This story is part of Analytics Heroes, a series of profiles on leaders transforming the future of business analytics.

Whether it’s his years of experience or fascination with data, one thing is certain: Ron Lewis has a passion for solving problems. Ron is the Vice President of Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) at Stein Mart, a national specialty retailer. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, Stein Mart has 283 stores in 30 states, serving customers with brand-name fashion, home décor, and accessories.

Sitting down for a filmed interview, Ron adjusts his glasses and proudly describes his company’s mission along with his role at Stein Mart. “We inspire our customers to look and feel special while saving money and I think that’s a great purpose.” Ron’s role is to understand the operating results, so the company can keep delivering on that promise. “Retail has data and information overload, traditionally we spent more time gathering data and not enough time analyzing it. So, my role is to gather and simplify all this great information, and my goal is to drive better decisions for the company,” says Ron.

Understanding and attributing same-store sales

For Stein Mart, same-store sales data — the details of a single store’s sales year-on-year, or any period compared to the previous one — is extraordinarily important to track and evaluate. “We easily do over 150 reports a month for store results,” says Ron. “This year versus last year, versus a budget, versus a forecast. On top of that, we do the same for day, week, month, quarter, quarter to date, and other scenarios such as region and district.”

His biggest achievement so far? Getting IBM Planning Analytics installed and configured to satisfy the business objectives for Stein Mart. “I was a big advocate… I had been pushing for a solution for about four years. Some would call me an evangelist. I got a reputation for a while,” he laughs. Once Stein mart installed Planning Analytics, they saw the results and realized how quickly it would help them deliver more accurate forecasts in a fraction of the time.

Ron appreciates how Planning Analytics helps him stay on top of complex calculations: “The problem with spreadsheets is that they’re in a constant state of flux,” says Ron. “Planning Analytics helps us manage the source system, so we don’t spend a lot of time reconciling all those results.”

When asked when he knew he needed a new solution, Ron said it was based on years of inefficiencies. “Whenever we would go into a meeting, we would spend more time reconciling the different spreadsheets that everybody had, rather than trying to drive the decisions.” With all the time and cost saved by moving to a more efficient solution, the team at Stein Mart was able to tackle other more critical business operations objectives. They could now discuss and focus on what they wanted to do for Stein Mart to help drive better business results.

Moving to IBM’s cloud-based analytics solution helped ease Stein Mart’s IT resource constraints. In the past, they struggled to find resources for upgrades with their on-premises solutions. Ron describes how they were just one of many competing groups trying to get those resource dollars. Now with Planning Analytics on cloud, they simply schedule when they want to upgrade, and it gets pushed down to them at zero cost.

Serving power users, helping business users

The implementation of Planning Analytics is changing the function of Stein Mart’s IT team for the better. Historically, their systems were maintained and updated by the IT staff, who served their power users. Though the IT staff did a great job, they couldn’t keep up with the requests. Now their power users can access the data and insights directly, the role of IT has changed. IT no longer has to maintain the system, they’re more like partners with the power users, helping them find better ways to access the data and allowing IT to concentrate on other areas of the business such as data protection, security and retail customer facing solutions.

Beyond FP&A power users, the company’s business users benefited from a compliance standpoint. Stein Mart is a publicly traded company, so they had to be very cognizant of all the requirements we have regarding security and data protection and access controls. “We spent a lot of time around that, working with IBM and our partner QueBIT to make sure everything was appropriately secure.” Even with these security demands, QueBIT’s implementation was completed in under seven weeks.

Beyond implementation, QueBIT continues to help Ron and the team at Stein Mart. “They’re a great partner in helping us get information quickly,” says Ron. “What we love is that it’s immediate. It’s not next week. It’s not next month. They ask us, ‘What can we do to help you now?’”

Opening doors to new insights

Planning Analytics not only helped Stein Mart save time, it opened doors to new insights in the retail industry. “We spend more time analyzing the data,” says Ron. “It helps me find a thread that I can pull. I can now dig further, deeper, faster, to help find different decision points that we weren’t seeing before.” These insights are driving better business decisions for Stein Mart.

“To give you an example — we would get an email request, say, from the CFO,” says Ron. “And then he’d call 10 or 15 minutes later, with a little stress in his voice, like ‘How soon can you get this to us? Can you get it done?’ And I’d have to figure out if I could even get it. And if I could, how many spreadsheets was it going to take to get there. Now, if he calls, I can say ‘James, give me about five minutes and you’ll have it in your email,’” laughs Ron. “With the Planning Analytics environment, and the speed of the cubes, we can turn things around very quickly.”

Other groups have also discovered the advantages of the new IBM system. “It has really taken off with Store Operations,” says Ron. “They’re using it to make sense of store results, and to provide monthly results, year-over-year results, et cetera — it’s just been extraordinarily helpful.”

“Our IT group is using it for departmental budgets and forecasting,” says Ron. “Now that they don’t have to put all that data in spreadsheets, they can turn around the monthly results more quickly.”

Being a champion for analytics: centralizing data, managing change, driving results

A major positive change was the elevation of the FP&A function within the company. “Just a year and a half ago, the FP&A role did not officially exist in Stein Mart,” says Ron. “Now it’s a centralized function because we were able to demonstrate that we could provide great data and information in a very quick and meaningful way. Now our FP&A department is moving up, being recognized within the organization, and is starting to grow.”

To Ron, being the champion for his efforts in analytics means being able to provide users the information they need to make better decisions, and that starts with centralizing data. “My role is to be pushing every day to get more data, and better data, and get it distributed to the users. From there, we can start using other tools like predictive analytics to help us make better decisions and achieve better results.”

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