Quantrix takes on Excel

Romco CFO Craig Burket found a simple cure for all those Excel headaches.

Romco Equipment Co. distributes heavy-duty construction equipment, but chief financial officer Craig Burket realized his work was being stalled by something that should have been easy lifting: Excel spreadsheets.

I've had debates with people who say 'You really could do all this in Excel if you were clever.' That's probably true, but I'm not sure I'm that clever.

Craig Burket
CFORomco Equipment Co.

Burket spent years using Excel to print out spreadsheets full of financial figures for the Dallas-based company, and was accustomed to flipping back and forth between pages -- calculator in hand -- to check the numbers.

The process led up to a tedious monthly review of the company's operating statements with eight regional managers. The statements include a detailed breakdown of financial figures like vehicle and machine sales, gross profit and expenses for the company.

"These are guys that don't like to spend a lot of time looking at numbers," Burket said, referring to the company's regional managers.

To simplify the process, Burket switched from paper printouts of Excel spreadsheets to the electronic charts of the Quantrix Modeler. Portland, Maine-based Quantrix develops quantitative modeling software designed to automate spreadsheets and turn information into easy-to-use graphs.

"I've had debates with people who say 'You really could do all this in Excel if you were clever.' That's probably true, but I'm not sure I'm that clever," Burket said.

The Quantrix Modeler is part of a larger trend of new products designed to help companies improve their business and planning models -- and replace traditional spreadsheets. Companies like Hyperion Solutions Corp., Cognos Inc. and FRx have released similar products.

Quantrix Modeler sells for $990 per license, allowing growing companies to scale the product, said Chris Houle, chief operating officer for Quantrix. The company has about 150 customers, he said. Seventy percent of those customers are SMBs, with revenues under $100 million – although Quantrix is competing with Excel in shops of all sizes. Romco is at the big end of SMBs, with just over $100 million in annual revenues.

The new (Quantrix) math

Compared to the Excel formulas that remind some executives of hair-pulling math problems, Quantrix Modeler uses what they call a "plain-English," click-and-drag interface to make financial modeling simpler to use and easier to present. The product also separates its formulas from the information within a cell, allowing users to change their numbers without needing to rewrite an entire formula.

"The ease with which you can move [the data] around allows you to put this tool in the hands of someone who isn't a sophisticated spreadsheet user," Burket said.

The program cuts out some of the "pick and shovel" work of traditional spreadsheet programs, like punching in equations, copying those equations and ensuring no errors were made, Burket said. Instead, a simple pull-down menu lets his managers quickly sort the numbers by region, month, quarter, year, product or any other category and create the side-by-side comparison that matters most to each individual.

"I can throw all that on a graph with a pull-down menu and let each of them select the view he wants," Burket said.

Houle said his company's program is designed to be a "hybrid between a spreadsheet and a database" that saves time for number crunchers.

"We see a gap in the market," he said. "High-end users weren't allowed to do what they wanted to with traditional programs. The gap is getting bigger over time. The technology has not changed for many years and the audience has become more sophisticated."

The next version of Quantrix Modeler will automatically populate cells with information taken directly from data sources, like sales figures, Houle said.

Burket has also stopped printing out and mailing a stack of Excel spreadsheets each month. Instead, he now e-mails the Quantrix figures to his regional managers, who can play with the numbers in the program.

Quantrix has a tough road ahead, with Microsoft claiming more than 150 million Excel users. IDC analyst Dan Vesset thinks Excel will remain in use as long as desktop computers.

"I think it has to be some kind of bigger macro change -- it would mean the whole desktop paradigm goes away," for Excel to fall out of use, he said.

Still, the opportunity for companies like Quantrix to pick up customers remains.

"It all depends on the user, obviously," Vesset said. "There are people who want to see very slick dashboards, Web-based interfaces. There's certainly a large chunk of the market there."

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