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Exclusive IFS interview: From ERP to ESP

Global ERP company IFS, has been designing and implementing industry-focused software solutions for companies worldwide for over twenty-five years. As the company continues to grow, they are embarking on a brand re-launch and new direction in ANZ which will see the company become a force to be reckoned with in the ERP marketplace, according to managing director, Rob Stummer.

IFS is evolving. Not just its product portfolio but also its footprint in the Australian and New Zealand (ANZ)marketplace — from a component-based ERP (enterprise resource planning) solutions provider that previously hid behind the scenes to an in-your-face, cutting-edge business software provider that plans to grab a huge chunk of market share in this space during the next 18 months.

If you haven’t heard of IFS, you’re not alone. The company’s Australia and New Zealand managing director, Rob Stummer, is the first to admit that the brand’s image isn’t up there with the Oracles and SAPs of the industry — at least not yet, anyway.

This will all change when the company embarks on a complete re-branding venture, from its logo to its catch phrases, to become more competitive in its focussed target markets. IFS will also be launching a new (GUI) graphical user interface in 2009, making business software easier to use in the process and control space.

On a recent visit to Sydney, Stummer told PACE: “It definitely represents a new paradigm, where usability and productivity are put in focus. It enables the user to accomplish more by making things easier.”

The product development and re-branding are together devised to give the software company a strong push not only into the local ERP scene, but also into the whirring packaging automation plants, the fast-moving manufacturing facilities, and the shiny food processing warehouses — spaces that have typically been in the dark about IFS and its products in Australia and New Zealand.

“We’ve actually been around in the ANZ market for about ten years and now we want to really be seen as a true leader in the space,” said Stummer. “IFS historically hasn’t been well-known in the local market as the resources haven’t been put aside for public relations and branding. But this will be a major focus for us this year.”

Across the globe, IFS provides industry-focused software solutions that help leading companies to improve profitability, meet regulatory requirements, and take advantage of new business opportunities. IFS’s suite of more than 60 web-based components enables companies to deploy the software step-by-step as their needs and budget dictate. Based on open standards, IFS Applications makes it easier to stay up-to-date with technology and to integrate with legacy systems.

Experience counts

The branding push couldn’t have come at a better time for the company which this year clocks over 25 years in business, which is a number not to be sneezed at in the fast-paced software development industry. According to Stummer, this experience puts IFS in a prime position to maneuver a virtually-unknown brand into the volatile ANZ marketplace.

“Historically IFS was part of a joint-venture with a small Melbourne based software reseller, so the brand was watered-down to a large degree. However the company is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of IFS World, headqurtered in Sweden, which sees Australia and New Zealand as having massive growth opportunities for the business,” he said. “They’re investing heavily in the local subsidiary’s sales and marketing, and brand awareness focus. If people hear the name IFS, we want them to know who we are and what we do.”

“It is important as the leader of the business to be known by your customers. This is an area I am trying to push over the coming months. Meeting existing customers, discussing their issues and concerns as well as receiving feedback is critical for our growth. I see this as a major part of my role at IFS,” he said.

“Part of my role as MD for ANZ obviously includes a large focus on business development, which means my role is to effectively communicate and listen to existing clients and also to identify potential new business partners to increase our penetration and reach into our target markets.”

Equally important is time spentd looking after his staff, including planning and ensuring that IFS is executing its strategy through leading the employees — a role with which Stummer is very familiar with, considering he spent a good deal of his working life in workforce management consultancy and global recruiting. Stummer says employee education is imperative to the company, with on-the-job training together with global education programs offered to help IFS staff become technical experts in their field.

“My background is consulting with people at the top-end of the market, which is one of the favourite elements of my job here at IFS. I enjoy the challenge of getting to know our customers and consulting with them. If I can understand their pain points and learn about their business objectives, I can add real value to them by suggesting viable and cost effective solutions” he said, also adding that being a thought leader to people in the industry will be a major draw-card for the company moving forward.

“This is where we’ll add value. If we don’t understand our customers, then they may end up sourcing the wrong solution to achieve their business objectives, which will be extremely costly for them in both the short and long term. We want to truly partner with our clients.

Mobility and ease

IFS assist organisations to get a competitive edge by developing a greater return on their investment. Some of their solutions include supply chain management (SCM), enterprise asset management (EAM), and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) applications. IFS claims to be a business solutions provider rather than a technology vendor, offering businesses tailored component solutions that can be upgraded or changed as they need it.

IFS is now represented in 44 countries and employs 2,700 people worldwide. It has global alliances with some of the biggest names in power, automation and IT, including BAE, ABB, IBM, NEC and Oracle. Its industry focus spans process and industrial manufacturing, aerospace and defense, automotive, mining & resources and utilities..

But what sets IFS apart from its competitors — which include ERP vendors such as SAP and Oracle — is its simplified dashboard, which will be even more apparent when the company’s new graphical user interface is launched later in the year, says Stummer.

“Our mission is to make working on our systems as simple as possible for the end-user. The back-end of our technology is very complex but we try to make the front end as user-friendly as possible,” he said. “Our customers are demanding a simplified dashboard, as most solutions on the market are very complex for the end user. People are looking for something that is both funky and sexy in-line with new technology like the iPhone, but it has to deliver on functionality. We don’t want to take away the back-end complexity but rather to hide it behind a modern and user-friendly interface that they actually enjoy using.”

Stummer says his clients are also increasingly demanding mobility solutions, with more maintenance managers working off-site. “It’s got to be at your fingertips. It’s got to be smaller, faster, cheaper. If something goes wrong in the process or control plant, the maintenance workers need to know about it instantly. The whole wireless world is going this way,” he said.

IFS customers also require concise and accurate reporting ability, which IFS is at the leading edge of. “Specifically in the process control and engineering industry, concise reporting is key. Our business analytics tools have been at the forefront of the market for a while and they allow users to download reports that are not only concise but also absolutely accurate,” said Stummer.

IFS doesn’t claim to be all things to all industries and people however, instead providing these solutions as industry-specific applications.

“We often don’t always suggest that our customers purchase our entire ERP suite, but instead we partner with them so that we can understand their business objectives and then offer them the solutions they need by utilising our component-based approach,” said Stummer. “Our competitors might claim to do business based on this methodology, but we truly do it. It’s a building block approach.”

IFS has a dedicated global research and development team who continually modify and develop the product. Stummer says the team is currently working on new areas of mobility and web-solutions to cater for industry demand.

Doom & gloom?

Stummer says that while the global recession might spell doom and gloom for some industries, IFS has yet to feel the punch. Indeed, IFS’ recent positive financial results demonstrate their leading position in focusing on vertical markets including what the company calls the ‘EPCI’ segment: engineering, procurement, construction and installation. Approximately 70 to 80 per cent of new IFS customers came from vertically focused markets including the ‘EPCI’ segment last year.

“I don’t believe that Australia hasfelt the real impact of the current global economic crisis, so how we as a business will be affected is hard to gauge,” he said. “What I do know is that while some companies might be required to put major projects on hold, they must continue to evolve their systems to stay competitive in the market. If they cancel their projects, their businesses will be affected, but if they simply assess all of the possible alternatives then they can continue to prepare themselves with viable solutions such as what IFS provides.”

Stummer doesn’t foresee a major impact either financially or through job losses for IFS because of this reason. “We help people to achieve their business objectives via their system. In Australia we’re not putting people off — we’re actually growing our team. The pipeline is very strong and we believe our clients and prospects are still spending money,” he said.

IFS is working on providing more alternatives than ever before to equip business managers with options to show their decision-makers up the line. “In times like these, businesses need to be able to do this progressively — which is another real positive of our product. They can drip-feed their system by progressively adding components on a prioritised basis.We can structure a solution to enable them to spread the investment over a number of years,” Stummer said.

And what would Stummer say to a company thinking of implementing an IFS solution? “We have arrived,” he said. “We’ve been here in the past, however now our presence will be significant. From now on we are going to walk the talk, and get closer to our customers by making things as simple as possible for them.

“We’re going to understand their businesses and consult with them, consequently becoming a true business partner, enablingthem to get the returns they’re looking for. They will want to hear the compelling story we have to tell about how our clients both in Australia and overseas have reaped the benefits and financial returns by choosing IFS.”

It’s an exciting time for IFS, says Stummer, and by the looks of it, for IFS customers and partners in the industry too.

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