Case Study

U Dayton Student-Run business Turns to Technology for Business Intelligence

A student-run business at the University of Dayton that employs 200 people over seven divisions is using a business intelligence solution to help run operations more efficiently.

Flyer Enterprises is one of the largest student-run businesses in the country. According to Lauren Clarisey, a University of Dayton senior with a double major in leadership and marketing who is the outgoing CEO of Flyer, the company operates seven businesses on campus. Those range from food service to a full-service cafe to coffee shops and a convenience store. In 2007, Flyer opened a retail office store targeting alumni. This year, the organization will generate $1.4 million, $80,000 of that net profit.

"Everything we do is student-run," Clarisey said, from sales associates to the executive team. Professors and university administrators form a board of directors that oversees strategic and long-term planning and approves large capital expenditures, but day-to-day operations are all handled by students. That can mean as much as 30 hours a week for the C-level positions, according to Jordan Barth, a senior majoring in management if information systems, and outgoing CIO of the company.

Just back from a conference on student agencies, Clarisey said that, compared to even much larger schools with student-run businesses, "we've got a good thing going here... Our organization is head and shoulders above what others are doing." Flyer has grown extensively in the last 10 years, she said, opening seven different businesses in that time.

To manage expenses better, view data more clearly, and increase productivity, the organization has been using financial analytics and data visualization software. The solution, Tableau Desktop, connects to Flyer's back-end database to produce easy-to-generate reports that can help users from sales associates to HR personnel to the CEO visualize data in colorful, easy-to-read charts and forms. Before Tableau, employees viewed "standard canned reports in PDF format," Barth said--and only those who had access to the server, essentially the IT group, could produce them.

Barth said he learned about Tableau last year in a data warehousing class; Flyer Enterprises began using the software when he came on board as CIO. There, the value of quickly analyzing and visualizing data has become readily apparent--and is saving considerable time. "It's about being able to look at your data quickly, and not spend time looking at spreadsheets," Barth said.

Financial managers in each division use Tableau to analyze real-time sales data by hour, menu item, location, and more. Having the numbers readily available as visual displays allows Flyer users to make more informed business decisions. They can also better demonstrate financial success to the board and strategic venture partners.

Since deploying Tableau, Flyer executives have uncovered a few discrepancies in reports that weren't evident before because the new software displayed numbers not reported previously, thus exposing the problem.

Also, since automating its financial worksheets with Tableau, the organization has seen an increase in productivity. An analysis process that might have taken three or four hours now takes 30 minutes, for considerable incremental savings.

For example, Tableau helped produce an examination of data from a Flyer coffee shop that often closes for student events. Instead of searching through endless pages of sales reports to calculate lost revenue during closed periods, Barth said, the sales manager could easily drill down with Tableau. Managers are paid an hourly wage, Barth explained, and were spending hours collecting and examining the data. "It could come to a couple hundred dollars per report," he said, "not to mention, that's not the learning we wanted--copying numbers into an Excel spreadsheet."

Flyer is nearing the completion of a large data warehousing project that will enable workers to use Tableau even more extensively--in fact, the use of Tableau originally made it clear, Barth said, that Flyer needed better back-end data to draw on.

Meanwhile, graduating senior Clarisey said she is "grateful for the opportunity" that both Flyer and Tableau have given her. Citing her experience with the software when talking to potential employers is "absolutely beneficial," she said. "It sets us apart from our peers on graduation."

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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