Plex Systems has gone through some big changes in the last year. Starting with new investors, a new CEO, and some new execs, Plex is flexing its position in the Manufacturing and Cloud application markets.
I consider the CEOs’ and executives’ presentations at their annual user conferences to be the most important speeches of the year. Everyone is there—investors, analysts, partners and press—who broadcast your message and often critique it for their big subscriber/reader audience. But most importantly, the greatest concentration of customers is there. What you tell them there—in a public forum—is critical. Based upon what they hear, they conclude that a product will make it easier (or more difficult) to do their job every day.
What a company believes and puts into practice matters. So what does Jason Blessing, the CEO of Plex, believe? Jason spent the last few months on tour meeting with many Plex customers who talked to him, and more importantly, he said, they took him into their factories and showed him what they made and how they used his products. He saw their passion for manufacturing and he stated that their customers believe that the best days of manufacturing are not behind us, but are yet to come. And that belief is shared by Jason Blessing and Plex Systems. Why is this belief important? Because it means that Plex will play its role to fulfill that vision—investing in their product and not becoming what he called “an ERP Zombie.”
Investment in the Future…and Now
What are those investments? The three big areas, Jason stated, are:
Enhance existing products—This means to bring in more staff and make other R&D investments to not only continuously improve existing products, but to also develop some new modules. (Plex Roadmap discussed below.)
Enrich the customer experience—Here, there is more investment in the customer support and services areas, with customer support, training and consulting. (Customer Centricity below.)
Raise awareness of Plex—To that end Plex has invested in sales and marketing, increasing personnel and programs to “enhance the awareness of Plex beyond the Midwest,” as they say. In addition, more effort and programs have been put in place to communicate with their customers.
Jason believes that the time for cloud enterprises or vertical cloud players has come. (He is not alone in this thought, shared by the press and analysts, who are now beginning to pay a lot more attention to cloud application players.) Certainly, the early pioneers really laid the groundwork for a robust high-performance cloud solution for manufacturing. Current and future buyers will benefit from that visionary investment.
Other ERP companies are scrambling to create cloud solutions with a variety of offerings—single- and multi-tenant—all of which cost a lot of money to build and support. That development money, then, is not going into functionality and global expansion, but into re-architecting. I do feel this is a necessity for those companies. But it is a fact that if you have a single strategy, and that strategy is on the winning side of the market, you do have a cost advantage. Read Cloud Manufacturing Heats Up.
As Jason put it, his competitors are struggling with “disruption of their business model,” especially public companies who argued for years that subscription revenues were not good for their shareholder value.1 Personally, I never understood that logic, if you look at share prices of the webbies today compared with those of traditional software companies.
Concluding his remarks, Jason Blessing reiterated, “The ERP market has enough zombie companies around, and Plex will not be one of those….We will continue to invest in the product and our mutual future.”
Customer Centricity and Service
Chris Bishop, VP of Global Customer Service and Support, projected his own message to the customer base:
Chris demonstrates that customer-centric passion in his demeanor and in the programs Plex is putting forward.
The hallmark of the Plex culture, the Plex social site, got a major modernization using a new social/content platform for Plex Community, now much enriched from the pioneering community site they already had.
Education services have been enhanced to include all formats: in-classroom training focused on immersion into the Plex Manufacturing Cloud and online instruction with live instructors (no zombies please). And coming soon, Plex TV, a self-paced format. Chris stated that “the tombstone for failed ERP implementation reads, ‘I wish I spent more on education.’” So Plex is trying to make it easier for companies to get education in a formal and continuous way.2
Customer Care Team—expansion of customer support and opening of customer care centers in California and Germany, “out of the Midwest, and into the world.”
But at the end of the day, as Chris stated, “Customer loyalty is driven by great customer service.” So all the speeches and program ideas won’t matter unless the earnestness and follow-through are there. I learned from many Plex employees about their performance and responsiveness metrics, and their relationships built with customers over the years. This seemed to be their preoccupation as a culture—how do the customers feel, what do they want, how well are they using what they have? As a customer, that is what you want to hear—do they care about me and will they help me?
Plex Road Map
Jim Sheppard, Vice President of Strategy, shared the product roadmap—a very aggressive build-out of Plex solutions with an increase by 35% over last year’s development budget.
Part of the Plex culture is a very engaged customer community who socializes and prioritizes the enhancements a solution should have—Community-Driven Development.
But Plex, rightly so, wants some break-out strategy to capture more market share—and a bigger share of the enterprise footprint. So the Plex Development Budget will focus on mega projects that may impact all customers, or new market opportunities such as their “cross-browser” project, especially desired by the new customers coming onboard.
To capture the larger account market, the corporate structure of larger global enterprises is a big issue. These are complex structures with multi-country, multi-division, M&As, spinouts, and complex relationships. Plex is a very successful mid-size enterprise, site, or subsidiary system, but is not known for the global, big corporate ‘roll-up.’ So developing a global financial module will allow them to provide more corporate-centric capabilities to the large multi-nationals, and thus win larger manufacturing accounts.
Entering into new verticals is another part of their strategy. Recently, Plex took the plunge in the “non-discrete/non-serialized market” as they call it—process manufacturing such as Chemical and Food and Beverage. More industries will follow as cloud becomes more mainstream.
Plex will continue to seek out and even enhance customer engagement in the development of these and many other solutions. They are inviting the customer base to increase the SIGs (special interest groups) or Customer Interest Communities, so that customers can engage and help guide future developments by product, industry, geography or other topical areas. Jim would like to support these groups to “hum,” with deep engagement in the future. In talking to Plex customers, they are excited about having more involvement. Many have experienced the ‘big ERP’ world with low touch between the firm and the users. Plus as cloud pioneers, many of them want the cloud market to strengthen.
Plex has additional market opportunities in module sales such as MES and Quality, often as standalone purchases. With the lack of domain independent MES players3 in the market or cloud options for manufacturers, Plex can get more of this business, since they have the functionality and the capability to perform in large plant operations.
Jim Sheppard also told me some interesting aspects of the development process at Plex. Plex has increased the budget for their Service Product Specialists. These are people with deep product expertise who monitor all the requests that come in for enhancements. Often the capability already exists, so they can just show it to the customers. If it doesn’t, with a slight modification using VisionPlex (to create or modify, screens, workflows and reports); or IntelliPlex (to create analytics and reports), the customer can get the desired feature almost immediately. Longer-term requirements, of course, are blended and discussed on the community site, and often a consensus among interested customers is created to develop something they can all use within a week or two!
Conclusions—Is Software Dead?
I always find this statement startling, especially from people who make their living writing software. But Jerry Foster, Vice President of Research & Development, co-founder, and 23-year veteran of Plex told me that their frustration with the limitations of client service had them on the hunt for a long time to find another approach to supporting their customers. When Plex decided to move to multi-tenant cloud, there was no roadmap for them. Better, then, to lead the revolution. (By leading you might die, but you might also have a city named after you! Read more about this in, Plex—Founding Fathers of the Cloud Revolution, in this issue.)
I admit I was blown away when Tom Decoe, Vice President of Infrastructure, told me about the performance Plex gets for their customers. Mega-manufacturing facilities running machine/sensor level shop floors—without PLCs! How about 50 to 70 million transactions a day? There were large and small customers I chatted with who now trust the system, end-to-end, from planning to shop-floor execution, without worrying about service disruptions or slowed performance. This topic is one of the major concerns when considering cloud. Tom told me about the performance monitoring activities at Plex. Programmers’ code is evaluated based on the run time. And processes are monitored to ensure that the split-second performance promise is kept as the usage scales.
Jason Prater, Vice President of Development, also weighed in on the issues of making cloud better than on premise. “Continuous Deployment,” is the mantra, he told me.4 Plex, it turns out, trumps Google, Facebook, et al. on this metric. So what is Continuous Deployment? A methodology and technologies around software delivery, providing constant software updates and continuous integration.5 It’s no small feat to maintain quality software upgrades and ensure they are harmonious with everything everybody’s got out there!
Perhaps I should have picked another title/analogy than ‘Plex Flexing,’ but that is what was happening at the conference: lots of energy! ‘Flexing muscles’ is a phrase one usually associates with pumping iron. But for Plex customers there is no iron—hardware, that is. And there are a lot more things that Plex customers are doing without, as I learned during the days I spent at PowerPlex. Technology firms like to market all the things they give their customers.
Widening gaps between the rev their business is using and the current software available in market:
Huge disruption from major software upgrades
Multiple levels of complex software modules and endless code integrations to manage
Ongoing long queues for IT enhancements
And, yes, no software. This topic is continued in Founding Fathers of the Cloud Revolution in this issue. As the cloud market explodes and Plex grows rapidly, their challenge will be to keep the community feel to their culture while becoming one of the top ERPs.
1 Certainly in a short term, quarter-to-quarter perspective, you would see impact as you move to payments spread out over multi-year; but over time that rights itself. Plus there are investors who do take multi-year positions, rather than flipping stocks like hamburger. -- Return to article text above 2 As I pointed out in the Epicor Insight updates, these investments in educational services are a big hit with the customer base and make a real difference in adoption success by reducing implementation times and adding to ROI, as well as aiding ongoing, effective use of the system. -- Return to article text above 3 Apriso, as a standalone, exits the market with the purchase by Dassault. -- Return to article text above 4 You will get deeper treatment of cloud technology in an upcoming issue of the brief. -- Return to article text above 5 I promise to write more about this and other cloud technology architectural consideration in the next issue. Look for Cloud Applications—What You Must Know -- Return to article text above
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