As their Senior Director of Financial Services, Darrell knew Saint Mary’s University required a budgeting, forecasting and financial reporting solution. After implementing Vena in the 2013-14 school year, they saw immediate benefits.
“I remember when I first started: We needed three days to put a balance sheet together, and it was that much work. Then all of a sudden we had this information at our fingertips and the push of a button—and that's really what we dreamed about.
“That was the first time the university had ever had that level of granularity of data. We were able to present the data in this form on a department-by-department basis to senior and executive leadership.”
SMU accelerated their budget reviews by 70%, cut capital project analysis from one week to two hours and gained the ability—in minutes—to generate custom reports. They had also gained real-time insight into enrollment, which became critical to forecasting revenue as the COVID-19 pandemic pivoted SMU to a virtual learning environment.
“In March of 2020, we quickly realized we needed a different model to look at enrollment and tuition revenue forecasting. There were a lot of unknowns. We didn't know what was coming next,” he said. “There was a lot of work facing the team. We didn’t have the skillset we felt we needed to perform the work and we didn’t have the bandwidth.”
Darrell didn't know whether the university was going to have any students, or any ability to bring students to Canada. Pivoting to an online learning environment created more uncertainty. For greater agility, he needed to build a tuition revenue model that accounted for these enrollment variables. This meant calculating the dollar value of a single course registration, not the value of one enrolled student.
“I knew there was potential there. I just didn't know how to unlock it. And oh boy did we unlock it.”
After conversations with their Customer Success representative in August 2020, SMU’s finance team decided to pursue a pilot program with Vena’s Expert Managed Services Plus (EMS+) for one year, a tailored and unique experience that provided SMU with a dedicated Vena Expert to serve as an extension of their team.
They handpicked Alex Young, a senior consultant on Vena’s EMS+ team, for Alex’s speciality in data integrations. Darrell needed data on their 7,000+ students from 120+ countries, but didn’t know how to extract it.
In less than a month, in time before the start of the Canadian university year, Alex enabled SMU’s desired tuition revenue model.
“Darrell and I collaborated to build a series of integration channels that would take year-to-date student course enrollment data and load it into a custom-built data model on a weekly basis,” Alex said. “Using this data, we were able to calculate the weekly change in course registrations, as well as tuition revenue that Darrell could pivot by semester, course, student faculty, student residency and so on.”
Darrell said, “When I see our EMS+ consultant build something that I wouldn't have thought of, it lets me think about how I could take that data and can apply that to something I haven't even thought about yet.”
Upon building their new, flexible revenue model, Darrell recognized he could now automatically update—by running it only once a year—32 Excel spreadsheets, which had taken hours upon hours to manually update every month.
“I've worked with vendors in the past where the vendors have provided resources and we've done certain things. Vena is very, very different. There's a number of us who are experts in the Vena product, so we know how to use it, but we know how to use it not at the same level. When you take it to another level and you utilize the skill sets that the vendor has to actually make your life a little bit better too, I think it's a great marriage. They’re the best of the best.”
In August 2021, SMU requested to continue working with Alex for three more years, and for more weekly hours than when they first partnered.
“It's just amazing what we have accomplished. It is truly amazing. We would've been very happy with the product, but we would never have moved it to the level that we're sitting here, now waiting to figure out, ‘How do we bring Vena Insights into this EMS+ service?’ It's the next level and we're ready,” Darrell said. “It's very hard to hire the skill sets that we needed to be able to get all this done. It was the best money—some of the best money I have ever spent in my professional career. EMS+ has helped us get the biggest bang for our buck with Vena.”
As their Associate Vice-President of Continuous Improvement and Finance today—SMU promoted Darrell in late 2021—he and their Director of Institutional Data Analysis and Planning have introduced Vena Insights to the university.
“The biggest thing we've been able to bring, is the simplicity of how we display the data. And it makes it much less threatening for people.”
Their budget owners and executive leadership, most of whom have only ever received paginated tables, now receive dashboards and visuals. Their interactive, customizable reports give them the ability to slice and dice data that’s trusted by all.
“We got to the point where Vena and Vena Insights were thought of as the single source of the truth. So that got rid of all the bias reporting that was coming out of individual departments and other areas … The data coming out of our director’s office is really the gospel.”
Unlocking SMU’s potential, with greater analytical insights and modern data visualization, has positioned Darrell and his finance team as innovators and change management leaders at SMU.
“I don't use the word ‘transformational’ lightly, but Vena has been transformational for Saint Mary's University.”