The five minute CIO: Tom Rossiter

6 Jun 2014

A fast-growing fuel and convenience retailer, Topaz aims to reduce complexity in its technology estate, improve efficiency with new applications and get better customer insight through data. Its head of IT tells more.

Topaz currently has 330 stations around Ireland, and you’re growing all the time. How do you manage the existing estate from an IT perspective, and how complex is the infrastructure?

The entire Topaz estate of 330 stations is broken into two distinct categories of 120 company-operated sites, or CoCos, and 210 dealer sites. In the case of the CoCo sites, there is full provision of all IT systems and services and for dealers it is a much lighter touch – they look after their own IT requirements.

The infrastructure in our CoCo sites is not overly complex. The key is to have the exact same setup and standard configuration in each site and then an excellent support structure in place to handle issues. In addition to the sites, Topaz also has a number of terminals and fuel depots around the country.

Are you actively looking at ways to reduce complexity or make the management easier? If so, how?

We are always looking to reduce complexity and automate as much as possible. Standardising the infrastructure, processes and systems across all our CoCo sites is vital and this in itself reduces complexity. We are always striving to introduce new applications that will make us more efficient and cut time on admin tasks. We have also outsourced our Retail IT Service Desk function to a third party, this works really well and covers day to day support.

What are some of the big trends in the fuel and retail sector right now, and in what ways are you using technology to address them?

Data and customer insights. Everyone is talking about data and the same is certainly true in retail. Being able to understand your customer is critical: what they are buying and when, what offers are performing well, what is not selling, and so on. We take in all the Point of Sale data into a cube that allows the business to perform detailed analysis.

Loyalty is another; more meaningful engagement with customers and rewarding them for their support and engagement. Our aim is to build on our loyalty platform and enhance the customer offers and experience. Also, there’s mobility. People are now accessing information on the move [and] we aim to match this with clever apps and websites and being very active with social media.

Will you be spending more, less or about the same on IT this year compared to 2013?

Spend in IT is often dependent on where you are in the lifecycle of systems and technology. There has been a lot of spend in the last number of years on our core infrastructure and putting in place a comprehensive suite of applications to support the business.

Of course, there are always new projects or business requirements but as a result of the strong base it is expected that we will be spending about the same as 2013.

Describe your own role: do you focus on the technology delivery piece, or is it much more of a management and business strategy role?

The management of the IT function takes up more time than the strategy element. Managing the wide range of technologies that support the business is one of the key parts of the job – this involves ensuring day-to-day support works seamlessly on a stable, secure and reliable platform.

Good delivery of projects is also vital to ensure business needs are being met. Other important elements of the job are keeping abreast of new technology and the overall strategy piece. 

Do you maintain a large team of IT staff to maintain the systems throughout your stores, or do you automate as much as possible or you work with a third-party support provider?

We have a small team of about a dozen people who work across a range of different IT technologies and skill sets. We also work close with some key vendors who supply us with critical services and applications.

Do you measure the performance of your IT service to the business, and if so, what methods do you use and what are the most important metrics you look at?

Nothing too formal but we do report on systems uptime and key project delivery at a high level on a weekly basis to the management team.

Has there been a business and IT project that you think has given Topaz a competitive edge, or has done something smart with technology to deliver benefit to the business?

Probably the one that springs to mind is the new Play or Park Loyalty scheme. One of the aims was to be different and deliver a better and fun experience for our customers. We were one of the first companies in Europe to use an ongoing gaming mechanic as the main pillar of our loyalty programme.

Basically, customers get points for purchases and this enables them to ‘play’ that month’s game for a fantastic prize – they include holidays, shopping trips and new cars – or they can choose to ‘park’ their points for an upcoming game. If you don’t win the big prize, there is a Topaz treat such as a free coffee and pastry or car wash for all players.

The new app was at the hub of the game and allows customers to identify themselves with QR codes, play in the loyalty game and redeem offers via the phone. Everything is online and customers can see their points balance change on the phone as soon as they leave the till. No other loyalty programme has this level of innovation and definitely puts us ahead of other programmes. We’ve been delighted with the take up. Over 250,000 have already signed up for Play or Park although it’s only over a year old. It has also won a load of awards, which is very satisfying.

Are you planning any major projects lined up for this year, and what can you tell us about them?

Some of the key projects for this year are e-commerce. We are launching a new site to allow for online purchase of Home Heat from Topaz. CRM is another key initiative for Topaz, to improve how we work internally and how we interact with our B2B customers.

Business Intelligence is another area where have a focus, making sure information is available to the business to help them make decisions. We already have good systems in place but we want to build on this.

Efficiency is important. One of the pillars of Topaz is the high standard and consistency of the sites. The year, we plan to launch a hosted solution that will allow us to monitor and audit sites easily via tablets using photos to record what is in place. Innovation is another area: we are also looking at new ways of doing business and coming up with enhancements to the app that the customer will find useful.

What technologies have you seen that could work for Topaz, but you haven’t implemented yet?

Desktop virtualisation is one technology that we have seen that we would definitely like to deploy in the near future. We have an ageing estate of desktops and laptops and VDI seems like an obvious next step. We also plan to extend our current private cloud and deploy elements of a hybrid/public cloud offering in the coming year.

What’s the biggest challenge in your role: coping with the company’s growth, or adding systems like loyalty programmes on top of the usual applications?

The biggest challenge is the diverse range of applications that support the business and being agile enough to meet the changing demands.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic