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CIO interview: Neil Pearce, Travis Perkins

Retailer Travis Perkins’ largest IT transformation programme to date is a challenge CIO Neil Pearce is more than happy to take on

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Travis Perkins CIO Neil Pearce has always had sky-high ambitions. His father worked for Nasa on the Apollo programme and Neil was named after Neil Armstrong. Just like those early space pioneers, Pearce has always been interested in challenging projects. 

“I move towards things that interest me,” he says. As a result, Pearce has worked across a broad span of industries, including charity, retail, oil and telecommunications. 

His current role at Travis Perkins involves running a transformation programme and a shift from legacy systems to digital services. Pearce says the benefits will be great. 

“We’ll have a much more efficient business – one that’s able to attract and retain people because we’ve got a better set of systems and processes,” he says. “We’ll be at a point where we’re making use of our digital capabilities to create much better services for our customers.” 

Computer Weekly meets Pearce in Watford at the head office of Wickes – one of Travis Perkins’ major retail brands along with Tile Giant, Toolstation and City Plumbing Suppliers. He talks about his career development, his plans for transformation and his long-term aims.

Developing a range of leadership skills

Pearce joined Sainsbury’s management trainee scheme after leaving school. He stayed for four years before taking a degree at the London School of Theology. It was during his degree that Pearce started working in IT – first part-time, later full-time – for a small Christian charity called Soul Survivor. 

He worked in the operations team and found himself fixing IT by default. As the use of technology at the charity evolved, Pearce took responsibility for a range of tasks, such as implementing applications, setting up email services and creating a web presence.

“There’s some really old technology and a great opportunity to create change”

Neil Pearce, Travis Perkins

Pearce took his retail and technology experience to Tesco in 2001 when he joined the firm as project manager. During the next eight years, he fulfilled a series of roles, often around marketing and with a particular emphasis on the retail giant’s loyalty scheme. Pearce introduced the Clubcard system in South Korea and Thailand, managed the offshoring of more than 160 IT roles to India and ran IT across Tesco’s 2,000-plus UK stores. He then moved on to BP, where he spent two years as global applications delivery manager, before moving to Vodafone in 2011, where he was head of transformation and latterly CTO. “I gained some great experiences, but I decided I needed something fresh again,” he says, referring to his decision to leave the firm. After taking time to find the right role, Pearce moved to Travis Perkins as CTO in March 2015. 

Pearce found the firm relied on an interesting blend of legacy technologies and Agile development methodologies. “I knew I could make IT better,” he says, referring to Travis Perkins having had five IT leaders in the previous five years. Such has been Pearce’s impact that he was made CIO in late 2015 with a seat on the executive board. 

Working with the team to deliver great results 

Travis Perkins has a big focus on in-house technology talent. Just 140 IT roles have been offshored. The firm employs 550 IT staff covering a broad range of areas, including operations, development, analysis and data science. There is a huge variety in the CIO role, too. 

“For an IT leader, it’s almost like a greenfield site,” he says. “Most of our systems are bespoke and were written in-house during the 1980s, so there’s some really old technology and a great opportunity to create change. But there are also pockets of brilliance across the IT team, particularly in regards to e-commerce and data.” 

In terms of e-commerce, Pearce points to the firm’s achievements in multi-channel operations. Travis Perkins uses the SAP platform Hybris to deliver a consistent experience to customers across the firm’s retail brands. Pearce has helped tweak this approach so all operations – from testing to development and on to billing – are run on Amazon Web Services, rather than in-house systems. 

When it comes to data, Travis Perkins employs a group data director who reports to Pearce. Information is at the heart of the firm’s operations. Pearce says branch managers often make decisions for customers in terms of bespoke packages and flexible pricing. To aid effective reporting, Pearce and his team have removed hundreds of duplicate data points. 

“Our rigorous approach to data provides another great asset to add to the high engineering capability and automation offered through Amazon Web Services,” he says. “We have the basis for a great IT department that will help to deliver great customer experiences. Now the hard work begins.” 

Creating the base for excellent customer service

Pearce presents his plans for digital transformation as a construction project. He is working on the foundations and will subsequently turn to the walls, the roof, and the fixtures and fittings. Pearce says work on the foundations involves attention to three core areas. 

First, networks – he is currently working with Vodafone on a multi-million pound deal to improve connectivity across the business. His second priority in is supporting a continued move to the cloud. Pearce aims to move all infrastructure, platforms and applications on-demand during the next five years. Finally, work on foundations involves strengthening the firm’s middleware capability to connect various software and hardware elements.  

With the right footing in place, Pearce will then turn to the “walls”. He points to two key business application developments: SD Worx and its Dayforce human resources management software. When it comes to enterprise resource planning (ERP), the firm is using specialist software Infor to deal with finance, stock and customer data requirements in the cloud. 

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The third element of Pearce’s digital transformation – the “roof” – involves the development of an IT team to bring his new operating model to fruition. Pearce has already made changes to his technology leadership team, with more to come. “I want our people to have a strong understanding of the people that buy our products,” he says. “The aim is an end-to-end service, where our IT people reach out to the requirements of our customers.” 

With the rest of his plan for transformation in place, Pearce can finally turn his attention to the fixtures and fittings. “This is where we add sparkle and use digital technology to really make a difference,” he says. “Once we’ve got a flexible platform in place, we can start thinking about doing cool stuff for our customers. To be truly digital, we need to think about the customer at all times.” 

Embracing change to stay one step ahead 

The aim, says Pearce, is for Travis Perkins to make the most of disruption. Start-ups like Uber and Airbnb have transformed operations in the transport and accommodation sectors. Pearce recognises all industries are potentially ripe for disruption. He wants Travis Perkins to embrace this change through its digital transformation programme. 

“We want to give tools to customers to help improve the way they work and to make processes more efficient,” says Pearce. Examples might include technology to automatically update clients on product delivery status or tools that help builders create quick quotes on-site from pre-existing data. “It’s all about how we can use technology to potentially improve the quality of service,” he adds. 

His plans move beyond current technology and into more advanced areas, too. Pearce recently analysed the potential application of cognitive computing, where high-powered computers use natural language processing to mimic human interaction. One potential area of application is in customer service, where cognitive assistants could provide detailed instructions to builders. 

Pearce does not expect to cognitive computing to have an immediate impact in the construction industry. However, he says his executive team must be awake to the power of innovation. “We have to think about how we can use the technology at our disposal to help our customers. With the right tools, we can improve service and boost customer stickiness,” he says. 

“The potential in terms of taking advantage of digital disruption is why I found this role so enticing. There hasn’t been any major change in the sector yet, but the opportunities for disruption are becoming apparent. It’s so important that we’re on the front foot – and we’ve got great support from the senior leadership team to help us explore the potential of digital technology.” 

Building for the future

Pearce is aware that the biggest challenges are likely to be cultural. The workforce across the organisation tends to work in an autonomous and entrepreneurial manner. “Everything has been run on in-house systems with incremental changes for many years,” he says. “The business has never run an IT change project on this scale before.” 

The good news is Pearce is confident he has the processes in place to help the business move forwards during the next two to three years. He refers back to his analogy of the firm’s digital transformation being like a multi-stage building project. 

“If we’re going to stay competitive, then the construction needs to be ready,” he says. “The rest of the executive team are very clear that IT investments are absolutely crucial. Everyone knows that we can’t kick the can down the road any longer. If we don’t transform now, someone else could disrupt the market.” 

Pearce has strong boardroom backing to shift the business from a reliance on legacy systems to modern, digital services. It is going to be an absorbing project for a CIO who has always been fascinated by big change initiatives. What is more, the excitement is only just beginning. 

“Once we’ve done the heavy lifting, we’ll have something really great to build upon – and we’ll be able to start thinking about how we can partner with other organisations to create really great experiences for our customers. This is a great place to work and it’s only going to get better,” says Pearce.

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