Chiquita Slips, but Does Not Fall

The inside story of a problem-plagued financial system overhaul that just might work.

Four years ago, Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International Inc. launched an ambitious, multimillion-dollar effort to consolidate its financial accounting systems and create a centralized budget planning and forecasting system. The company has three semi-autonomous units -- bananas, salads and other food products -- each of which has multiple lines of business worldwide.

It hasn't been easy, says Lisa Mullaney, former director of Chiquita's financial planning and analysis (FP&A) department, who guided the project through a number of challenges, including initial business-unit resistance, software bugs, delays and staffing shortages.

"We've fallen off [deadline] quite a few times," she admits. But she adds, "Are we at a point where we have a clear line of sight? Yes."

The business performance management (BPM) system, built with Oracle Corp.'s Hyperion suite of tools, including Enterprise Performance Management System 11, finally went live last fall for Chiquita's 2010 budget cycle. However, the company's salad business continued to use its own tools for budgeting, and FP&A is in the process of redesigning the structure of the system. The forecasting function is expected to go live this month.

So the megaproject isn't finished, but Mullaney says the work is now "moving at light speed."

CIO Manjit Singh has a harder time seeing that level of progress. "The general perception is, we got it to work. But it was painful, and the [business-side managers] aren't necessarily looking at this as a successful implementation," he says. But corporate management likes the system -- because it allows executives to get financial and operational data rollups.

"Once we start using it for forecasting, I'm hoping the reaction to the project will turn more positive," Singh adds.

Both Singh and Mullaney sat on the executive steering committee for the project, but their divergent perspectives reflect how differently IT and finance groups tend to view BPM projects.

The finance view: "This is an application and tool set that's owned by finance," says Mullaney. Unlike an ERP implementation, she says, a Hyperion tool set for financial planning is "not designed to be part of the IT structure."

The IT view: "This is viewed incorrectly as a corporate finance initiative. It affects all areas of the business," says Singh. "A Hyperion implementation can be as complex as an ERP implementation."

Both executives agree on the value of BPM software like Hyperion. Such tools allow the business to get to "one version of the truth" by moving everyone off the e-mailed spreadsheet merry-go-round for corporate budgeting and onto an integrated set of tools. All underlying assumptions that go into budgeting and forecasting within each line of business are visible to corporate finance, and results can be rolled up quickly and easily for corporate forecasting.

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