When executives at Total Quality Logistics Inc. (TQL), an intermediary service provider between freight carriers and companies with goods to ship, considered installing an ERP system back in 2003, the company took a pass based on the size and cost of the installation. The Cincinnati-based company had annual revenues of just over $50 million that year, and despite its fast growth rate, executives decided to stick with its accounting software system as its primary financial management technology. A little more than a year later, that changed when CFO Joseph Hardiman arrived. At the time, late 2004, the company was growing at a 90%-plus annual clip; still, Hardiman could see it was being held back by a system that among other things would allow only one employee on at a time to pay bills.

After comparing ERP systems, the company bought a Microsoft Corp. Great Plains system, now rebranded as Microsoft Dynamics GP, and according to Hardiman, it has been delivering the kind of efficiencies in data retrieval that a fast-growing company needs. One of the biggest benefits is the speed with which Hardiman can now make decisions on extending credit to customers, a process that requires ready, real-time access to customer payment and balance information. The ERP system links directly to a lockbox where checks are posted, and updates are made throughout the day. Under the old system, those payment details would often come in the next day. "It's increasing our sales by 5% to 10% by getting that information faster so I can make a decision on whether to extend credit," says Hardiman.

As the number of technology choices for finance departments keeps growing, more high-powered systems that once made sense only for large companies are finding their way to small and midsize companies. Those include applications that can span an organization, such as ERP systems from the likes of Oracle, Microsoft and SAP, and treasury workstations by Thomson Financial, SunGard AvantGard and Trema. Several factors are driving the trend. The technology itself has made huge leaps in recent years, especially among ERP systems, allowing for easier deployments that require fewer outside resources to get them up and running. Web-based capabilities have also added to the flexibility of large technology platforms. "When you look at middle market companies, this is a group that can't take risks the way larger companies can," says Katherine Jones, research director of enterprise applications at Aberdeen Group. "They have specific ways of buying technology. They can't have a year long deployment or an ROI that's not quantifiable in less than 15 months."

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