Strahan Wilson, chief financial officer at restaurant chain Côte, believes he has found the formula for curing what he calls the “pain and anguish” of financial planning.
Wilson first encountered Anaplan’s software-as-a-service planning software when he was on gardening leave from KFC and about to join Burger King.
“I got an email from Anaplan all about cloud,” he says. “This was in 2011. So I talked to their development team in York and when I joined Burger King, I did a quick proof of concept and it was easy to set up.”
Anaplan is often billed as an Excel spreadsheet killer. Finance professionals live much of their lives in Excel, and Wilson’s financial director at Côte is no exception. “I joined [in September 2016] at the dying end of the planning cycle, with my financial director spending three months pulling together 80 spreadsheets from 80 restaurants and having a torrid time,” says Wilson.
“I introduced Anaplan to Côte because it works for me. I look at planning differently. It is usually an annual or quarterly planning exercise, and dread descends on the finance function. Normal business stops, there is pain and anguish, and something is spat out at the other end. I’ve long been averse to that. It is not healthy and does not produce the best plans because you tend to take short cuts.
“Planning should be part of the period end close process. So you close your end period, review the numbers against budget and figure out what you’ve learned from the variances – due to operations or structural changes, and reforecast.”
That, in his view, opens up the possibility of taking a more strategic approach – also the holy grail of IT professionals.
“Anaplan drastically reduces the number of spreadsheets in the planning cycle. We are killing off 250-300 spreadsheets”
Strahan Wilson, Côte
The restaurant chain is owned by private equity group BC Partners. “Our brand ambitions are big,” says Wilson. As well as Côte, the group has two other restaurant brands, Jackson & Rye and Limeyard. “I need the headroom to help to build those, as well as Côte, so we need the finance function to be working well,” he says. “Anaplan gives me that, as a KPI-led planning system. You can get into the granularity of what’s going on.”
It is easier to calculate such matters as labour costs and foreign exchange costs in Anaplan than it would be in Excel, says Wilson.
“I bought it because it is, in my judgement, as close to Excel that a planning system can be. It is more of an enterprise solution with constraints on who can do what [than Excel]. But it is also sufficiently intuitive so that someone like me, who is not an IT specialist, just with good Excel skills, can pick it up and run.
“Finance is a pyramid – at the base layer is the accounting, then the financial planning and analysis, and then you have the business partnering level, which is where all finance professionals want to be. But you can only do that if you earn the right. Get your period end time down from 15 days to five, your planning cycle from three months to three weeks, then go out and find out where can be of help to the business.”
But using financial planning software, rather than Excel, is not everything , says Wilson. “It is only one part of an ecosystem for running a business,” he says. “The two questions are always ‘what have I done?’ and ‘what will I do?’. Anaplan is best of breed for the latter, I think, and flexible for things that change.
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“So, in our business, the matter of restaurant openings is the growth driver. But never a day passes when an opening will not change due to legal matters, and so on. It is much less painful to plan that in with Anaplan than with Excel. Now, there are alternatives to Anaplan, but I still think there is no one else who is as close to Excel and as close to the cloud.
“It does drive Excel out – it drastically reduces the number of spreadsheets in the planning cycle. We are killing off 250-300 spreadsheets.”
Wilson joined Côte from Eat, where he deployed Blue Yonder for predictive analytics for forecasting. He says there could be more scope for digital transformation in a business like Côte than in the food-to-go sector, where contact time with the customer is “measured in seconds”.
He adds: “In the hospitality sector, we always think ‘if only we knew more about our customers, we could do what they do in retail’. In a full-service restaurant, you have more time with your guest [than in food to go]. You have a better opportunity to understand who they are. So the whole CRM [customer relationship management] side becomes more important.
“You can lift the veil of anonymity with Open Table, say, and you can connect that to the Epos system to see what they buy. Are you a house wine man or woman? Maybe we could showcase a wine from the bottom end of the menu next time, on the house.”
Wilson has been evaluating Microsoft Dynamics and Salesforce to fill out Côte’s customer relations piece, and is also looking at Microsoft Power BI on Azure to do more business intelligence analysis. In the meantime, he says, his finance director and other colleagues are happier.