the ERP implementation. With our foundation of data finally in place, that was when a wealth of business intelligence finally became available to us. It was as though we had finally turned around in the driver’s seat, facing forward with our eyes wide open.

From Manual to Automatic: How We Automate Our Business Insights 

Starting this past financial year, we’ve used Qlik for our consolidation reporting. Before that, the consolidations were still done in Excel. We did the full consolidation process of all the 50 companies in Qlik this year to automate the reporting process.  One of my financial managers used to do this Excel work manually, taking up one full week of his time, every month. Automating the reporting process has given him that time back, allowing him to join us for more financial analysis. We are moving away from recording transactions and being looked at simply as accountants. Now, we’ve stepped into a new role as true financial business partners. We have also started holding weekly business performance review (BPR) and joint practice sessions (JPS) meetings with senior managers using Qlik. At the beginning of the month, we use Qlik to review the previous month’s figures and make predictions for the next month.
Using BI for projections means you can course-correct BEFORE issues arise.
With this foresight, we can course-correct if our projections show a difficult month ahead. If sales slow down, for example, our teams can follow up with existing customers right away. We can also see which customers are paying us on time and how that affects managing our debt. We monitor our database daily now. Qlik gives us true visibility into our data, which is especially valuable given the original complexities of managing more than 50 companies’ financial data. Qlik pulls it all together into one place. In our BPR meetings with all stakeholders, we share the master dashboard on a video conference call. We have a live dashboard that can dive into budget, historical volumes, revenue, profits, and the KPI’s of the plants. The ROI of acting on these real-time business insights is into the millions, with our margins improving constantly. We initially rolled out the ERP company by company within the Afrimat group. Once we implemented Qlik, we worked quickly to consolidate the reports so that each office could get a consolidated view with a high level of detail.  This visibility means our employees can now influence profits in specific operations. They now know what’s going on in their own business, understand how their decisions impact the company’s finances, and what that impact means for their teams as well as themselves as individuals.  It frees up their time to work more strategically now that their responsibilities have shifted from manual to automated. We now have a more strategic, thoughtful workforce. We are also experimenting with AI in various applications within our business, and with the continued help of AI, we’ll be able to do more and more impactful work.

A Clear Path to More Strategic Business Insights

Throughout this journey, I’ve learned a few things that will be useful for other executives. To start, company leaders need to truly understand their business. Are you a mature business? Are you a startup? Different businesses require different tools. We needed an established ERP system first, but that might not be right for a startup.  On that note, be sure to invest well in change management to shift your people into new tools. To move them into the new system, you need to show them the benefits. Remember, it’s not a one-size-fits-all scope. You have to think clearly and carefully about which tools will truly benefit your company, but you need a strategy in place first. Technology should never come before strategy, otherwise, you will not be able to maximize the benefits of your tools. One of the benefits of Qlik is that you can tailor it to your business, whether you are a startup or large enterprise. And you can review what’s going well and what needs improvement from a high level. The dashboards look like a pilot’s dashboard in the cockpit, where everything is going well if it’s in the green, but if it drops to red, it needs immediate attention.  We’re now in the stage where we’re truly picking up speed. Our end-of-month reporting used to take six weeks and is now down to five days, with the goal of reducing that to three days. Our team is now capable of doing development in Qlik, and we show no signs of slowing down.  Afrimat has a clear view out of the front windshield now that we are no longer spending too much time looking in the rearview mirror. For us, the future holds promise and, by leveraging Qlik, the journey to get there keeps getting smoother.