Balancing the books and managing cash flows effectively is essential for any company and this is certainly true of the cross-channel ferry business.
What was already a highly competitive sector became even more cut-throat with the opening of the channel tunnel in the mid-1990s, increasing the onus on the accounting function.
French firm Britanny Ferries employs 2,300 staff and operates from nine ports in four countries. The company has set up an Internet booking service to complement its existing sales channels. However, the financial systems behind the scenes left a lot to be desired.
On the first day of each month Brittany would take an extract from its sales ledger system and print up to 25,000 pages of statements - a process that would take up to six hours using two dedicated printers. The statements would be separated and collated by hand before being sent out to the company's booking agents.
The whole process took the equivalent of eight employee-days per month. The agents would then go through their statements, checking the details, before Brittany recovered the balance by direct debit.
Between June and September the ferry operator has to handle up to 3,000 statement queries a month. Any changes would mean the direct debit files would have to be updated manually before any money could be collected.
Apart from the inconvenience and inefficiency, the company has to meet the Banking Automated Clearing System (Bacs) deadline on the 15th of each month.
To speed up the process and improve its cash-flow Brittany introduced an Internet-based information-sharing system called AXSPoint Travel from software firm AXS-One. The company can now publish statements online and agents can access the service via an icon on the company's Internet booking Web site. This means any queries can be handled electronically in real time and the company's direct debit file is updated automatically.
The system still produces a traditional print file each month, but it is published directly on the Internet instead of being printed. This means travel agents get Brittany's statements before those of its rivals. "You're the first in the queue to get the cash," says the firm's accountant Graham Harrison.
Brittany's relationship with AXS-One began in the mid-1990s, when it chose the company's archiving software as a replacement for its microfiche system. When AXS-One approached Brittany at the end of last year with a proposal to solve its accountancy problems the ferry operator did not consider working with another supplier.
Brittany's IT manager, Andy Richings, said the proposal had a number of key benefits, including the fact that Brittany did not have to alter its back-end systems and it was easy to implement. "From our perspective, it was very straightforward indeed," says Richings. "And we can add to it very easily."
A four- to five-week pilot was launched in April, involving two large and four small travel agencies. The company installed two Dell Power Edge servers to run the application and put a link to the statement pages on its main booking Web site.
Richings says some changes were made to the look and feel of it, following some helpful feedback from the agents, but the general impression was that it was very user friendly, he says.
The system went live in May and is now available to agents who want to use it. Richings says there have been no real teething problems and "from an IT perspective, it has been a transparent implementation".
In terms of price, Harrison says it was surprisingly competitive and extremely good for both parties, even though Brittany had to invest in the two Internet servers.
As well as the time savings, the system has led to some significant cost savings. The price of sending paper statements, which are about 20 pages long and sent out in duplicate, is between £1 and £1.50 each.
"It was a fairly archaic system and that's why we moved it forward," says Harrison.
But the real saving, he says, is improved credit control. Having the money in the bank sooner is a big win for the company. Another benefit is flexibility. Brittany could send out statements every two weeks or even weekly if it wanted to, without making changes to the back-end system.
Harrison says there are savings and benefits on the agents' side as well. "We're not saying it's good for us and you have to accept it," he says. But any new agents will have to adopt the system in order to get onto the company's ledger.
He says the goal is to have 70% of its ledger using the system by next summer, increasing to 90% by the end of 2003. Although Harrison admits that some smaller agents may not have the technical ability to use it, he says, "For bigger ones like Thomas Cook, it's what they're looking for, what they're asking for."
The next hurdle for Brittany will be migrating its legacy-based back-end systems from open virtual memory system (VMS) to Solaris.
"In this marketplace, everybody is very lean - there's not a lot of fat about," says Harrison. "You have to stay ahead of your competitors and you have to continue moving forward."
Sailing out of stormy waters
Ferry operator Brittany was experiencing cash-flow problems due to its labour intensive, paper-based payments system
It adopted an Internet-based information sharing system from software firm AXS-One.