The iLumen Financial Information Network hopes to enlighten those who work in the private sector.Created by iLumen Inc., a seven-year-old Atlanta-based financial information technology company, the network connects private companies, their peers and advisors in a secure online environment to information, resources and people, according to Robert H. Woosley, iLumen's chief executive.

"I was a partner in a CPA firm for 20-plus years, and like a lot of CPAs out there, my bread and butter was private businesses," Woosley said of his Atlanta-based Frazier & Deeter practice. "I was doing audit and tax work, but yet I felt really disconnected because their companies were in motion during the course of the year. I didn't know what was happening with them and I couldn't really figure out where they fit in their industries. I just felt I didn't have a basis for an informed conversation with them. So, I theorized one way to start connecting better was to receive their financial information. Not just once a year, but as often as they could send it."

With fellow CPA Loren Eckart, who now works as the company's chief operating officer, the pair teamed to found the iLumen Financial Information Network after studying the market to find that private companies were having poor relationships with their advisors and funding sources.

The pair created a technology platform that would allow private company financial information to be accessible, standardized and anonymous, as well as offer a benchmarking system so companies and their advisors can make comparisons with others in their industry.

In the mid-1990s, when Woosley began his journey into collecting financial data from his clients, he uploaded the information into an Excel spreadsheet, which quickly became cumbersome. "I did not really intend to create the iLumen Financial Information Network, but it all started when I made a goal to myself if I had a business client, I was going to encourage them to send me information," he said. "So they would send it to me and I would try to get it into an Excel spreadsheet. It was a nightmare."

It was Eckart's technology connections at Georgia Tech University that led to the suggestion of using the Web as a forum for that information exchange.

"What I didn't realize was happening," Woolsey said, "[was that] they were at the beginning stages of creating this data exchange technology to allow us to receive and standardize financial information from any accounting system or any trial-balance system. I just had to come up with the technology to map it, parse it and get it into the standardized engine. That was the first leg of the journey."

The company chose Microsoft SQL.net-enabled technology because it was the developers' choice, and because they needed a platform that would be able to hold the large mass of uploaded client information.

It wasn't until 2003, however, that the company finally signed on clients. In December of that year, CPA and business advisory firm RSM McGladrey, Wachovia Bank and rating agency Standard & Poor's became the company's first accounts.

"One important distinction I want to make is there is a difference between a network and a database," Woosley explained. "When people first look at iLumen, they ask how many companies do you have in your database. And I'd say 15,000, but truly what we have is a much greater number. We can connect to a company, into a company's CPA without having their data contributed to benchmarking. Our ability to match a financial profile to a service or a need is a unique ability for us. Our connection strength, our reach, is much greater than our benchmarking."

HOW IT WORKS

Woosley described his network's capabilities as a door that swings both ways. CPA firms begin using the network by loading most or all of their client's existing annual financial data into the iLumen service. This information is then mapped, standardized and correlated to iLumen's national network, which includes private companies served by accountants, financial institutions and associations.

Through the iLumen Portfolio Connection Service, CPAs can then access information such as dashboard data, trend analysis, print reports for client meetings, and industry benchmarking comparisons. The firm can also view a range of portfolio analytics, including the ability to sort and mine the client base along key parameters such as size, industry, responsible party and rate of growth.

iLumen's Client Connection Service allows clients to directly access the firm's private-branded portal to view their information and to upload interim information. This information then populates trending information and provides a connection with the CPA during the course of the year. The CPA can be alerted on key financial metrics and variances, which supports the new risk-based audit standards.

For example, in RSM McGladrey's case, the client submits their trial balance by logging onto the RSM-branded site and clicking and logging onto an iLumen portal. At this point, the system sends the RSM CPA a notification that a client has uploaded their data as a reminder to check the portal, according to Tom Murphy, executive vice president of manufacturing and wholesale distribution for RSM in Minneapolis.

Murphy said that many of his firm's clients are plugged into the network, but some choose to use it more frequently than others. While some will upload their information every month or quarterly, others share their information with the accounting firm on an annual basis.

A company can be compared in a variety of different ways, including by revenue, geography and asset size.

It was the benchmarking capability that drew RSM to the system three years ago, and ultimately they became one of the first accounting firms to pilot with the iLumen Network.

"There are several options available out there," Murphy said of benchmarking systems. "At the time, this was the best alternative, and in particular it was the flexibility and user-friendliness of this system that was key in our decision to go with them."

At BKD LLP in Kansas City, Mo., partner Edward Crumm said that using the iLumen network has provided a competitive advantage. "It allows me to stay in contact with [clients] throughout the year and to analyze their financial information to understand my client more thoroughly when doing my year-end audit," he said via e-mail.

Currently, iLumen has approximately 40 regional and national accounting firms subscribed to its network, as well as 12 industry associations, a growing list of banking institutions, and accounting software provider Sage Software.

In the coming months, iLumen plans to unveil more large firm subscribers, as well as those in industry associations and the risk and credit industry. Network users can also look forward to being connected with more peer groups and social forums via RSS feeds and blogging.

PRICING

The iLumen Network is a subscription-based service, and users enter into an annual subscription license to connect their firm to the network.

Pricing depends on the size of the firm, including the number of offices and staff, and the client base. Annual subscription license fees range from $10,000 to $30,000 per year for most regional firms with one main office location.

"That's what the firm pays," Woosley said, adding that while some CPAs have charged their clients additional fees for the service, he doesn't recommend that route. "It doesn't really matter how many companies end up uploading monthly. That can be unlimited. We don't want to create a disincentive for them not to connect their portfolio."

Membership isn't limited just to accounting firms, however. Those interested can subscribe in a variety of ways, including through participating business publications, the credit and risk industry, industry associations, financial institutions and accounting software companies. For example, a Sage Software customer who wants to connect to the network can do so for an annual subscription of $395, or for $40 per month.

For more information, visit www.ilumen.com.

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