CIO interview: Avis Europe drives IT makeover

Avis Europe is working on a group-wide IT transformation and driving customer-facing innovation following a recent restructure that has enabled the entire technology team to move towards a federated model.

Avis Europe is working on a group-wide IT transformation and driving customer-facing innovation following a recent restructure that has enabled the entire technology team to move towards a federated model.

Former group applications director Adam Gerrard was appointed to the top IT job just over a year ago following the departure of chief information officer (CIO) Martin Frick, who moved on to outsourcer Xchanging after two years of service at the car hire firm.

One of the key achievements claimed by Gerrard during his tenure as a CIO is the introduction of 'professional families' to the company's 90-strong IT shared services centre in Bracknell. This means that analysts, developers, project managers and service delivery teams are pooled to share best practice and drive economies of scale.

"We had to sort out people and processes: if you don't get these things right, your solutions will never be right. Now we have people in the right places and more able to think about how to apply their knowledge," Gerrard told Computer Weekly.

"Under the federated model, individuals have the support of their team when it comes to resolving issues related to their area of specialism and it also enables better career development because we put hierarchic structures around the 'families'," he added.

Avis Europe - a franchisee of the US giant Avis Budget Group (ABG), which is responsible for business in the Americas and Australia - is accountable for branches in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia and Gerrard's role covers all these areas.

Core competence across Europe

While the shared services centre in the UK is responsible for the development and distribution of centralised applications, the local country units - which employ about 130 people - take the lead in innovation around specific areas of functionality, which is invaluable to Avis as it seeks to significantly simplify its portfolio of about 400 systems.

For example, the IT team in Germany has developed a fleet optimisation system which has been chosen as the platform of choice and is now being tweaked for group-wide distribution. Similar processes are now taking place based on the work carried out by the Italian team, a specialist in fleet administration systems and the French, who are leaders in customer relationship systems.

"[The local teams] are in the cutting edge of car hire in their countries and are very close to day-to-day issues and operations management, so they are more agile in terms of customer-facing initiatives and therefore drive innovation," said Gerrard.

"And because we introduced professional families in the shared services centre, we are aligning those skills and learning from the local teams, improving what we do and starting to establish an environment where people trust each other and can bounce ideas off," he said.

The IT team at Avis is complemented by just over 30 people in Budapest at a captive centre which is also responsible for application support. The decision to shift IT work to Eastern Europe instead of more traditional destinations - the firm's parent ABG outsources 60% of its technology work to Tata Consultancy Services - was not purely driven by the need to reduce spend.

"If you are focused on cost alone you can see the attraction of India or even China. What we were looking for was an amount of salary arbitrage, but also something that fits in our geographic profile, works within our time zone, isn't far away and is also an emerging country," said Gerrard.

Operational IT spending at Avis Europe is about €50m (£41.5m) and some €5.5m (£4.6m) is being spent to lift systems from regions and improve them for distribution across the group. Some substantial reductions in cost have already been achieved and there could be scope for more, but the CIO prefers to improve his existing set-up and be able to respond effectively in the event of an upturn.

Current technology agenda

On future technology plans, Gerrard said he is a big fan of simplification and though Avis Europe has traditionally developed its systems internally, he will seek to gradually go down the package route.

"People normally assume that they have to build systems themselves, but there are proven technologies out there. If you buy off the shelf, you get innovation from the supplier and let your own people focus on the things that add value," he explained.

Avis Europe is mainly a Microsoft shop, but uses other suppliers such as Coda for finance and accounting software. Its US parent works closely with IBM, which could translate into more work in Europe, according to Gerrard.

IBM already provides software to Avis Europe, including a predictive analytics platform used in online marketing, which examines the history of clicks on marketing e-mails and customer transactional behaviour.

The car hire firm has about 20 IT projects currently taking place. At the top of the list is the roll-out of a .Net-based system interface to Wizard, a booking engine which sits at the centre of its operations and was developed back in the 1970s.

"Logistics is the biggest challenge [in the roll-out] as it is quite disruptive. You can't make changes during busy times of the year or take people away from the service desk for training as it would disrupt customer service," said Gerrard.

Web is also an area of focus for Avis Europe and, according to the CIO, the firm is looking at "longer-term options". "Web is an area where we also tended to do too much in-house, so we are now evaluating which products would assist us there."

From an infrastructure perspective, the company has made extensive use of virtualisation over the last 18 months, using VMware software. HP is the main supplier of hardware and Dell provides some equipment to the firm.

Avis Europe has not refreshed its desktop estate for a long time, but Gerrard is now evaluating his options and trying to establish "what the desktop of the future would look like" and thin-client technology is an option, as is increased use of web-based applications.

"Web apps would make sense for our licensees and it would be my preference to move towards that direction, but there is a migration and conversion cost, as well as functionality and training concerns so we need to understand the business case first before we embark on anything like that," he said.

Customer-facing technology that Avis is now rolling out across Europe includes an iPhone app and a possible Blackberry-based equivalent, as well as web-enabled portable devices - already in use in the US - which allow customers to undergo the process of dropping off vehicles and eliminating the need to go to the counter.

"The most interesting technology trends are definitely around mobile and how we can utilise the relationship people have with their phones to make Avis the go-to brand in car rental," said Gerrard.

"We are conscious about some emerging technologies are impacting the business and are working with suppliers to understand trends and make sure we have the right conversations with the right business stakeholders to understand how we can leverage these new tools," he said.

Proving the value of IT

Gerrard added that, similarly to the hotel industry, the car rental market is now trying to catch up with the levels of customer-facing automation provided by the airline industry.

"The industry as a whole is a bit behind the curve when it comes to [self-service]. But we are not an airline. The hotel chains are doing that because of the airlines, without getting too much buy-in from customers," he said.

"We are in the same kind of market, but it all boils down to how early in the hype cycle you need to be. We can start understanding new technologies as soon as they become hyped and see where it fits in our proposition and product range."

Despite having gone great lengths towards boosting the morale of IT internally and externally, Gerrard maintains that the most testing aspect of his job will be proving the value of technology - he is even undergoing an MBA to prove his business skills.

"I don't want IT to be treated as a cost centre. If you switched off all the technology, we just wouldn't trade. That's something people seem to forget sometimes."

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