The Business Idea
Your grandmother’s cookies are good, but Mrs. Fields’ cookies were really good. Urban legend good. In 1977, Debbi Fields opened her first Mrs. Fields’ Chocolate Chippery as a not-quite-fully baked idea. Most of her peers and even her husband (Randy) didn’t think she would find any success in this cookie business. These sentiments were almost realized when Fields failed to sell a single cookie on the morning of that first day…until she started giving them away for free to people on the street.
The free cookies samples were a recipe for success. People loved the softer, chewier cookies Fields had to offer and returned to her store to buy more. The store itself was designed to be warm and welcoming, and soon business was booming. Within two years, Fields had expanded to three locations with lines out the door.
The Business Scenario
By this point Debbi and her husband were rolling in the dough, but she found herself spending 16-hour days mired in the mix of running the operations at all three locations. With continued plans to expand and a growing number of stores, employees and logistics to keep track of, not to mention competition from a rapidly expanding Famous Amos cookie chain, the whole operation almost crumbled under the pressure. In fact, they tried to sell the business for $150,000 to an ice cream maker, but were turned down.
Mrs. Fields cookies were in high demand, but could she continue to expand her operations while maintaining the high level of customer care and service? What could Fields do to keep her company from getting battered by larger competitors?
The Business Intelligence
As fortune (cookie) would have it, Debbi’s husband Randy was a software maker, and he spearheaded a plan to use a network of computers to allow them to know what was going on in each location and ensure that local managers conducted business as Debbi would herself.
This was no small feat in the early to mid 1980s. This software, eventually known as ROI (Retail Operations Intelligence), automated almost all of the administrative tasks that managers would spend most of their time on so that they could get back to taking care of their customers, the way Debbi had always approached the business. Product stocks were monitored, daily production schedules were planned, materials were ordered automatically, and so were payroll, training, and more. The software was so successful that it spun of into its own company: Fields Software Group. They began selling their A.I. management software to such juggernauts as Burger King. According to Randy, ROI used complex math and A.I. to analyze information in real time and compared it to expectation in order to make better business decisions.
And the proof was in the pudding. 14 Mrs. Fields stores by 1981, 70 stores by 1983, and franchising across the world in 1987. Even with the huge growth, “store managers spent about five minutes an hour, and twenty minutes before and after work using their computers to help run their outlets. Headquarters staff in 1988 remained low at about 130 persons.” One of the key BI insights was revealing how inefficient certain administrative processes had been. In fact, when Mrs. Fields bought La Petite Boulangerie, a chain of 119 bakeries, the software revealed vast inefficiencies in its operation and helped reduce 53 administrators across the chain to just three.
Who would have though a one-woman company specializing in old-timey treats would eventually pioneer a brand-new business technology? Not bad for a tale of just desserts.
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