London Drugs Ltd., a chain of large drug and electronics retail stores that has taken western Canada by storm, has always been pretty much of a mystery to analysts and competitors. Privately owned by Brandt Louie, a Chinese-Canadian who is one of Canada's richest men, even the company's annual revenues are a closely held secret. (In 2002 Maclean's magazine estimated revenues from various Louie holdings–of which London Drugs is by far the largest–to be around $4 billion.)

Perhaps even more surprising: Up until a few years ago, much of the success of the company's retail stores–and some of their problems–were a mystery to Louie and the company's managers as well. "You could see things in a big-picture way, but with 1,500 items in the stores, you couldn't hope to see how each item was doing in each store," says Laird Miller, CFO of London Drugs. Enter implementation of a business intelligence (BI) strategy. "We began introducing BI about five years ago," says Miller, who took over as finance chief about the same time. "We started in finance, and then moved to HR payroll and to an employee portal. It's amazing the light it has shone on things that were always there but you didn't see them before."

As an example, Miller reports the firm's BI system revealed the fact that a certain product had been gathering dust on shelves in stores and warehouses, but no one had noticed. "It's the kind of thing that might have been noticed by individual store managers, but no one would have seen it as a company-wide issue," he says. "You could have done it without BI, but you would have had to build a separate application or put a group of accountants–God help you–in a room and have them bang away."

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