Can XML succeed where EDI has failed?

A dirty little secret exists in industry today: In this age of e-business, most business is not electronic at all. Most businesspeople still buy and sell goods via methods that have been around for decades. They write a contract and shake hands. They pick up the phone and send a fax. The truly enlightened might communicate via e-mail.

This is particularly true in the $507 billion North American chemical industry, where most companies have long-standing, contractual relationships with their suppliers. That's why the founders of Envera, a Richmond, Va.-based startup, think their idea of providing an electronic hub through which chemical companies can forge links with each other will strike a chord in the industry.

Consider a typical transaction: After a bidding process, chemical companies generally enter into annual contracts to buy a certain quantity of chemicals at a certain price from a certain partner. A purchasing agent from the buyer then calls the seller's toll-free number to confirm price and quantity and schedule the shipment of an order. The seller's representative keys the order into his company's system -- perhaps making an error or two -- and then faxes back the order acknowledgment. The method works, but it is hugely expensive. All told, it costs between $50 and $100 to process a single order.

Clearly, the way chemical companies conduct transactions is in need of an overhaul. The question remains whether a marketplace such as Envera -- using XML as the linchpin -- can provide the answer.

Looking for an Easier Way

Chemical companies have long searched for a way to automate the procurement of production goods. Twenty years ago, many pinned their hopes on electronic data interchange (EDI), which had been used successfully in the automotive industry, but that effort failed to catch on in the chemical industry for lack of standards. Along came the Internet. At the end of the '90s, companies such as Ethyl began to build Web-based connections to many of their best customers. Using these private, company-to-company connections, the partners could obtain order information, submit orders, and find information on product descriptions and shipping details. The problem was, each connection took months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to build. There was no way companies could afford to create a one-to-one connection for each of their suppliers. Bob Mooney, then chief financial officer at Ethyl in Richmond, Va., an $843.7 million maker of petroleum additives, remembers thinking that a better way to go would be to create a central platform -- an electronic clearinghouse or hub -- that would link chemical companies' back-end systems with those of all their suppliers. The hub would translate business documents such as a purchase order from a company's ERP system into standard XML data and send it to the partner, where it would be translated into the format preferred by the partner's ERP system. Having a centralized electronic hub would eliminate the need for companies to forge individual connections to every trading partner, in theory saving loads of time and money.

Last March, Mooney, Mike Giesler, then Ethyl's CIO, and two other cofounders began knocking on colleagues' doors, talking about creating an electronic hub for the chemical industry they called Envera (roughly translated from Latin, envera means "in truth"). Envera would differ from other electronic trading exchanges that were then making headlines, such as the chemical industry's and the auto industry's Covisint, in that it would not attempt to match sellers with buyers. Rather, it would serve only as an electronic platform on which already-established business partners could conduct their transactions. Envera would not take a piece of each transaction that it hosted but instead would charge members an annual subscription fee of between $5,000 and $300,000, depending on company size. Mooney and Giesler got a warm reception from their peers, snagging funding from 11 companies. Things moved quickly after that. Giesler and Mooney left Ethyl in July and by the end of the summer Envera had hammered out XML document definitions for eight basic business processes in conjunction with an industry standards group. By the fall, the initial phase of Envera was up and running, with partners such as Lubrizol and Occidental Chemical beginning to conduct business online. To date, only a tiny number of transactions have taken place on Envera. Giesler expects business to jump once Envera's 40 trading partners come online this spring.

Mooney, now president of Envera, likes to say Envera is "business for business" as opposed to the ubiquitous "business-to-business." The theory is that companies of all sizes can come together on Envera without fear that the e-hub benefits only the largest companies. "The early exchanges were dominated by the big players. A lot of smaller companies were afraid [the large companies] would get together and try to drive down prices. Our philosophy is that this is a neutral site for all the other businesses, and the benefits get passed down to all members," says Giesler, now Envera's chief technology officer. Envera's second phase, which launched in January, added links to service providers, among them two trucking companies and one rail company to move products traded on its exchange. By banding together, Envera members will be able to negotiate discounted prices on services, according to Giesler. Envera also plans to add services such as data warehouse capabilities and management of subscribers' material safety data sheets, a legal requirement for chemical companies.

Cautious Optimism

Just because Envera has made it out of the starting gate is hardly a guarantee of its eventual success. Like all electronic trading exchanges and hubs, Envera faces enormous obstacles. For starters, it has new competition: a similar online exchange for the chemical industry dubbed Elemica. Elemica, a Philadelphia-based e-marketplace that went online in a test phase this past January, is also based on an XML platform, and it is backed by 22 of the largest chemical companies, including BASF, Dow Chemical and DuPont. With Elemica in the picture, Envera may find it harder to sign up more companies as subscribers.Whether Envera can grow beyond its initial image as an extension of Ethyl presents another challenge. The e-hub will succeed only if industry companies see it as a neutral platform that exists for the benefit of all companies. The fact that the nine Envera owners are also its users could become a problem down the road.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding electronic exchanges, Envera has earned modest praise from some industry watchers. The chemical industry already has its share of trading exchanges, such as and ChemConnect, that seek to match up buyers and sellers for spot buys of excess inventory. Emphasizing connectivity between established business partners is a fresh approach, according to Leif Eriksen, research director for AMR Research in Boston. Envera's strategy requires a great deal of independence, however.

"No [single] company must be allowed to dominate the platform," says Eriksen. If the balance of power were to tip in favor of one member company, fewer and fewer companies would use the hub, perceiving it to benefit the dominating company. That's always a danger, given that the four founders came from Ethyl, and Envera is located in Ethyl's hometown of Richmond. Mooney doesn't believe it's likely Ethyl will dominate, since it is the smallest company so far to invest in Envera. "There's no way from a business point of view that Ethyl will have too much influence," he says. "None of the partners can invest beyond a certain level. And each equity partner has one vote on the board."

So far, the strategy is working, says Eriksen, who cited Envera's quick launch with a minimum of interference from its board members as proof. But hard choices lie ahead, and corporate governance can get ugly very quickly. Eriksen believes Envera will have to go public one day or bring in capital from disinterested third-party investors if it is to succeed long term because there is too much of a chance that the equity investors will use their voting power to make decisions that benefit them at the expense of the community platform. For example, Envera may need to spend a lot more money in the coming years sprucing up the platform's capabilities in order to attract more participants. But if the equity partners are satisfied with Envera as is and decline to invest more money, that could hurt the hub's chances of acceptance in the industry as a whole. "To be truly independent, you can't have owners that are users," says Eriksen.

Others are not convinced that Envera is pursuing the right strategy. John Moore, vice president at ARC Advisory Group in Dedham, Mass., says the funding model practiced by ChemConnect is preferable. "Envera has an open equity situation

This story, "Can XML succeed where EDI has failed?" was originally published by CIO.

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