For hard questions, just dial up Ernie Answer man: Brian Baum oversees Ernst & Young's Web-based consulting service.

July 16, 1998|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Used to be when Rick Chiricosta, chief financial officer of a Cleveland life insurance company, had a question about IRS regulations or 401(k) plans, he'd call a professional, dig through piles of data to find the answer or perhaps go without the information.

Then came Ernie, the Web-based consulting service from Ernst & Young LLP that's run by a native Baltimorean from his Howard County home.

The service allows subscribers to send e-mail to consultants with questions about such things as what kind of software to buy and complex tax rules. Within two business days, an answer arrives by e-mail from one of the thousands of consultants at Ernst & Young.

"Questions would arise from time to time where we might not want to go out of our way to call an accountant and ask them to research it, especially at $150 an hour," Chiricosta said. "Sometimes we'd just wing it ourselves, but for lots of things it would be nice if we had authoritative support."

Many major accounting firms have gone online, but Ernst & Young's site is different in that instead of focusing on Fortune 500 companies, it is aimed at small to medium-sized businesses with annual revenues of $20 million to $200 million. Ernie (www.ernie.ey.com) also offers customized responses with a quick turnaround.

Ernie is spearheaded by Brian Baum, Ernst's market development director for online consulting services. The University of Baltimore graduate left his marketing job at Bell Atlantic Corp. after 17 years to join Ernst & Young in January 1996.

It's fitting that Baum, 40, oversees a service that makes the most of today's technology and uses that same technology to customize his own work environment. The bulk of Ernie operations are at Ernst & Young's headquarters in Cleveland. But Baum, who was born in Overlea and moved to Ellicott City when he was 10, wasn't interested in relocating. He spends about half of his time traveling and the other half working out of an office in his five-bedroom home in West Friendship, allowing him to spend more time with his wife, Patti, and their 6-year-old son, Trevor.

He said Ernie, which was launched in 1996 and has about 1,200 subscribers, is a way for business people to get answers they need fast.

"It's bottom-line, action-oriented, not academic textbook theory," Baum said. "We encourage a 'been there, done that, here's what works' approach. Ideally, answers are no more than two pages in length. The shorter the better."

That's what Chiricosta, then chief financial officer of Medial Life Insurance Co., was looking for last year when his company got wind that one of its clients was offering life insurance to its employees on a pretax basis. He since has moved to another Cleveland insurance firm.

"I'm not going to send our marketing guy to the group and say, 'You can't do this' until I get backup," Chiricosta said. "So I went on Ernie and asked, 'What are the rules on offering life insurance on a tax-free basis?' and they confirmed exactly what I thought, that it wasn't a good idea. That lets us give service that I think is over and beyond the normal call of duty."

The only complaint Chiricosta has with Ernie is the price. He signed up for the service at $6,000 a year and was able to ask unlimited questions. After a few months, he got a call from Ernst saying it couldn't continue to offer the service at that price and that it eventually would jump to $18,000, although the company was allowed to lock in a second year at $6,000.

Ernie is also offered for $3,500 annually in a program that allows a subscribing company to ask up to 10 questions a year. If a company needs more service, it can purchase 20 more questions for $4,000.

Ellen Hoadley, an associate professor for information systems and assistant dean for academic programs at Loyola College's Sellinger School of Business and Management, said Ernie could be a useful tool if used wisely.

"Its strength is that it can be used as a resource to do very specific research if people can formulate their questions properly," she said.

Along with the interactive feature, Ernie gives subscribers access to several databases, such as a "previously asked question" section that lets users see whether other companies share their concerns and what recommendations Ernie offered.

The database feature is the one more commonly seen on other consultant Web sites.

For example, Arthur Andersen LLP offers a fee-based site (www.KnowledgeSpace.com) that gives users access to hundreds of business journals; an interactive tool that lets them compare their company's practices with those of others; and a site that lets peer groups, such as chief financial officers, discuss business problems or trends.

The online service offered by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the new company formed by the recent merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand LLP, (www.KnowledgeDirect.net) is arranged by "communities," such as telecommunications or tax issues.

Baum said he sees many benefits to online consulting but that it will never take the place of traditional services.

"Companies will still need face-to-face consulting if they are looking at significant strategic changes or major structural changes or if they are re-engineering how a specific business function works," he said.

"Ernie is driven by the pace of change in business. People need help almost on a day-to-day basis."

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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