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CIO interview: Alex von Schirmeister, CDTIO, RS Components

The electronics distributor’s chief digital, technology and innovation officer (CDTIO) on putting in place a new IT infrastructure, creating a digital business and accepting risk

Alex von Schirmeister is a former marketing chief with a grand portfolio for change at electronics distributor RS Components. As chief digital, technology and innovation officer (CDTIO), he is using a range of services and approaches to drive business change at the firm.  

Before his current position, von Schirmeister spent almost 11 years at eBay in a wide range of marketing roles, including European chief marketing officer (CMO). He recognises the transition from marketing to technology management is unusual, but he believes it produces many benefits for the business and the individual.  

“Even though I’d been exposed to technology, I was typically exposed to it as a customer, either as a general or marketing manager. I would request features and functionalities from my product and engineering teams. I would then, in a global environment, negotiate how I would get the resources to have them build these solutions for me,” says von Schirmeister, reflecting on the switch from marketing to technology management

“I was always fascinated in understanding the other side of the relationship. And ultimately, because of my marketing background, I was able to understand the customer – and in the digital world, no one is closer to the customer than the product teams. So I was very keen on understanding how the technology solutions came together.” 

Leading new operations 

After leaving eBay, von Schirmeister joined RS Components in late 2015 as chief digital officer. It quickly became clear that digital acceleration would require him to assume an expanded role, with responsibility for product development through technology implementation and innovation. 

“My role might have started as a chief digital officer, but I recognised soon after I started that the business really needed someone responsible for technology and innovation as well, because many of those functions are interlinked and dependent on each other. For that reason, all those functions ended up reporting into me.” 

“I consider myself incredibly lucky because of the diversity of the things I’m responsible for. Some of the opportunities I have to create a fundamental impact on transforming the business are incredible” 

Alex von Schirmeister, RS Components

Five people report to von Schirmeister: the chief digital officer; chief technology officer; chief data officer; head of innovation; and head of product management. He says these people work as his “trusted lieutenants”, while von Schirmeister takes a higher-level, strategic view. 

“I love it,” he says. “The reality is I consider myself incredibly lucky because of the diversity of the things I’m responsible for. There isn’t a single day that repeats itself. Some of the opportunities I have to create a fundamental impact on transforming the business are incredible.” 

Grasping the opportunity 

Pushing digital change at a traditional firm like RS Components, therefore, is something von Schirmeister relishes. “I love startup environments, and I loved working at eBay and breaking into new marketplaces,” he reflects on the transition from holding a leadership role at a dotcom pure-play to RS Components. 

“Here, it’s different – you’re taking a legacy business and transforming it rapidly. Two-and-a-half years ago, 95% of our development work was waterfall and 9% agile, Today, [agile] is over 50%– that’s such a rewarding experience for the teams and the wider organisation, and ultimately for myself. It’s a lot of fun,” says von Schirmeister.  

“After 11 years, I felt I’d closed a chapter of my experiences at eBay. My next position would have been to go to California and a headquarters role. After more than a decade, I figured it was time to take my experience and see where else I could apply it.” 

The answer was RS Components and the broad executive role he now fulfils. 

“When they [RS] knocked on the door, I saw the opportunity,” says von Schirmeister. “Here was a legacy business that was well recognised but which also has a huge opportunity to transform itself. It was the change management challenge that I felt was so interesting.”

Sourcing fresh capabilities

When it comes to his major achievements since being at the firm, von Schirmeister points to what he refers to as a complete “attitudinal change” in the technology team. When he arrived, the organisation was a traditional, on-premise operation. 

Cloud was almost a forbidden word, as were phrases like software as a service and open source,” says von Schirmeister. “It was a fundamentally conservative, ERP-style [enterprise resource planning] structure.” 

The change during his time with the firm has been significant, with a new IT structure in place, including a willingness to embrace external innovation.  

Computer Weekly spoke with von Schirmeister at IBM’s Cloud Garage in London, where RS Components is launching new community platform known as DesignSpark Marketplace. The platform allows startups and small businesses to promote, test and sell their inventions to an online community of more than 650,000 members.   

Working with IBM, RS created this new platform in just four weeks. This embracing of external creativity has produced big benefits quickly. Over the next decade, von Schirmeister expects similar associations – and he expects other CIOs to use comparable link-ups, too. 

“It’s the kind of relationship that would have been unthinkable two-and-half-years ago,” he says. “We still have strong relationships with some of the traditional IT vendors. But we’re also now opening up to talking to all kinds of smaller technology firms, startups or entrepreneurs. We’re keen to experiment with cloud and open source software.” 

Creating a digital business 

It is also worth noting that von Schirmeister believes his transformative work is far from complete. He says a lot of the business’s legacy systems are still to be replatformed. He says the journey in this area continues. “But I certainly feel the momentum we have gained in the past two or three years is significant,” says von Schirmeister.  

“Becoming a digital business doesn’t mean you no longer need feet on the ground or salespeople. It means you need to equip those people with digital touchpoints”
Alex von Schirmeister, RS Components

He points to ever-growing internal recognition of the importance of digital technology. The perception of digital has become more nuanced during von Schirmeister’s time in charge. He says the firm was more focused on buying keywords for search purposes rather than using technology to create new experiences. 

Whereas technology might have been viewed as something tactical in the past, it is now deeply embedded in the business. “Our growth will be digital; our customer acquisition will be digital – we need to become a digital organisation,” says von Schirmeister. 

“And becoming a digital business doesn’t mean you no longer need feet on the ground or salespeople. It means you need to equip those people with digital touchpoints and they need to be aware of the fact that, by the time they enter a conversation with the customer, the client might already have been interacting on other online platforms.” 

Innovating for customers 

Looking forward, von Schirmeister says RS Components is convinced it has a huge opportunity to keep growing in several dimensions. While the firm focuses on electric components today, the business is aware that the market – both in terms of suppliers and consumers – continues to evolve rapidly. 

In procurement, for example, von Schirmeister says many of the firm’s customers are keen to consolidate the number of suppliers they use. He foresees a world where RS Components uses its data and insight to help its customers purchase products more efficiently. 

“Innovation will continue to accelerate exponentially – the speed at which new technologies are coming our way is just getting faster and faster. The thing that excites me about this role is thinking about the speed at which companies can absorb, digest and understand those new technologies and turn them into viable products, and hopefully profitably,” says von Schirmeister. 

“This role excites me because I must think about how I continue equipping our organisation, and the innovation specifically, to be able to scale and grow effectively, so that we can work with partners and work with technologies to rapidly understand how these systems and services will affect the future of our business and our customers.” 

Delivering organisational change

When it comes to the challenge of delivering on these future advances, von Schirmeister says the key barriers are likely to be cultural. “Yes, you know mechanics, tactics, resources and investment, but a lot of what you need to achieve is related to culture – and that, once again, is associated to ensuring your business is prepared to take risks,” he says. 

“If you’re not willing to put technologies out there which might even cannibalise your future business, then you can be sure that someone else will somewhere. If you don’t want to be threatened by entrepreneurs or engineers working out of their garage or bedroom, then you better make sure your firm is taking a risk on innovation.” 

Companies that change their culture, von Schirmeister says, accept risk. That acceptance – and recognising the business does not have a choice about trying new things – is the key to successfully embracing creativity in the digital age. He also states CIOs need to be aware of other challenges, particularly when it comes to engaging with their customers.  

“Too often that’s lip service,” says von Schirmeister. “Your customer must always be your first port of call. They will tell you what they require or what problems they have that need to be solved. Customer-centric design is absolutely critical to success.”

Supporting business growth

With his transformation strategy in place, von Schirmeister says he hopes that effective use of digital services will allow his business to grow and become the leading distributor of electronic components. “I think that would no longer be limited to the distribution of physical components,” he says, referring to long-term development plans for the business. 

“It would mean we’re the leading partner with all of our industrial and electronic customers and suppliers, including across value-added services, such as inventory management. We’d be a leading partner in data management and artificial intelligence, too. And ultimately, we’ll be very directly linked to the success of all our customers and suppliers.” 

Read more CIO interviews

  • PayPoint CIO describes the company’s shift to retail services and how it went from knowing very little about electronic point of sale system software to creating its own.  
  • Renewable energy supplier, Good Energy, aims to pioneer change in the sector through innovation, having refocused the organisation with technology as a “driving force”.
  • Gatwick Airport’s CIO discusses a major network upgrade, which will support future expansion and boost its IT services. 

 

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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