CIO interview: Sarah Leslie, CIO, Iglo Foods Group

Sarah Leslie, CIO at Birds Eye manufacturer Iglo Foods Group, is focused on delivering simplified and standardised IT systems

Sarah Leslie, CIO at Birds Eye manufacturer Iglo Foods Group, is focused on delivering simplified and standardised IT systems. She says that, in using a mix of internal expertise and outside partnerships, she is on course to produce lasting business benefits.

Following a two-decade stint at United Biscuits, Leslie joined Iglo as business solutions manager in 2007. She took over the day-to-day management of IT a year later, assuming the CIO role in 2011. It is a role she relishes and says much of her enjoyment stems from the distinct nature of the technology management at the company.

Iglo Foods is best known for its regional European brands, such as Birds Eye in England and Findus in Italy. “IT at Iglo is a little bit different to other large companies,” says Leslie. “We have a very small team of internal IT workers who have worked closely with a select group of partners to build and maintain our technology platform.”

Leslie says leanness is the name of the game for the Iglo business. The organisation is open and flat. Her IT team, for example, sits among the rest of the business at the firm’s head office in Feltham, Middlesex. The proximity helps Leslie and her colleagues stay on top of the fast-changing demands in an ever-evolving business.

Unilever sold Birds Eye Iglo, as it was then called, to private equity firm Permira in 2006. The business was presented with a rare opportunity to create a fresh IT platform, unencumbered by the legacy systems that can restrict the technology decisions executives make in running other household brands. Then CIO and current chief operating officer, Tania Howarth, decided to build key partnerships with external service providers.

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Partnerships to deliver business benefits

During the next two years, Howarth and her colleagues in the IT department started to create relationships with outsourcing specialists. Although the number of contractors varies with different projects, the core internal IT team comprises just 15 people. Leslie recognises the department is lean but says it is an approach that works well for the business.

“There’s no room for passengers,” she says. “We do a lot of work with our small IT team. It’s easier to be clear about where we need to concentrate. The small nature of our team means we must work together and collaboration is natural. But we have to work creatively and we make sure we do an awful lot with our limited human resources.”

Employees concentrate on building strong relationships with outsourcers. External provision covers two main areas: Service delivery, where internal IT staff focus on making sure current services work well; and business solutions, where staff concentrate on applications functionality and capability. There are two main providers, one for applications and one for infrastructure.

Supplier relationship management

“We’re heavily reliant on partners and we need to make sure the cultural fit is spot on,” says Leslie. The significant position of outsourcers in Iglo's IT means Leslie is well-placed to offer advice about outsourcing best practice to other technology leaders. She says CIOs must pay significant attention to the style of the supplier.

“You need skin in the game and you need to find a partner that provides a strong cultural fit in the way your organisation completes its business. If your procurement and legal teams like to complete a lot of due diligence, then you need a partner prepared for heavier processes. If you’re looking for agility, then you might need smaller partners that can move quickly,” says Leslie.

“The scale of the relationship, and the balance you achieve, becomes absolutely central. Success depends on establishing the right relationships at the beginning of the contract. You must make sure you determine what your business really wants to achieve through the partnership. As CIO, you need to create strong relationships with the people who will deliver your IT. And you must ensure your IT team has a model to help make the most of your outsourcing partners.”

Managed risk approach to developing technology

Outsourcing is not the only crucial component of Leslie’s IT strategy. She says the business recognises that speed of IT implementation – albeit with some workarounds or outstanding system issues – often delivers quicker and bigger business benefits than spending more time and money on attempts to perfect a system before it goes live.

“It’s usually better if the rest of the business has something to work with, use and understand,” says Leslie. “It’s better to make a decision with the amount of information you’ve been given, rather than waiting until it’s too late and your business has lost a competitive advantage. The quicker we can get things out, the quicker the business can give its feedback, and then reap the benefits of the work we’ve undertaken.”

Starting from scratch represents a powerful burning platform. You really have to think very carefully about what IT you’re going to spend money on 

 Sarah Leslie, Iglo Foods 

Leslie says the creation of an IT platform for the new Iglo business in 2007 and 2008 provided an example of a substantial project undertaken quickly, with support from the rest of the business. “Starting from scratch represents a powerful burning platform,” she says. “You really have to think very carefully about what IT you’re going to spend money on. The big lesson we learnt was all about balancing the risk of going live with the benefits of quicker delivery.”

Leslie and her colleagues have applied these lessons as the Iglo business develops. The firm purchased the remaining Italian frozen food company, trading under the brand name Findus, from Unilever in 2010. Leslie says Iglo integrated the new business quickly because it had already developed a standardised and simplified IT platform. The technology team focused on balancing risk with the pace of delivery, as it pushed a transformation programme at desktop, datacentre and application levels.

“We’re a lean IT operation but there’s still plenty of work to do,” says Leslie. “Meeting business need through simplicity is absolutely crucial to the organisation. What we’ve found is there is often pressure to undertake as much testing as possible. But it’s probably better to go live as quickly as possible and decide what needs to be changed as the business starts using your services.”

Speed and ambition

Leslie says the managed approach to risk works better in some industries than others, such as the heavily regulated financial services sector. The priority for the wider Iglo business is that the right product is produced at the right time, and these goods are delivered – and invoiced for – in a timely manner. Leslie says the risk-based approach her teams take must not endanger the smooth running of that procedure. But experimentation can help improve processes – and external partners play a key role.

“Get as ready as you can, and consider the worst thing that could possibly happen – and what you will do if it does. Sit with your business colleagues and balance out the challenges and costs, and how you might mitigate their concerns. There’s no hard and fast rule to when you are ready. But you must set an ambitious target,” she says.

“My IT team is good at delivering and getting things done. We have to work closely with our partners to make sure they understand our way of working and our aims. They take a bit of a risk, too. They need to be aware there are challenges and that we won’t play a blame game if things don’t turn out as might have been expected.”

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Trust is a crucial component of a managed risk approach to technology development. Leslie says her team and suppliers use their experience to learn together. “I expect our partners to come with us on a journey,” she says. “We’ve had to think about our style of working and we’ve had to find a supplier that will complement our approach. What we’ve discovered is what ‘good’ looks like for our business.”

The final component of a successful managed risk approach to technology development is business input. Leslie says that, without engaging users, the IT team will fail to deliver the best possible solution to the challenges the organisation faces. “You need to have a conversation with your business colleagues and explain there are many choices,” she says. “Find out what’s really important to them and whether their priority is robustness or speed to market. At the end of the day, quality is key.”

The future of Iglo's IT delivery

The aim of delivering quality services that meet business objectives will remain paramount for Leslie. “There’s a constant challenge in IT delivery,” she says. “We need to make sure we balance evolving business needs. Technology is changing quickly and we need to recognise the opportunities, but we also need rigorous cost control.”

Leslie says key IT priorities will involve exploring and exploiting the technology at hand and making sure those systems and services are used across the business. Her team will support key organisation projects and weigh up the potential of digital technologies such as collaboration and video conferencing.

“We need to ensure we’re in step with the business and, at the same time, that we understand enough about the technology to see where the opportunities exist,” says Leslie.

“We want simplicity but standardisation shouldn't mean your users only have one option. Our approach will be about giving people more choice so they can work the best tools in the most appropriate way.”

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