No one would believe that spraying some go-faster stripes on a Ford Escort would suddenly make it out-accelerate a Ferrari. However, this seems to be the misguided notion driving the e-business industry at the moment, with old-school software vendors trying to re-brand themselves as sleek and sexy by slapping a big fat 'e' in front of all their product names. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendor Baan is the latest company to jump on the e-bandwagon. The company aggressively pushed the e-commerce message at its BaanWorld 99 user and partner conference in Vienna last week. Whatever the product or service, they are now all preceded by an 'e', recasting the company as a complete order-to-delivery provider rather than an ERP supplier. ERP has become a commodity item: integration of supply chains using the internet is where Baan sees the future. However, it seems that, in Baan's case, the changes at the company are more than just a superficial paint job. New faces at the top of the company's finance, marketing and chief executive slots are driving through a corporate strategy that aims to restore the company's fortunes. It is mopping up the financial mess and it seems to be oddly contrite about its past mistakes. Ahead of the competition According to John Allen, managing director of market analyst E Technology Consulting: "The thin client/server architecture really is as good as Baan is saying, and it will create a lot of interest among resellers and end users." The technology has moved on from the days when it was considered prehistoric, he said. "The company is trying to take a major jump over everyone else." But the troubled vendor has a lot of perceptions that it needs to change, and has had a rough time, even by the standards of the turbulent ERP market. There have been staff cuts, office closures and quarter after quarter losses, and it has been buffeted by criticism coming from all sides. "We have been through - and I will use a kind word - 'transition'. Others might use another word," said Jim Mooney, Baan chief financial officer. "A lot of companies stay mediocre forever, but it's our goal to turn this around to worldwide success." Like rivals SAP and Peoplesoft, Baan has been forced off the ERP back-office territory to scavenge for new revenue opportunities. Front-office applications such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and supply chain software have become the new revenue hunting ground. Baan has gained expertise in those areas through acquisition. Its strategy is to consolidate its position as the number one or two player in each vertical niche. With CRM, for example, it wants to secure the number two slot behind dedicated CRM supplier, Siebel. In supply chain software, it wants to nestle behind i2. Where it aims to succeed is in gift-wrapping all the front-office apps together as an integrated internet product set, so that, as CEO Mary Coleman eloquently put it, customers will have "one throat to choke". Baan also aims to build on its existing expertise and installed customer base in the manufacturing sector. E-commerce is worth $131bn today, and will hit the $1.5 trillion mark by 2003, according to Forrester Research. The manufacturing business-to-business slice of that money mountain represents an $800bn market opportunity. "Our strategy is to leverage core strengths in manufacturing, exploit CRM and supply chain (expertise), and e-enable our entire product line," Coleman said. Mooney's strategy this year was to take a hit in the third quarter with worse than anticipated losses. This was due to the introduction of a subscription-based pricing system, where customers do not pay a lump sum upfront. By the middle of next year, the bottom line should be much healthier if everything goes according to plan. With a clear strategy in place, and defined sales goals and plans to increase market share and services revenue, Baan is confident it will restore that licence revenue growth next year. And with extra cash freed up from cost-cutting measures, it is heavily investing in advertising and branding campaigns to help raise its profile to better compete with SAP and Oracle. Hedging its bets The next six months will be crunch time. Baan can no longer blame Year 2000 for affecting sales. Despite its emphasis on front-office apps, it is not abandoning its ERP home ground altogether. While it is anticipating a 40-50 per cent growth in front-office sales, ERP sales will still account for double-digit growth. However, whatever its product portfolio, SAP's sheer size and installed base will be a tough nut to crack, and the front-office market will be keenly fought. In its favour, Baan has strong partnerships, notably with IBM - which is reinforced by the fact that Mooney himself joined from IBM. Microsoft is another key partnership. It announced at the conference that Baan ERP 5.0c is one of the first enterprise-class applications to be directory-enabled on the Windows 2000 operating system.
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