Customer Story | Country Club
How Northstone Country Club Eliminated Manual Invoice Processing
NorthStone Country Club sits in the heart of Huntersville, 30 minutes from downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. The club is home to 18 holes of private golf, a tennis facility, a restaurant and bar, and a wide range of family-friendly amenities. The membership at NorthStone is designed to be accessible to the community, with no initiation fees, no minimum spending requirements, and no assessments.
NorthStone was founded in the late 1990s by Bob Ryan, who developed the community and still owns the club. Steve Foster, the Chief Financial Officer & Club Controller, has been at NorthStone since 2014. “There’s definitely some heartstrings to this club,” Steve explained. “Bob has a fondness for it that goes beyond business.”
In Steve Foster’s first career, he worked as a restaurant general manager and an area supervisor for upper-midscale restaurants. After a career pivot to software tech and then the construction industry, Steve returned to his hospitality roots at NorthStone, bringing his finance and operations experience.
The Challenge: Manual Invoice Workflow
NorthStone Country Club is divided into departments, such as administrative, golf, course maintenance, club operations, food and beverage, and other areas. Invoice processing, inventory, and vendor payment responsibilities are spread across these different department heads, who run separate budgets.
Previously, invoices were delivered to the club by hand, through the mail, or via email. Invoices were shared to the responsible department head for review, approval, and coding with the correct general ledger (GL) account. Once invoices were approved, they were returned to Accounts Payable (AP), and the office manager would manually key in invoices, completing check runs twice a month.
This manual process, from delivering invoices to coding to payment processing, brought on two specific challenges:
1. Manual AP took up a lot of time.
Some departments processed relatively simple invoices that only required coding for one or two GL accounts. However, particularly for departments like food and beverage, manually coding invoices for a vendor like Sysco would require “something like 10 different GL accounts, 10 different expense accounts, and 10 different asset accounts for food cost,” explained Steve.
Bringing in his restaurant background, Steve knew the value of “granularity” in inventory, being able to see individual expense accounts like meat, seafood, produce, and supplies. But to achieve this granularity, his team was spending large amounts of time coding invoices every week.
2. Manual AP was not only time-consuming, but it was also frequently inaccurate.
Keying in invoices by hand would lead to mistakes, and resolving issues would compound how long the team had to spend processing invoices.
The Search for an Automated AP Solution: Choosing Plate IQ
As Chief Financial Officer & Club Controller, Steve oversees technology improvements that streamline the company’s operations. Over the years, Steve had implemented new systems for payroll, digitized paper files for employee and membership documents, and the large decision to switch the club’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software to Club Essential.
After the ERP switch, Steve began to research an invoice and vendor payment solution—but without high hopes, as he explained. “I could just see so many challenges associated with AP automation, I wasn’t aware of a comprehensive AP automation suite that I felt would really help us. In my mind, I had all of these obstacles [with invoice processing] that no solution was going to be able to overcome.”
Plate IQ’s Value: Food and Beverage Granularity
Steve considered many software options for NorthStone before finally landing on Plate IQ. He explained that the functionality of Plate IQ was competitive for most areas of AP automation, but the platform “was so much better than anybody else at food and beverage.”
I felt like Plate IQ did food and beverage better than anybody else, and it wasn’t close. That was ultimately the tipping point for me.
Steve explained that the course maintenance and food and beverage departments are the two biggest spenders at the club, so he kept their needs top-of-mind.
A typical invoice for course maintenance, he said, will only have one or two GL accounts. But for a food and beverage invoice, Steve added, “It’s not uncommon for an invoice to be $12,000 and to have 18 GL splits on it. So it’s really helpful when filet mignon goes to the same GL account every time.”
For Steve, he was examining “the high level of visibility of price changes that you get right on the dashboard,” as well as “how accurate your processing engine and processes were to get GL coding correct. ”Due to the high number of GL splits in food and beverage invoices, “the level of granularity and detail that Plate IQ can process on an invoice” set the software apart.
Added Value: EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) Integration
In addition to Plate IQ’s general capabilities and the robust functionality for food and beverage, Steve was also impressed with Plate IQ’s Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) integration.
“EDI was a selling point for me,” Steve said. “The fact that you guys had relationships with and did process several of the major vendors that we use, via EDI—it just doesn’t get any cleaner than that. It greatly removes the possibility for human error.”
NorthStone has been able to leverage the EDI integration with multiple wholesale vendors, such as US Foods, Sysco, Gordon Food Service, Performance Food Group, FreshPoint, Inland Seafood, Pepsi, Coke, and Fintech. “Plate IQ targets a lot of the vendors that we use, and I don’t recall any of the other applications that I looked at offering that,” explained Steve.
Implementing Plate IQ at NorthStone
After deciding to implement Plate IQ across the company in the fourth quarter of 2019, Steve decided to do a “soft rollout” with the AP automation suite, gradually ramping up to full adoption on January 1st, 2020. The company had just implemented the new ERP Club Essential earlier that year, he explained, which had been a “large process” for the organization.
Because of the soft rollout, Steve explained, “for us, the Plate IQ implementation was a three month process.” However, he added, “I think it can be done much faster, in two weeks or less.”
Steve started working with the food and beverage department first, because he “wanted to get the people who benefited the most on board.” His approach paid off: “food and beverage could really see the benefit, so they bought in quickly. They were probably really 100% adopted within four weeks on the outside, and maybe closer to two weeks,” he said.
Team Feedback on AP Automation
The first time the food and beverage team saw what Plate IQ could do, said Steve, “it was kind of an ‘a-ha!’ moment.” He explained that he had shown his team how to code the first invoice in the system, without much of a reaction. However, with each new invoice, the food and beverage team could see that more and more items were coming in already coded. “Within a month, 90% of all of their invoices are coming in coded,” he summarized. That’s when, Steve says, his team really embraced the potential of AP automation.
For the food and beverage team alone, “I would suggest to you that the Plate IQ invoice automation saves hours. It probably saves that team four or five hours a week, minimum, in terms of just coding invoices. And then of course, the accuracy component adds to that,” explained Steve.
The implementation also brought new data insights along with it. “I just had our food and beverage director ask me for his purchases last year, in case counts. And he was really impressed that I could do that” with Plate IQ, Steve added.
Increased Accuracy with Invoices
Steve explained that the department heads at NorthStone want to know the granular details of operating costs. His team is “fanatical” about making sure that items are coded to the correct GL, to ensure their budget matches what they spend.
“They have control over the timing of expenses on their income statement, to the extent that it’s reasonable, but we all still have visibility into the process,” he said. The automated GL coding process helps save time for the department heads, and it also helps increase the accuracy of coding invoices.
With Plate IQ, Steve said, his team has embraced the control over the invoice process. “I’d code it as ownership. They have complete ownership for not only the budget, but also the expenses that go up against that budget. They can make sure that things are exactly where they need to be.”
Results: New AP Process Leads to New Efficiencies
Steve confirmed Plate IQ data showing that NorthStone processes almost all invoices electronically. One-third of invoices come in through EDI, about two-thirds come in via email, and about 5% coming in from mobile.
Steve highlighted the mobile invoices in particular, saying the club’s superintendent oversees course maintenance from a more satellite location. “He’s big on taking pictures; that’s an easier way for him to work,” he said. Plate IQ’s mobile invoice option “is just another thing that you guys offer that makes it very easy,” he concluded.
Streamlined Payments and Accurate Records
NorthStone used to run checks twice a month, but with Plate IQ, the check run is scheduled once a week through the platform.
With manual checks runs, said Steve, “you’d have 80-90 checks in-season that have got to be signed by two people” before getting mailed out. With the new process, although there is still some manual data verification between the ERP Club Essential and Plate IQ, “the process is very simple.”
“Paper is way down,” summarized Steve. “Before, we’d write that manual check, we’d multi-sign it, and then the stub of that check would get stapled to whatever invoices were being paid.” After that, paper documents were stored in “massive legal files in filing cabinets.” If any department head wanted information in this manual system, they needed to sort through the paperwork in the file cabinet to find it.
“Now, you just open Plate IQ, you find whatever you want, whenever you want it, wherever you are,” said Steve. “If you’re on the beach, and somebody says, ‘Hey, did you buy a driver from Titleist on August 3?’, you just go look and see if you got it right.”
“It’s just an incredible time saver to be able to just instantaneously find what you’re looking for, anywhere that you are,” he said. “It becomes a system of record.” Steve added that the digitized invoice records have provided “huge” time savings across the company.
When Steve first started the AP automation journey with NorthStone, he and his team didn’t quite anticipate how the solution would impact the organization’s operations.
“You know, when you don’t know another way, you just assume how things are is how they’re always going to be. And so you don’t really have a feeling one way or the other.” When asked about how his team feels about AP automation, he expanded. “It’s a huge win, now that they know that there’s a different possibility now, they’re excited about it.”
If I took Plate IQ away from them, they would be unhappy, very unhappy. Some of them would be livid
What advice would Steve give to other country club organizations considering an AP solution?
“For me, it’s all about efficiency. I think that the more efficient we can be in things like paying bills, the more time we have to spend with our members, which is where we make our money,” Steve said.
“It’s all about people, right? We’re in the people business,” he summarized.
“Giving time back to the department heads, so they can do what I think are important things. Spend time with your employees, spend time with your members, and we’ll all do really well.”
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