By: Linda Rosencrance
Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that it was replacing its user-focused Convergence conference and replacing it with Envision, an event designed for C-level business leaders and department heads.
Even before Microsoft decided to kill Convergence, the event’s core comunity of Dynamics users felt that the event had been moving away from its roots, offering less of the original experience to end users looking for functional knowledge.
One company heard the outcry loud and clear in its region and decided to take action. Seattle-based Fine Solutions, a growing Microsoft Dynamics GP, AX, and CRM partner in the Pacific northwest, recently launched its own event, which it is calling Microsoft Dynamics Empower and debuts September 16 in Bellevue, Washington. The event aims to bring together the area’s best Dynamics talent, thought leaders, decision-makers, and end users for a full day conference of training, networking, and access to Dynamics resources, according to Fine Solutions.
The sorely-missed culture of Convergence
“We launched Empower because Microsoft made the shift away from supporting the Dynamics crowd,” says Dan Fine, managing partner and CEO of Fine Solutions. “Convergence in the past, especially years ago, was more of a culture thing than it was a technology thing. They covered the technology, but the people created a bond there. They shared information, they met each other, and there’s a real value to bringing people together that have a common goal.”
Fine recalls a Microsoft partner who met his wife at Convergence. Two years later, Great Plains founder and executive Doug Burgum married them at Convergence.
“And what Microsoft did was rip that apart with Envision,” Fine says. “They just ripped the emotional connections and the culture and the friendships and the trust built in the community. So we tried to bring that back by launching Empower.”
Although Empower is a regional event, it is open to anyone, Fine says, adding that people are attending from Iowa, Texas and other regions.
“But it’s mostly bringing Northwest Dynamics users together and having that connection and giving them value,” he says.
Fine.com, Bill Gates and Great Plains
This is no third-party event company that saw a “void” it could turn into a cash cow. Fine and his company are long-time, almost intimate partners with Microsoft. The company is recognized with three Microsoft Gold and three Microsoft Silver competencies. And Fine Solutions is a growing partner, having made Inc.’s Fastest Growing Companies in America List seven years running.
Dan Fine’s relationship with Microsoft started around 1994 at about the same time he founded Fine.com, a web development services company.
“That’s actually where my relationship with Microsoft started because we were the first company to build websites using SQL Server and Windows NT,” he says. “Bill Gates hired us to build his website for Internet Explorer and about forty to fifty other websites. We did their first e-commerce site where they started selling their developer tools online.”
During that time, Fine was also introduced to Great Plains before it was purchased by Microsoft. It happened when Fine.com and Microsoft shared a booth at an event in Florida and Great Plains occupied the very next booth. So Fine started talking to one of the Great Plains reps.
“She was telling me they ran on SQL Server and I was thinking, ‘Wow. I build websites and if I can do e-commerce and I can tie in the accounting system that would be really beneficial,” Fine says. “So I talked one of my clients into doing that and we implemented an e-commerce system tied into the financial system in Great Plains.”
As luck would have it, Burgum heard about Fine.com’s use of Great Plains and invited Fine to meet with him and other company execs in Fargo, North Dakota. The talk at the meeting centered about Great Plains buying Fine.com, which ultimately did not happen.
However, in 1999, Fine.com was purchased by ARIS Corp., a provider of IT consulting, training and software, for $12.25 million. Microsoft ended up buying Great Plains in 2001.
Fine spent a year at Aris managing its worldwide marketing endeavors. Not one to rest on his laurels, he and three former Microsoft employees founded a company called In2Gr8 in 2002, which became a Dynamics integrator.
“These three Microsoft guys came to me and said, ‘We think Microsoft is going to go big after this Great Plains business and we want to quit Microsoft and help you start a company that does Great Plains,'” Fine says.
When In2Gr8 merged with a company called ETY Inc. in February 2004, Fine convinced the company to let him start a Microsoft Dynamics AX practice inside ETY, which he ran for some eight months. But that didn’t work out as planned, so he founded Fine Solutions.
Regional strength through acquisition
For the past 12 years, Fine Solutions has focused on “owning” the Northwest territory. To that end, the company has made a number of acquisitions, including most recently the Dynamics GP division of Vancouver, BC-based DTM Systems. DTM has served Dynamics GP clients in British Columbia and Western Canada for over two decades.
Fine has also completed acquisitions of a number of other companies in the Northwest region, Including Computeration, Onza Solutions, and BestTechsNW.
The company picks its acquisition targets by researching the firms whose leaders want to retire or just want to get out of the business. Fine says Microsoft has made partner acquisitions easier with its message that it wants the smaller firms to go away.
“[Microsoft] literally told them that,” Fine says. “And then they raised the fees and made everything harder for them. So people got fed up and wanted to just get away from Microsoft and that created a good opportunity.”
Fine says his goal is to become number one in the Pacific Northwest network and lock up that territory.
“And that was our goal – get to the top of the ladder,” he says. “And we stuck to that. We also stick very closely to Microsoft products and do not offer Intacct or Sage or SAP or anything else.”
Fine considers his company’s loyalty to Microsoft products something of a contrarian position in the ERP software and services channel. While other partners run away from Microsoft to offer competing products, his firm’s loyalty has a strategic benefit, he believes.
“When they bring us leads, we’re going to follow through on them,” he says. “If we win them, they’re going to go Microsoft. They’re not going to go to one of their competitors. And that strategy has worked for us.”
Fine says the regional strategy also works because it is an efficient business model that allows Fine Solutions to build relationships with its clients. That’s something national providers are unable to do because they are just too large to offer that personal interaction with customers, he believes.
“When it comes down to it, this is all built on relationships,” he says. “I mean the technology is the technology – it’s how well do [clients] trust you and like you, and how much do they believe you’re going to finish the work and do a good job.”
Currently, Fine Solutions has 550 clients and about 48 employees. Although the majority of its clients are Dynamics GP customers, the company’s leading revenue generator is and has been Dynamics AX. But CRM has good momentum.
“[Over the years], we haven’t really changed,” Fine says. “We’re been doing AX, GP, and CRM for the last twelve years. The only thing we added and then took away was SharePoint because we just couldn’t make a go of it. But GP, of course, provides a nice base of revenue because there are always upgrades, integrations, reporting and training. It’s a nice stream of business. AX is usually fewer clients but bigger projects. And they never end. They just keep going and going. But the fastest growing is CRM because we’re focusing more on CRM.”