CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the first part of the decade, as the technology bubble burst, application development service companies were a dime a dozen. Phil Morris and Joe Guy, who founded Mariner in Charlotte in 1998, knew they had to differentiate themselves in the market if they were to survive.

“We essentially re-invented ourselves into a Business Intelligence (BI) company — we took our skills to a particular niche with a great deal of promise,” Morris said. “In four years, we turned Mariner into a 100 percent BI company.”

It helped that Microsoft was also exploring this new field, which has become the latest trend in application technology. In 2005, according to a report by Gartner, Microsoft experienced a 35.9 percent increase in revenues from its BI platform, more than twice that of the other leading database management systems and legacy pure play BI Vendors.

As a Gold Certified Partner with Microsoft with specializations in BI and Information Worker solutions, Mariner is sharing in the growth, with a 40 percent annual increase in business during each of the last three years. It now has 22 employees and plans to add three more by the end of the year.

“We’re riding the wave,” Morris said.

Morris was recently named to Microsoft’s BI Business Advisory Council, a prestigious group of 25 individuals that provide the firm with information from the field.

Avoiding Silo Effect

Morris focuses on sales and marketing and finance, while Guy is in charge of operations. “There is a clear division of responsibilities, but we are not siloed,” Morris said. “We often confer with each other.”

It’s a given in today’s data-driven world that access to the right information at the right time makes for better decisions. BI gives companies improved access to information generated by their various IT systems, such as accounting/fiancé, supply chain, CRM and order entry.

Explained Morris: “These different systems create information silos, and they don’t talk to each other. Data integration (or warehousing) creates a repository for all this information and makes it possible to extract it from these transactional silos and use it to make decisions.”

For example, there are usually several different data systems in place after a merger or acquisition, and they don’t talk to each other. A customer may order products from two or three different divisions, but no one is aware of it. Morris said Mariner helped one client trace these customer relationships, and then used the information to ship orders together rather then separately, resulting in “saving a lot of money without great effort.”

Most of Mariner’s clients are based in Charlotte and include companies in the financial services, utilities, manufacturing and healthcare sectors.

Next month, Mariner will participate in Microsoft’s Community Technology Preview of its PerformancePoint Server suite, which will officially debut in June 2007. It is made up of three components:

Scorecarding brings every employee into the performance management process through personalized Web-based scorecards that use a metric approach to measure how well the company is executing its objectives.

Advanced Analytics uses enhanced visualization and analytical capabilities to empower users to improve the decision-making process.

Planning increases the effectiveness of planning, budgeting and forecasting by enabling users to create detailed models and flexible plans that coordinate the use of information across departments and organizational hierarchies.

Buying Based On Business Sensewhich Morris called “recession-resistant” — also appeals to the new attitude companies have toward technology products and services. “Prior to 2001, it was a faith trip,” Morris commented. “People would buy something because it sounded like it would be good — not based on a business justification.

“But then people became much more protective of their spending, and they are backing up their decisions with good common sense and business sense,” he continued. “It’s not just a rational process, it’s also based on the return on investment. And they are looking at a one-to-two-year payback, not five or 10.”

That means vendors have had to change their selling approach. “People buy in small bites, and then hold service providers much more accountable,” Morris observed. “The key is to achieve business value. If they don’t, they’re not going to buy the second bite.”

That conservative attitude is one that Mariner has used in approaching its own growth. Morris said the company has had no outside funding and has self-financed its growth through operations, taking on little debt.

While BI will undoubtedly continue to be Mariner’s bread and butter, Morris is willing to contemplate a more diversified future, such as finding ways to use ‘wasted’ information’ locked in Word documents, e-mails and Excel files.

But for now, BI remains the heart and soul of Mariner. “We live and breathe BI day in and day out. We are not distracted by other business models,” Morris noted. “That is a big differentiator for us is. None of our competitors focus directly on BI.”


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