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Exec BPI System

Reprinted from Softalk 9/83, pp. 56-59.

John Moss, cofounder and chairman
This image can be zoomedJohn Moss, cofounder and chairman
Randy Ferguson, cofounder and president
This image can be zoomedRandy Ferguson, cofounder and president
Tom Meadows, senior vice president and secretary
This image can be zoomedTom Meadows, senior vice president and secretary
Ken DeBower, cofounder and executive vice president
This image can be zoomedKen DeBower, cofounder and executive vice president
Ann Oppenlander, BPI’s vice president of customer service and documentation
This image can be zoomedAnn Oppenlander, BPI’s vice president of customer service and documentation
Jerry Greifer, comptroller and assistant secretary
This image can be zoomedJerry Greifer, comptroller and assistant secretary
Larry Pickel, vice president of operations
This image can be zoomedLarry Pickel, vice president of operations

When the Apple II first appeared in 1977, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs made an analogy between the automobile and the personal computer. He predicted that the personal computer would be put to many uses as yet unimagined – just as cars have, since their introduction, been put to many uses that turn-of-the-century automobile makers couldn’t have foreseen.

Practically every day, Jobs’s forecast is proven accurate. Who could have imagined seven years ago that the Apple would be used for controlling the environment of a home, creating music, designing everything from ultralights to solar-heated houses, and helping the handicapped? Who could have imagined that the Apple would play an integral part in the running of tens of thousands of small businesses in this country and around the world?

When they first appeared, automobiles were by themselves a promising technology, but without good roads they couldn’t have competed with horses or even a physically fit individual. Software is to computers what roads are to cars. The usefulness of the Apple II, Apple III, and now the Lisa depends on smooth, well-designed routes that lead to desired goals.

Paving the Way

Apple Computer has attracted some of the most innovative and expert road builders in the computer world. Some of these master paviors work directly for Apple, but by far the majority are independent, strong-spirited individuals or groups that have adopted the Apple as the informational tool of today and tomorrow. Apple has been lucky and so have the rest of us, the users.

BPI Systems of Austin, Texas, is one of these master paviors. By last count, upward of one hundred thousand microcomputer systems are equipped with one or more of BPI’s accounting software packages. BPI is a remarkable success story that begins, like so many others, with a small, tight-knit group of entrepreneurs and their recognition that a personal computer needs a good road.

John Moss, chairman of the board at BPI, is semiretired nowadays, not taking part in the day-to-day activities of running the company. An accountant by trade, Moss spent thirty years of his life owning and operating small businesses. It was his energy and business instincts that got BPI started in the late seventies and steered the company onto its continuing course of success.

In 1977, Moss was overseeing a franchise chain of retail food stores in Texas when he realized that an accounting system using microcomputers could improve the operation. The general accounting for Moss’s operation was sent to an outside accounting firm that used mainframes.

The time required to get the information to and from the accounting firm caused some of the smaller stores in Moss’s chain to be behind the times. They couldn’t react very fast to the changing market scene. Moss, who had seen Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Model I, realized that microcomputers could offer the individual accountant a way to manipulate financial data quickly and easily. He envisioned a system similar to, but scaled down from, what the big accounting firms used.

“John is not a programmer,” says Randy Ferguson, BPI’s president. “But he’s a visionary who saw the potential of the microcomputer to help with these aspects of running a small business.”

General DeBower

In 1978, Moss met Ken DeBower, a data processing professional with nearly eighteen years’ experience. Moss hired DeBower to write a general ledger program for use in his retail food store chain. Working weekends, DeBower wrote the general ledger program on the Apple II; and, other than one major revision, the program has remained the same through the years and is used by tens of thousands of businesses.

Woe to the entrepreneur who misses an opportunity. Moss showed the general ledger program to a computer store dealer in Dallas and struck up a deal wherein he and DeBower would deliver five hundred systems over the course of five months. Moss wrote the user manual for the product and the program became very popular with those who ran across it in those early days.

At the same time that Moss and DeBower were starting their modest accounting software business, Randy Ferguson, a native Texan, was starting a similar scheme.

Ferguson, who was vice president of operations at the Austin National Bank, was trying to find an accounts-receivable system for his twin brother’s small business. Ferguson had spent five years in the data processing department at the Austin National Bank working in sales. He’d also done a small amount of programming on Wang minicomputers.

Early in 1979, Ferguson wrote an accounts-receivable program for his brother on the Apple II and was so impressed with the outcome that he decided to start selling it.

As fate would have it, Ferguson and Moss met in a Waco computer store when Ferguson went searching on his brother’s behalf for a general ledger program. Ferguson found the program and his future business partners.

In the summer of 1979, Moss, DeBower, and Ferguson each put up a thousand dollars and formed BPI Systems. The company’s initials stand for business, professional, and industrial, which are the three main markets the trio decided to go after. The first general ledger programs started shipping in July 1979 and BPI was off and running.

Good News Travels Fast

From the start, the company seemed destined for success. Within half a year of having formed BPI, DeBower and Ferguson quit their regular jobs to devote all their time and energy to the company. Their first two products were well received and, despite the lack of firm distribution networks, the good word about BPI’s products spread – it spread all the way to the heights of Mount Olympus.

Both Commodore and Atari were impressed with BPI’s accounting software and struck up mass purchase deals in 1980. In those early days, BPI hit upon a good scheme that circumvented the dearth of distributors – sell programs en masse to computer manufacturers and let them handle the distribution. By 1980, small business applications and microcomputers seemed the perfect marriage. The personal computer manufacturers saw a way to sell more machines, and a remarkable number came knocking on BPI’s door.

By midyear BPI was shipping three to four hundred packages a month. The company was run entirely by Moss, DeBower, Ferguson, and Moss’s wife Margaret. In November of that year, the company hired its first salaried employee.

The biggest milestone in the company’s history came when Apple Computer inquired about distributing BPI’s accounting software for the Apple II. A deal was struck in short order and BPI started shipping thousands of products a month.

The mutually beneficial relationship between Apple and BPI relies on the particular strengths of the two companies. BPI produces the products, including packaging and documentation, and provides support, while Apple markets and distributes them. It’s a relationship that both corporate entities have been pleased with and hope will continue for some time.

BPI and Apple are of like mind. Recent estimates put the penetration of microcomputers into the potential small business market at 5 percent. And the size of the small business market is enormous. Ferguson calls it “the Fortune fourteen million.” Any serious attempt to capture a large part of that market cannot be a half effort. Joining forces gives both parties a fighting chance and is often the most efficient use of available resources.

The OEM Connection

Until this year, BPI operated for the most part like an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) supplier, shipping its prepacked accounting software to computer manufacturers, who marketed and distributed it. The level of expertise – in documentation, support, packaging, and programming – demanded of BPI is no less than that demanded of a more maverick operation, which must attract distributors and dealers by the quality of the product and not by the fact that an Apple Computer or an IBM has put its name on it.

Many factors go into the making of a successful software publishing firm like BPI. One vital factor is skilled, creative people. Once the business began to take off, BPI was fortunate enough to attract a number of talented individuals.

Ann Oppenlander, BPI’s vice president of customer support and documentation, joined the company in January 1981. Oppenlander, who has a Ph.D. in English, brought to the firm considerable experience in documentation writing. Prior to joining BPI she’d worked at NCR, programming business applications on DEC mainframes, and had spent two years as manager of Texas Instruments’s publications department.

When she saw BPI’s products, Oppenlander was impressed and accepted Moss’s offer to join the young company. She started on the telephone, answering customer-support calls and learning the “audience,” which she says was quite different from what she was used to at TI.

“At Texas Instruments, we were writing manuals for programmers. Here was a challenge to make them understandable to everyday people.”

Both Ferguson and Oppenlander are convinced that, a clear, concise, understandable manual is a critical aspect of putting out a successful software product for the personal computer market. “In this industry,” says Ferguson, “it’s a case of data processing products being produced by data processing people for non-data processing users.”

By having the dual responsibility of producing the manuals and overseeing the customer-service area, Oppenlander knows how users are responding to BPI’s products on a daily basis. The company regularly receives between five thousand and six thousand calls a month, and a careful tally is kept on the nature of the calls.

Master of Operations

BPI’s vice president of operations, Larry Pickel, joined the company early in 1981. He spent nine years with the Austin National Bank in a number of diverse positions, including operations and data processing. For a while, he worked with Ferguson at the bank, and that previous association helped land him the job at BPI.

Pickel refers to his basic responsibilities as making sure “the ox gets out of the ditch.” He oversees the product management and administration of BPI. He has two adept managers working under him, one in charge of production and one in charge of administration.

Pickel, like so many in the microcomputer software industry, left a good, solid job for the uncertainty (and excitement) of software publishing and is glad he did.

“Where I’m going I can’t tell you,” he says. “But it took something to make me leave an officer’s chair at the bank to come here. All of us – Ken, Randy, Ann – are not here just to make a quick profit. We’re here for the long haul.”

Gerald I. Greifer is BPI’s comptroller and assistant secretary. A CPA by profession, Greifer comes from the world of New York City high finance, where he was with Peat, Marwick, and Mitchell, the largest accounting firm in the world.

In the spring of 1981, Greifer helped Moss and Ferguson on BPI’s Payroll package update as a private consultant. With his knowledge and experience, Greifer has been invaluable to the development of BPI’s products. He joined BPI full-time in November 1981.

Greifer believes that BPI’s potential for growth is “unlimited, if we do the right things. This is a small company by New York standards, but it’s not disorganized. They say that large companies have meetings too often and that small companies don’t meet often enough. Large companies can get very political in their structure. BPI is the perfect world for me.”

Accounting Triumvirate

The three top execs that hold the reins at BPI, now that Moss is not in the office on a day-to-day basis, are Ferguson, DeBower, and Thomas Meadows.

DeBower attended the University of Nebraska and discovered computers in the early sixties. He’s worked as a programmer at Texas Instruments and Radian Corporation, an environmental and energy consulting firm. The only bonus he ever got at Radian he spent one afternoon on an Apple II. He saw the computer as his ticket to greater things.

As BPI’s executive vice president, DeBower spends a lot of time helping to move the company’s programs over to other microcomputers. He sees computer hardware getting smaller and faster in the future. “Computers are still almost a toy, kind of backward,” he explains. “The microcomputer industry is heading toward machines with minicomputerlike performance and capabilities for multiple users.”

BPI’s senior vice president and secretary, Thomas Meadows, came from IBM, where he held various marketing and management positions. For a while after that, he had his own consulting firm. A little over a year ago, he came to BPI.

Meadows is a confident and likable marketer who spends a lot of his time on the road, spreading the word about BPI’s products. His job is of paramount importance because the basic strategy at BPI is changing.

Last year, the company was totally an OEM supplier, but this year it’s trying something new. Ferguson says the firm is moving into selected vertical markets on its own and that these kinds of efforts will account for 40 percent of the company’s products in 1983.

Programs like Church Management, Speed Reading, Professional Time Accounting, and now BPI’s accounting software for the Lisa are just some of the products that the company will market and advertise on its own.

The Third GAP

BPI’s and Apple’s relationship has continued with the Apple IIe and the Apple III. BPI’s General Accounting Package for the Apple III is currently going into full distribution. The experience BPI has accumulated while creating accounting software for the Apple II family of computers over the years is reflected in the Apple III package.

BPI’s Pascal systems group manager, David Powers, runs through a demo of the company’s new accounting software for the Lisa.
This image can be zoomedBPI’s Pascal systems group manager, David Powers, runs through a demo of the company’s new accounting software for the Lisa.
Last year, in September, Apple approached BPI about producing accounting software for the Lisa. Apple shipped a Lisa to BPI in the first week of October and sent a couple more in the early part of this year. Under the guidance of Pascal systems group manager David Powers and programmer Andy Chisholm, the project has gone smoothly and matured quickly. BPI’s accounting software is the first from an independent publisher to take advantage of the Lisa’s advanced features.

The Lisa project came at a good time because BPI was well into creating the Pascal code for the General Accounting Package for the Apple III. Doing so was simply a matter of moving the application code from the III to the Lisa and then building a software shell that capitalizes on Lisa’s functions.

BPI has three accounting programs that run on the Lisa: General Accounting Reports, Accounts Receivable Reports, and Accounts Payable Reports. After booting the system, you put in one of BPI’s application disks (or “twiggies,” as Powers likes to call the Lisa’s new style of high-density, dual-window disks). The software takes you right to what is called the environment window, a menu that allows you to use Lisa’s Desktop Manager, the ProFile hard disk, or the BPI system.

The program shell is similar to Lisa’s office environment. It uses hierarchical menus and icons for particular functions, all controllable by the Lisa’s mouse/pointer. Except when you’re entering the basic financial data, which is done by using Lisa’s ten-key numeric keypad, the mouse is all you need to work with the system.

Each of BPI’s programs for the Lisa includes the Disk Document Manager, which permits you to delete or preserve documents on disks and perform a variety of other related data management tasks. Within the Disk Document Manager is the query feature, which allows you to look at a particular listing or find a stored document without terminating the primary function in process.

BPI’s Lisa packages should be appearing in a matter of months, released by BPI but not distributed by Apple. A payroll package for the Lisa is also in the works.

Streets of Financial Fire

In June 1982, BPI made a public stock offering, and a little over a month ago the company had its first annual stockholders meeting. For the fiscal year ending March 31, 1983, BPI reported total revenues of a little more than $6 million and net earnings of $1.5 million. Three years earlier, those figures were seventy thousand dollars and twenty-five hundred dollars respectively.

The company has grown in three years from a half dozen or so employees to around one hundred twenty. BPI occupies several buildings within a mile of each other off Guadalupe, one of Austin’s main drags, just up the street from the University of Texas. BPI has purchased land and is constructing its own building, which the company hopes to occupy by the end of 1984.

Austin, as it turns out, is a good location for a high-tech company. The University of Texas regularly turns out a large crop of bright and eager graduates in computer science and engineering. There are also several large computer firms in the area, such as Texas Instruments and Intel. Most recently, the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, a research corporation founded by a consortium of American computer firms, moved into the area.

BPI serves nine main clients as an OEM supplier. The nine are Apple, Atari, Commodore, DEC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, NEC, Sanyo, and Texas Instruments.

“We view ourselves as an extension of the hardware manufacturers’ organizations,” says Meadows. “Each of the nine is different. Yet we have the ability to adapt and do things their way.”

With new directions, a solid working relationship with most of the big-name microcomputer manufacturers, and a competent, professional staff, BPI is a vital element in the world of financial software. Ferguson believes the company has brought together three professions – journalism, accounting, and programming – into a triple-threat force.

by David Hunter

Page added on 2nd October 2006.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.