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CIO interview: Richard Corbridge, Boots

Boots has been hugely successful in its transition to e-commerce and the Covid-19 pandemic has seen several digital initiatives spun up to continue offering services to customers

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Richard Corbridge has made a rare switch when it comes to IT leadership. After many years successfully spearheading technology change in a range of public sector organisations, he moved to the private sector in April 2019, to join high street chemist Boots.

He became director of innovation at the chemist, helping to build a creative approach to healthcare and well-being capability across the brand, before being asked to also fulfil a specialist role from the start of 2020, where he investigated how Boots could transition many of the high street services it offers and make them available to customers online. 

Success here led to another switch in August 2020 – this time to the CIO role, a position he’d previously fulfilled in a series of organisations, including Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, the Health Service Executive in Ireland and the NIHR Clinical Research Network.

Corbridge was asked to step into the CIO role at Boots after the incumbent returned to the US. Now, two years after joining the private sector, he’s loving the challenge of running enterprise IT. Corbridge is also relishing his return to the CIO role. 

“It’s still really exciting,” he says. “It feels weird in some ways – two years into Boots, and I’ve had three jobs – but going back to being a CIO also feels like coming home. I’ve spoken to a couple of old CIO friends recently, and you don’t realise how much the role means to you until you don’t do it anymore. It’s something you miss.”

Keeping the business running

Corbridge looks back on his achievements in the director of innovation role, where he says he and his team worked through an awful lot of change. One of the key things he identified was that Boots had created a change framework to lean against, but wasn’t necessarily clear on where it was trying to get to.

“We’d got plenty of new ideas to go at from within the organisation,” he reflects. “So I was asked in January 2020 to step into a role looking at high street healthcare, which was literally taking all the things that are in a Boots store related to healthcare and trying to work out how we transition them or make them available online, so that we could start off our healthcare journey from the .com point of view.”

“I was asked in January 2020 to step into a role looking at high street healthcare – taking all the things in a Boots store related to healthcare and trying to work out how we transition them or make them available online”

Richard Corbridge, Boots

That preparatory work looked more than fortuitous three months later, as the UK and Boots went into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. That shift made it possible for the retailer to serve an increasing number of customers online during the past year.

It’s also a transition that will be familiar to tech leaders at all traditional retailers. Social distancing measures mean it’s been impossible for many high street businesses to serve customers face-to-face. Yet the situation at Boots has been slightly different – as a provider of an essential service, the chemist had to keep its 2,500 stores open.

“We need to keep them open, keep them trading, keep them moving; not that many people are going in, other than for the essential healthcare items. And then you compound that with trying to manage something that is almost unforecastable, because you don’t know what’s happening day to day; you don’t know when the lockdown parameters are changing,” he says.

“You then add to that an e-commerce site, which Boots has only really seen as a trading tool for the past five years – we’re really a baby in this space – and there we are, moving the vast majority of everything we do from a revenue-making point of view to online.”

Growing online operations

Corbridge spent the first two lockdowns working on a range of projects, including the creation of virtual GP services, the implementation of Covid-19 tests at branches, and a series of other initiatives around healthcare and how Boots could transition some of this provision online. 

So what’s that transition to e-commerce been like? In simple statistical terms, the answer is successful – Corbridge cites a 250% year-on-year increase in online trading. It’s also been a big challenge at a personal level, yet it’s one he’s risen to.

“I became CIO in August 2020. I’d never done peak trading or e-commerce before, and that’s in a year when nobody could predict what Christmas or Black Friday would be like. And there we were, breaking the record for the number of people on the site, the amount of revenue through the site on Black Friday. In fact, we broke the record 17 times in a row in one 24-hour period for how many people were going through the site,” he says. 

“We kept the site up, we kept trading moving, we didn’t have any issues. So that, for me, felt amazing,” says Corbridge. He says the achievement is all the more remarkable given the disparate geographical nature of the internal teams and external partners, notably TCS and IBM, which were working on the projects with staff scattered around the globe. 

“It was very a different style of leadership because I’ve not done it before, so I was leaning on service leads and stuff like that to do it,” he says. “And it was brilliant – it was the most amazing experience to see the teams from all the different countries, all the different organisations, come together and keep us moving in the right direction.” 

Working with trusted partners

As a big blue chip organisation, Boots relies on a complicated set of suppliers. The company is part of the Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), which has a significant contract with Microsoft and powers much of the wider organisation’s transformation-focused technology.

IBM is a key infrastructure partner to Boots, while TCS is responsible for IT operations. Add in development work from Cognizant, and marketing technology from Adobe and Merkle, and it’s possible to see the complex pattern of supplier relationships. “You start to write the list of who we’re working with, and it’s a shorter list of who we’re not working with,” says Corbridge.

“Global [WBA] investment into IT filters through to Boots, so you get a lot of benefits in that way. You can lean against a much larger team”
Richard Corbridge, Boots

When it comes to overseeing and running these partnerships as the company’s IT leader, Corbridge has a seat on the executive board at Boots and reports to three people – the managing director of Boots UK, the CIO of Retail Pharmacy International, which is everything in WBA that isn’t in America, and he also reports to the CIO of WBA. Corbridge says being part of a bigger business brings significant plus points.

“It’s brilliant, in that the global investment into IT then filters through to Boots, so you get a lot of benefits in that way. You can lean against a much larger team. We’re really quite a small team, from an IT point of view, at Boots. So it gives you the ability to lean against the mothership a little bit more and get support,” he says.

As an example, Corbridge says he has access to the best enterprise architecture (EA) team that he’s ever worked for – and they are all employed by WBA, rather than by Boots. “These people are absolutely astoundingly good at what they do – the skin in the game that they have with Boots at an ops and marketing level is phenomenal,” he says.

“I have not seen an EA team get so in-depth in the business, so we have a really good relationship there. It can cause complications because the layers of governance – when we’re trying to be an agile organisation, but we’re part of a huge global organisation – are challenging sometimes, but you would get that anywhere.”

Leading from the front

The great news for Corbridge at a personal level is that he’s still learning something new every day. Over the past 12 months, he has focused on a rapid tech-led business transformation. As a key member of the C-suite team at Boots, he’s been exposed to a range of new challenges – and there’s much more to come.

“It’s an unbelievable mix of things, ranging from how we support the website and the next big launch or next big product, then the next hour can be about something that’s coming in three years’ time, and then the next hour can be about the introduction of robots in the warehouse. It’s just amazing from that point of view,” he says. 

Having worked on establishing and honing Boots’ online presence, Corbridge says his aim during the next couple of years is to build on that platform and to create an omni-channel experience for customers, whether those clients are shopping in-store or via the retailer’s dedicated app. 

“It’s about trying to offer an experience that allows the customer to decide how joined up they want their healthcare and wellness experience to be. [Having] people use Boots as a place to get advice around healthcare is a big goal for where I want to take us,” he says.

That process will start with the re-platforming of Boots.com from tin to the IBM cloud this summer. Corbridge says he’s also continuing to work with Adobe and Merkle to create personalised versions of the website, so when a customer lands on Boots.com, the site knows who they are, what they last looked at and what offers they might be interested in. 

There’s still a lot for Corbridge to work on, therefore, as he continues to support Boots’ digital-led business transformation. Switching from the public to the private sector, and then having to support a switch to e-commerce, has been a big personal challenge. But it’s one he’s enjoyed and he’s learnt some crucial business leadership lessons along the way. 

“For me, it’s massively reinforced the fact that the CIO role is about transformation,” he says. “It’s about giving the executive, the operations team and the organisation something to lean against, that they know they can rely on, and that they can work with to help them make change happen.” 

Read more CIO interviews

  • The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic could have been a disaster for Pandora, but due to its digital transformation programme, it was ready to carry on serving its customers online, says the jeweller’s chief digital and omni-channel officer, David Walmsley.
  • LSE CIO Laura Dawson talks about focusing on team development, her vision of creating a connected network of technologists, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Digital transformation takes on a whole new purpose when it’s helping to save lives – but leading IT for a charity also has its satisfying technology challenges, says Danny Attias, chief digital and information officer at Anthony Nolan.

 

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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