by John Covaleski

Toronto -- With the likelihood of being merged into Best Software clearly on their horizon, executives of accounting software vendor BusinessVision conducted business as usual at the company’s resellers conference here in late September.

A week before the conference, shareholders of BusinessVision’s parent, South Africa-based software conglomerate Softline Ltd., overwhelmingly approved an acquisition bid for their company by Sage plc, the U.K.-based parent of Best. Although neither Best nor Sage disclosed specific plans, informed observers concur that BusinessVision will most likely be added to the Irvine, Calif.-based Best Software, whose existing accounting software includes Peachtree, MAS 90/200 and BusinessWorks.

BusinessVision president Murray Aston announced the results of the Softline shareholders vote during his opening day remarks at the conference, but he did not elaborate on what the pending merger means to BusinessVision.

The deal would mean that Sage takes over all of Softline, which reported $71 million in 2002 sales primarily from operations in South Africa, Australia and Europe. Softline’s U.S. operations are BusinessVision, developers of accounting and payroll products primarily for use by growing small businesses with revenues of about $1 million up to about $100 million; AccountMate, makers of accounting software for middle-market companies, typically with revenues of $10 million or more; and Datafaction, maker of business/financial management software for high-net-worth individuals.

BusinessVision’s flagship product, BusinessVision 32, is heavily marketed to companies that are outgrowing the limited functionality of entry-level accounting software, such as Intuit’s QuickBooks and Best’s Peachtree, but are not ready to pay the high costs of software primarily designed for larger middle-market businesses. Best has been serving this market with MAS 90, BusinessWorks and, more recently, by developing vertical industry editions of Peachtree.

Rather than elaborate on the pending Sage deal, Aston and other BusinessVision executives at the conference seemed more concerned with the company’s marketing and product development strategies. Programs highlighted at the conference included:

● The release of the significantly enhanced version 7 of BusinessVision 32;

● A new subscription pricing plan in which customers would have the option of paying a monthly fee for use and support of their software, rather than paying a larger up-front license fee; and,

● Opening the door for third-party makers of specialized software, such as vertical industry applications, to integrate their products with BusinessVision 32.

Aston and his BusinessVision staff were working on all the new programs long before Sage emerged as a bidder for Softline early this summer.

What will happen to the company in a Sage-Softline merger is noteworthy to the accounting profession because, upon being acquired by Softline in 2001, BusinessVision launched a U.S. market expansion plan, featuring reseller recruitment with a focus on accountants. Best has long been courting accounting practitioners as users, resellers and specially trained consultants on its products.

BusinessVision at last count said that it had some 270 U.S. resellers and approximately 1,200 in its home base of Canada, where BusinessVision 32 is much better known. Best’s channel includes a Best Software Accountants Network that includes about 12,000 accounting professionals, and it reports that about 40,000 accountants either use or resell/consult on various Best products.

In his opening remarks, Aston’s only comments about the Sage-Softline deal were, “It will take a couple of weeks [to complete] and will bring tremendous new benefits to our software.” Best Software officials have declined to discuss the transaction, since it was still pending at press time.

However, the deal was the buzz among the approximately 300 resellers on hand. “I don’t know exactly what will happen, but it could be better for BusinessVision because it’ll be part of a bigger company,” said David Bilbrey, president of DBC Systems, a Detroit-area BusinessVision reseller.

Bigger, indeed. Best accounts for half of Sage’s total revenue, which was more than $900 million in fiscal 2002, while BusinessVision is a small percentage of Softline’s total revenue, which was $71 million in 2002.

Bruce T. Andersen, CPA, president of BTA Consulting & Training in Woodland Hills, Calif., said that the deal would make sense for Best, but added, “I just hope they don’t take six months figuring out what to do, because delays hurt these kind of things.”

Shortly after Sage announced its bid for Softline and months before the Softline shareholders’ approval of that bid, Best Software chief executive Ron Verni said that Softline’s North American operations did not drive Sage’s bid decision. “The real thrust of the deal is geographic extension into South Africa and Australia,” he said.

Shortly after the shareholders vote, Sage chief executive Paul Walker said, “Softline affords Sage the opportunity to extend our geographical presence into the Southern hemisphere.” But he made no comments about the North American possibilities.

The new version of BusinessVision 32 elicited a lot of positive comments at the BusinessVision conference. The version features a redesigned database that enhances integration capabilities with key vertical solutions, such as manufacturing, warehouse management and customer relationship management. BusinessVision may attract those vertical solutions with a new Software Developer Kit program, in which it is providing third-party developers easier access to what they need to integrate their solutions with BusinessVision 32.

“This will attract third parties, and those third-party products will keep us tied to the customer a lot longer,” Aston said. Keeping “a customer for life” is one of Best Software’s main marketing mantras.

Peter Frank, CPA, CITP, a partner of BusinessVision reseller CG Solutions, the tech arm of New York firm Cornick, Garber & Sandler, said, “The new version of BusinessVision 32 is awesome. It could be a perfect fit in reaching customers who are outgrowing Peachtree, but can’t afford MAS 90.”

The biggest news at the BusinessVision conference was the “à la carte” subscription pricing plan. BusinessVision officials believe that it will attract customers lacking the money for a major capital investment upfront, and will provide long-term recurring revenue to resellers, who get a portion of their customers’ subscription.

“We’re giving business owners the option of subscribing monthly to our complete range of products and services for a single, budget-minded price, with no strings attached, no ASP worries and money left over to invest in building one’s business,” Aston said.

He further said that he expected other business software vendors to follow BusinessVision’s lead. Best does not offer subscription pricing and has not indicated any plans to offer it in the future.

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