CIO interview: Phil Pavitt, global CIO, Specsavers

Phil Pavitt, the new global CIO of Specsavers, has fixed his sights on helping the high-street optician take a great IT leap forward

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Phil Pavitt, the new global CIO of Specsavers, has fixed his sights on helping the high-street optician, which has 2,700 shops around the world and the lion’s share of the UK market, take a great IT leap forward. 

As a former CIO at HMRC and most recently as global transformation and operations director at insurance giant Aviva, Pavitt likes every new leadership role he takes to present him with a unique challenge. 

In this, his first job in the retail sector, he has taken on the task of transforming the optician’s IT. Key to that is convincing a large number of IT professionals to join him at Specsavers’ main IT centre in Fareham, Hampshire, on the south coast of England.

“Here is a global company working on some of the biggest IT in the retail space, and you can do that near Southampton, in Fareham,” he says, in his first interview since starting the job in June 2014. “Getting people to understand that this is a place where they can really fulfil their careers is a big part of this.

“We have a huge number of contractors because it’s been difficult to attract permanent people. People need to recognise this is a lifestyle choice here and it’s a great place to do business. We’re a strong global IT shop right in the heart of the business’s decision-making. 

“Why live and work in London when you could be part of something that is so cutting-edge and global in scope – all from the serene surroundings of the Solent? I’m selling a local lifestyle with a global career.”

New opportunities

When Aviva appointed a new CIO, Monique Shivanandan, in early 2014, Pavitt saw his remit was changing and decided to look at other opportunities. Despite enjoying working in the City of London, he was attracted by something different. But why Specsavers in particular?

“The Specsavers opportunity didn’t naturally fit for me - I’ve never done retail, I’ve never worked for a private family-owned company, and, of course, I have had these huge corporate roles. But as I met the company, and the Perkins family responsible for it, I got captured by a number of things. IT wasn’t preventing them doing a great job, but it could be so much better,” he says.

He went to visit the board in Guernsey where the company headquarters is based – and was impressed. “The key people I need to talk to sit in the boardroom - you say you want to do something and they are all around the table. Specsavers is taking the next generational leap in IT to put it at the heart of the business - the digital piece, automation, efficiency; they really need to do all of that. 

“I talked to a close confidante and she said, ‘Specsavers? Retail? No!’ And that made my mind up - I hadn’t done it before, so it was a good choice for me.”

Pavitt stepped into an unusual situation. Specsavers had been without a CIO after John Lister quit in February 2012. Since then IT had been run by two executives, one focused on retail IT, the other mostly on the back-office, both reporting to the finance director. But with the pace of digital change in retail, the board realised a different approach was needed.

“They’ve been a typical retailer, spending a lot of time on the advertising, the product, the supply chain, the market, and then they did some IT. The IT team had done a great job, but it wasn’t modern enough to make the next leap,” says Pavitt.

“There is legacy IT, a mixture of some bought stuff, some made stuff and some borrowed stuff. The costs are slightly higher than perhaps they should be; the efficiency is perhaps slightly lower than it should be in terms of what the machines do. The desire is to improve speed to market and product launches – they are not stopped by the IT but things are done in a slightly less efficient, more frictional way, and they could be done easier. And there’s the whole concept of digital - most organisations are struggling with that.”

A global concern

Specsavers is a global concern, with £1.9bn revenue in its 2013/14 financial year, and over 2,700 stores in 10 countries from Finland to Australia. A number of projects started a few years ago are still in progress and need to be concluded, but for Pavitt the challenge – and the attraction – comes in the changes ahead.

“We want do a number of things. Our retail functions are broadly Oracle-based, and our support offices are broadly Google-based. They are decisions I’m not going to unmake - but we need to make sure those work really efficiently for us. 

“My first role is to make the IT more efficient, more value for money, which means I’ve got to cheapen it slightly and exploit it more, and deliver the day-to-day services that a store, a supply chain, an HQ, globally would expect. It’s the basic IT ‘101’ – governance, structure, architecture, strategy - all those were here, but not necessarily in a way that was digestible and easy for the business to understand.

We’re trying to find IT people who have been a bit frustrated by their organisation, but who have advanced outward-type thinking, very modern. I’d be surprised if we don’t have a role we can consider them for

Phil Pavitt, Specsavers

“The second role is to take this huge set of programmes – brand-new Oracle finance programme, a new retail engine we’re looking at, brand-new supply chain programme - six or seven huge projects, which are all running OK but it’s how they are all going to arrive together and what order and what country and region, reassembling all of those so they deliver what they said they would. Those large programmes will change the application portfolio here by 70% or 80% when they are all delivered. It’s huge, going out years. My job is to bring it much closer, deliver it more quickly, more agilely, more cost-effectively, but get it done so we can move on.”

Pavitt says that his third role is to put IT at the heart of business decision-making and entrepreneurialism - where the digital piece comes in. “I could have had that conversation in Aviva, probably in HMRC, but here it is a bit sharper because it’s retail. We are not the only player, competition is huge, it’s daily. We have a value proposition as the market leader and we need IT that backs up that customer service and partner relationship.”

Cloud, big data, mobile and introducing agile methods are all on the agenda. A global ‘follow the sun’ IT service help desk is set to go live this month. There will be some outsourcing but not of the essentials. “All the skill sets of design, strategy, commercial - all that is staying on our side of the fence; the thinking, entrepreneurial, speed-to-market thing, will be 100% in house,” Pavitt says. 

However, in e-commerce Specsavers has a consideration that not all retailers will face: ultimately customers have a medical need that requires face-to-face consultation with an optician.

“The challenge is that other retailers like you to come to store on a regular basis, but do we want that? If your eye prescription hasn’t changed much, all we’ve done is take up your time. It’s not about driving footfall, it’s about driving all the footfall that should be driven, and while they are in store they convert to buying one of our products. That’s a different digital retail model – it is a medical experience as well. You can’t say, ‘Can I do an eye test in five minutes?’ But nor do you want to take an hour and five minutes - you have to take the right amount of time.

“At the heart is that you need to have an eye test from a qualified ophthalmic specialist. I’m sure online eye tests will get better but we haven’t seen that yet. It’s about pre-store, in-store and post-store.”

Proof of concept

To come up with digital retail innovations that work in that environment, the company is running a series of proof-of-concept trials.

“In the UK you can’t book appointments online - you can in some countries - we’re looking at how you make that experience work, from any device. We’re looking at how you browse for spectacles online from an up-to-date catalogue and begin to try them on online, and also in store using more interactive technology,” says Pavitt.

“I’m looking to capture more information – the big data conversation - so that when you arrive in store we know you’re arriving, perhaps using presence. We’re piloting iBeacons to help manage queues. Then there’s the idea that you carry your own digital imprint of pre-test checks, your actual test, your prescription, and carry those around with you on any device. 

“The idea is that during the dispensing process, instead of measuring the width of your eyes and so on, we take a photo using an iPad and you can see it all digitally. We have something called the magic mirror already but we can enhance that - you can see a movie of you wearing the glasses, share it on social media. There’s a proof of concept now to make a payment anywhere in the store not just at the till, which is the choke point in the store. All those things are in proof of concept now. Not all will work, but we’ll find out which ones will.”

But Pavitt’s immediate priority is recruitment. He is looking for project managers, business analysts, Oracle and SAP experts with experience in configuration, design, architecture and deployment, service desk staff, and expertise in IT automation and digital projects.

“We don’t have large teams, we don’t spend huge amounts on IT, but we do have a whole list of subject matter experts who see this as a place to really develop ideas on the cutting edge of retail IT.

“The big thing is we’re trying to find IT people who have been a bit frustrated by their organisation, but who have advanced outward-type thinking, very modern. For people who are entrepreneurial by nature in their IT environment, I’d be surprised if we don’t have a role we can consider them for.”


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