It is possibly the most unusual SAP customer in the world. The reception area is essentially a chair that a woman has placed on the sidewalk outside a former car-repair shop. As I approach, she explains that the premises are not open to the public today. Objects of all kinds are being unloaded from trucks and carried into the building: furniture, clothes, toys, books, dishes, electric devices – everything you would expect to find at a flea market. Tomorrow, Saturday, it will go on sale.
Although the hall is closed to the public, I am welcomed in by Charles-Edouard Vincent, head of the nonprofit organization and a former SAP France employee, and known here simply as “Charlie.” He takes me to meet Anne-Sophie Rio, a volunteer who works in the accounting department one day a week and runs the SAP Business One project. A gaping hole in the ceiling recalls where a freight elevator used to lift cars to the first floor. We climb a small spiral staircase, walk through the furniture workshop on the top floor, and pass through the restroom with shower and washing machine before reaching the office, a small room bursting at the seams with three desks, PCs, closets, an SAP server, and a printer.
Anne-Sophie shares this office with fellow SAP user Valérie Sallandre. A salaried employee at Emmaüs Défi, Valérie is both accountant and secretary and – like everyone else at the organization – she does a lot of other tasks that cannot be found in any job description. They are joined by Dominique Génin from IT service provider Business Plus, who not only installed the system and trained the two users but continues to provide support on a mainly voluntary basis.
The Emmaus network
Emmaüs Défi is the youngest of the many charitable organizations that make up the Emmaüs network. The group was founded by the Catholic priest Abbé Pierre, who was long considered the most well-known and popular Frenchman. Even in his old age, he was actively involved in opening up abandoned buildings for the homeless. After his death in 2007, Pierre’s organization continued to grow, taking over the hall in Paris just over a year ago to store and sell secondhand goods.
The “défi” (“challenge”) is the reintegration of homeless people into the structured world of work. Supported by a few salaried personnel and numerous volunteers, the organization collects unwanted objects from private households and companies, which it sells in its shop. While many of the objects are renovated and repaired, the lion’s share of the work involves transporting the goods between donors, the warehouse, and the shop. The turnover is enormous: On some Saturdays, almost half of the goods find new homes.
Commitment and empathy Emmaüs Défi welcomes every homeless person who wants to work there, accounting for its rapid growth from two supervised employees a year ago to over 30 today. Unexplained gaps in many of the workers’ résumés are common. Building up the organization requires more than just commitment: Employees and helpers must also show organizational skills, empathy, and charisma – and must be willing to work for a considerablylower salary than they would get elsewhere.
Since the objects sold are donations, they can generally not be reordered. There is no purchasing organization and no master data for vendors, products, or customers. So what is the role of SAP Business One in this unconventional environment? The answer lies in accounting. Like the objects the charity sells, the software (three users), computers, and an allocation of consultant days to implement the system were also a donation – from SAP France. Emmaüs Défi pays only maintenance fees.
Impressed with reports Anne-Sophie and Valérie are happy and a little proud to be working with such a state-of-theart system in their small office. Anne-Sophie is impressed with the reports she generates at the push of a button to provide a clear overview of the current business situation. She says, however, that the application’s greatest benefit is the trust that has developed with partners, financers, and government agencies as a result of the professional data processing. SAP Business One shows that “this organization is competently managed,” says Anne-Sophie. “It’s possible to trace how the money is spent.”
However, the SAP software sometimes proves to be almost too efficient for Anne-Sophie and Valérie. Data-entry mistakes cannot simply be overwritten, and the adjustment entry remains visible. In any case, IT consultant Dominique says this kind of “discrete” correction is not advisable. Nevertheless, even during my short visit, I saw how easily mistakes can be made when working with people in desperate and difficult circumstances.
A gift of partnership
Like the software itself, the partnership with Business Plus and Dominique was part of the gift from SAP France. Anne-Sophie is quick to add that Dominique has helped Emmaüs Défi enormously. He was the first system engineer she had met who was willing to ask about the customer’s business processes and write them down while walking around the warehouse.
This was all the more impressive to Anne-Sophie since Dominique only works at the organization one day a week. Moreover, he is always prepared to help in any way he can, despite the fact that his volunteer days have been long since used up. Perhaps this is simply his way of showing what the “Plus” in his company’s name really stands for.
As I leave, Charlie apologizes for not having the time to talk; with just a few hours before tomorrow’s sale, he is understandably busy. The former SAP employee beams: “It’s great that we were able to implement the system here. It has benefited us in so many ways.” Despite the economic crisis, Emmaüs Défi is expected to continue growing. It has to find a new home by June, since the old, rent-free hall will be replaced by social housing and a day nursery – ensuring, at least, that the site will still serve the needs of the community.