The five minute CIO: Veronica Sullivan

23 Nov 2012

BWG Foods' head of IT, Veronica Sullivan

Making budgets go further and shopping for good value is at the heart of grocery retailer and wholesaler BWG Foods’ approach to technology, as its head of IT Veronica Sullivan explains.

What are some of the major technologies BWG uses for its operations?

Our main business-critical system is our ERP system, which is from BCT, and it’s called Accord. That provides our warehouse management system and is voice-enabled. It looks after our warehouses, cash and carry outlets – branded as Value Centre – our wholesale business, and head office system.

We introduced Microsoft Dynamics CRM two years ago and that has been a platform to set up queries for all of the customers that we’re dealing with and we’ve customised it to suit our requirements for our sales team in Spar. It can collect a lot of analytics and information for our sales team to feed back to the retailers.

We implemented a very exciting project recently – an e-business portal. Our suppliers use this e-business portal to post their invoices. The system automatically identifies invoices that are inaccurate or contain discrepancies, such as against price or quantity before they reach our accounts systems. It has yielded a wide range of business benefits to our suppliers, customers and to BWG.

Have you any plans to upgrade or change any of your main systems in the near future?

We’re doing a combination of incremental change – expanding on the CRM platform and looking for tablets for our sales reps, for example. We’re bringing new functionality into the warehouse system – that’s all planned for next year.

And we’re introducing a new initiative – a hosted unified communications [UC] solution. We’re in the early stages of doing change-outs of telephony systems of different ages.

What will UC allow you to do?

It’s going to be cloud-based and it’s going to give us a lot more streamlined communications. We can route calls seamlessly across all sites across our network and improve communication with all our employees, and our customers can have a good experience with us. You’ve got portability and a menu-led system so a customer can find the right person in as straightforward a way as possible.

Will your 2013 IT budget be increased, decreased or the same as this year?

All I can say is, regardless of the outcome of my budget, year on year we must flex the budget as much as possible and do more with less. Instead of going down route of cap-ex, we’re using our budget a lot smarter. Unified communications would be an example of that.

Does that make the pay-as-you-use cloud model attractive?

There’s a cost element but I also find it’s speed to market, as well. We used another example of cloud development recently: during the summer we had a trade show for our retailers and suppliers and we developed an application to take orders on the day. We’re using the budget wisely rather than going down the traditional route of buying equipment and licences.

How will that affect your spending priorities – do you have to be more creative with your budget?

I take the view that BWG would be a progressive retail company. We’re always looking at ways of improving our service to customers and running our business efficiently. I would be looking at new and innovative technology to enable that.

How do you approach managing IT when the company’s real estate is so widely spread out across Ireland: do you try and centralise as much as possible, or do you have a roving team of IT maintenance staff on standby?

It’s a combination of everything. First, we would have a diverse estate so we have a number of technology partners that would look after the technology needs of the retail estate. And we look to centralise where it’s appropriate and be clever with our resourcing. We’re getting ready to put in a [customer] loyalty solution and that will be on one platform and centralised.

How big a project was it to implement the Eircom WiFiHub across your stores?

It was a partnership between IT and our business. We worked very closely with Eircom in relation to the WiFiHub. It was a large project. Eircom acted as our partner and did quite a lot of the implementation in our stores. So from an IT perspective, we were very much the relationship manager.

Isn’t one of the drawbacks of the outsourcing model that knowledge of the system stays external to the company that’s using it?

I can see that outsourcing has its benefits. I feel that talent management is very important within IT and the skills that I would have are better served focusing on strategic projects for our business.

Recently, we worked with a managed print service called Bytek and they looked after consolidating our printers. That freed up a huge amount of man-hours for ourselves; it freed our team to act as programme managers for our hosted UC project. Even though printing is important for our business, it was non-core. We would have done the same thing with our telecoms and our WAN. Outsourcing has its place and it lets you use the valued resources to focus on the strategic area

What can you tell us about the contactless payment programme you’ve started – how extensive is it, and how much of a technical challenge was it to get up and running?

My focus up to now has been to make sure that the technology has to be contactless-payment-ready. We have a large estate of retailers using different systems and working with different merchant banks. We have focused on streamlining and our preferred merchant partner CBE has put in the EPOS solution. It’s just taking time and focus to get that going. It’s progressing well, but it’s a large-scale project that will take time and effort to make happen.

It seems technology is playing a big role in how BWG manages its stores and attracts customers – what implication does that have for your job? Are you becoming more involved in early business discussions, for example?

Very much so. I think a head of IT at this point has to be very commercially aware and always anticipating change and challenges.

I’m part of the BWG executive team listening to the projects and challenges that are coming our way, and thinking of solutions for them. It’s a very exciting job and I’m never bored.

How much of your own role involves being hands-on with the technology, and how much of it is at a higher level, more focused on business strategy?

I’m very much focused on business strategy and on technology solutions that will enable the business. It’s been very good. As BWG have been progressive they’ve been very supportive of initiatives that we’ve brought to the company.

I’m an engineer by trade and went through network infrastructure. I’ve always enjoyed and loved technology but I can see now working more with the business. It’s extremely gratifying to see the business benefits it yields when you come up with a solution.

From a retail point of view, or just an IT operations perspective, what are the technologies that really interest you right now?

If I was wearing two hats and just looking at retail, payment technology is of big interest. Keeping an eye on how the mobile payments space will evolve will be interesting.

On the day job, I’m a huge fan of instant messaging and we have a desktop application where we would look at our sales figures every week. Instead of using PowerPoint, we are using a desktop sharing application. I’m a huge fan of all the tools to make us work smarter – for example, I’m rolling out a wiki to the whole IT department.

Do you think trends like cloud and automation are removing a lot of the spadework in running an IT department?

I think that trend will go more and more [in that direction] but there still will be an element of keeping core systems and core knowledge in-house and deciding what is core for a business and what is no core. The cloud element will definitely cover the non-core side for us.

From a technology perspective, we have successfully consolidated a business process that was previously distributed; it’s in the cloud – which removes the infrastructure overhead of our IT systems and support, and it’s outsourced with our key technology partner who covers all 24 x 7 support and software developments. This e-business portal really ticked the boxes of consolidation, cloud and outsourcing and shows when there’s the right business project and fit, that it can work.

So will you choose public, private or hybrid cloud?

It’s horses for courses for everybody’s unique business. For us, it’s definitely a hybrid. Cloud and outsourcing have a place where there’s the right business fit, and running of other systems need to stay in-house.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic