by John M. Covaleski

Dexter, Mich. - In a first-of-its-kind move to leverage relationships in the accounting industry, business software powerhouse Microsoft/Great Plains Business Solutions is forging an online marketing alliance with tax preparation and accounting practice management software developer Creative Solutions Inc.

The two companies are developing an integration link connecting MS/GP’s new Small Business Manager and CSI’s software product line. The arrangement would also connect Web-based services from CSI with portions of bCentral, Microsoft’s Internet portal, which offers a variety of online services for small businesses.

The arrangement, according to some technology industry authorities, sounds similar to CPA2Biz, the Internet portal; originated by the American Institute of CPAs as a platform to deliver Web-based services and products to CPAs and their clients.

Microsoft Corp. and CSI’s parent, Thomson Corp., were among the initial investors in CPA2Biz. Thomson also owns the publisher of Accounting Today.

Small Business Manager is accounting software designed for businesses of up to 25 employees and $5 million in revenue. It is also designed to integrate with some services on bCentral. Microsoft’s link would actually be to CSI’s client write-up software, Write Up Solution, which integrates with most of the vendor’s other applications including its tax preparation software, Ultra Tax.

While several tax prep vendors, CSI included, offer links that integrate their applications with other vendor’s software, this arrangement has distinctive cross-selling aspects. CSI users would be in a position to influence their clients to use Small Business Manager and some other services hosted by bCentral.

"This just makes great sense because CSI has great experience in the accounting industry and great relationships with accountants, and what we offer complements each other," said Tom Eide, MS/GP small business general manager.

Greg LaFollette, CSI’s product strategy vice president, acknowledged that the arrangement provides MS/GP with greater access to CPAs who could distribute SBM. "Great Plains will admit that although they have wonderful relationships with CPAs [who resell products], their relationships pale compared to ours," LaFollette said. CSI, based here, has about 12,000 tax and accounting industry end users.

However, LaFollette said that a primary reason for creating a link with SBM is to provide a solution for CSI customers with data requirements too large for Write Up Solution. "Write Up Solution is still incredibly strong," he said, but added that a different application may be needed when "firms grow to a certain size."

Under the proposed arrangement, CSI’s accounting professional customers will be able to offer SBM to their clients via CSI’s program of "private client portals" - links on accountants’ Web sites that the accountants’ clients use to communicate with their accountants.

The "private client" portals also include several Web-based CSI applications that the accountants and their clients can use at a fee. CSI and its parent Thomson host all the private client portal applications, which include payroll, check printing and document filing.

"We looked at the five modules on the portals and thought Small Business Manager would be good to add to let the accountant and the client do accounting online," LaFollette said. Under the arrangement, CSI bills its accountant customer for the level of online service that is used and the accountants can then pass on some of that charge to their clients.

It is not costing CSI anything to enter the relationship. Apparently, MS/GP will bill CSI for the level of use of SBM but CSI users and that vendor would then pass on fee statements to it users. The costs for accessing SBM under this arrangement were not released.

LaFollette stressed that it will be entirely up to accountants to decide if they want clients to access SBM via their portals. "Our only customers are our accountant users, not the accountants’ customers," he said.

CSI’s main competitor in tax prep and practice management software, CCH, also was approached by Microsoft/Great Plains, but declined to enter into a relationship that would make SBM available, according to Bob Diaz, marketing director for CCH Tax Compliance.

"This may be a fit with what CSI and MS are doing, but I don’t know if we are ready to step into the reselling game," Diaz said. "We have not heard that this is what our clients want," he said.

Diaz also noted that the CSI-MS/GP arrangement sounds similar to CPA2Biz. After two years in business, that portal has failed to gain widespread accounting industry acceptance and it has made several major cuts in staff, fueling speculation that it may fail.

"What Creative Solutions and Great Plains are talking about sounds a lot like CPA2Biz," said Gary Boomer, president of technology industry consultants Boomer Consulting, of Manhattan, Kan. "This could be an alternative if they decide to pull out of CPA2Biz."

Boomer, however, added that the CSI-MS/GP plan "is not a bad idea."

Eide acknowledged that the arrangement with CSI is similar to the CPA2Biz concept. LaFollette, though, declined to comment on CPA2Biz.

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