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Benelux CIO interview: Benoît Dewaele, Vandemoortele

CIO of Ghent-headquartered food group says the IT department’s main challenges are improving digital customer experiences, helping implement automation in plants and strengthening cyber security

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Benelux: CW Benelux: Netherlands sees increase in the number of women opting for an ICT career

Benoît Dewaele, chief information officer at Belgian food group Vandemoortele, is looking to connect with the chefs of Europe.  

They are key customers for the group’s range of frozen bakery goods, margarines, culinary oils and fats. From La Pâtisserie Du Chef premium desserts to St-Villepré butter, these treats are widely used in European catering.  

Operators of restaurants, bars, hotels and cafes typically buy Vandemoortele brands through wholesalers and retailers. But finding ways to engage with them directly is vital to securing repeat business and keeping them in the loop about new products and offers. 

“It comes down to getting contact with influential leads,” Dewaele tells Computer Weekly. “We need to find ways through social media or mass marketing campaigns to capture them, then we need to nurture them and inspire them and create brand awareness on our company and branded websites, to have a kind of personal communication with them through portals.”

Although engaging customers is not strictly a job for IT, Dewaele says his team work in close collaboration with marketing to help promote products digitally and boost customer experience – for end-consumers as well as retailers and wholesalers. 

Dewaele oversees a centralised IT department that delivers services to operations and sales offices across 12 European countriesWith 2020 revenues of €1.2bn, Vandemoortele has 30 production plants across Europe and is present in the US. The IT team, based at the company’s head office in Ghent, Belgium, comprises about 40 in-house staff and a similar number of outside experts.  

The main challenges facing the IT unit are boosting the digital customer experience, helping implement automation in plants and, of course, cyber security.  

“It is not so much technology that is slowing us down, but its adoption by people in the organisation”

Benoît Dewaele, Vandemoortele

Dewaele believes IT has made major achievements in these areas, but acknowledges there is a need to move more quickly. “It is not so much technology that is slowing us down, but its adoption by people in the organisation,” he says. “People today are still working in a more classical marketing and communications environment and they need to find a way to get acquainted with digital marketing and digital communication, which is more based on tools and data.” 

Even so, he is proud of IT’s recent successes. “We successfully delivered a large business transformation project where we introduced a European supply company, splitting up our commercial entity from the production entities,” he says.   

Another important project is unifying the company’s customer relationship management (CRM) systems which have sprouted up over time, partly through a series of acquisitions.  

“In operations, we have a backbone for warehouse management, we have a backbone for plant maintenance, we have all commercial activity standardised on SAP,” says Dewaele. “But where we are very scattered is in CRM. There we have four or five different systems dating from the past and now we are cleaning it up to one central CRM system.  

“For us, that is important because the moment you want to do digital marketing and build up portals, it is important to have one CRM system in the back end, otherwise you end up connecting to five or six different systems, which makes things more complicated.” 

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Automating labour-intensive parts of the company’s operations is also a significant task at Vandemoortele. This is mainly in areas such as packaging, warehousing and checking products. Inspections of products are still largely manual, so the company is investing in visual inspection automation. It is also increasing warehouse automation with automated guided vehicles and installing greater automation for the packaging lines.  

“The automation of engineering in production is mainly done by a separate department, but those machines, those closed systems need to integrate with the backbone SAP system – that is where IT comes into the picture,” says Dewaele. “We manage the network in production and we manage the connectivity and integration with the group systems,” he said.  

When it comes to demonstrating the value that IT delivers to the business, he points to the smooth transition to work from home (WFH) during lockdown.  

“Technically we were ready [for WFH] because of the choices we had made in the past,” says Dewaele. “We were on [Microsoft] Office 365, we had virtual desktop infrastructure in place to distribute legacy applications and we had security and multifactor authentication to securely access our applications from home. It was conceptually already possible from the beginning to be able to work from home.”  

The challenge of the pandemic has been operational rather than technical, he says, because the pattern of demand changed as restaurants closed and people ordered products through e-commerce.  

Another significant IT project for Vandemoortele has been migrating computing to Microsoft Azure cloud services. The company migrated its SAP instance with satellite systems (the suite of systems around the core SAP manager) into a cloud datacentre. 

Migrating to the public cloud

This has saved money on the old datacentre contract, although Dewaele concedes that migrating to the public cloud can work out more expensive in the long run. But the advantages lie in the flexibility and innovation that public cloud brings. This also helps develop staff skills and creates job satisfaction.   

Dewaele, who has a degree in civil engineering and mechanics, held several senior roles before becoming CIO at Vandemoortele in January 2019. He spent six years at Accenture implementing SAP for different companies and processes, he was a supply chain engineer, project manager and IT director at pharma ingredients company Capsugel, and he also spent five years as an application manager at chocolate maker Barry Callebaut 

Outside work, he is keen on cycling, skiing and padel, a tennis-like racquet game played in fours which has enjoyed huge growth in Belgium during the pandemic as one of the few group activities allowed during lockdown. He particularly values “après-sport” – having a drink with friends after a game.  

For the future, Dewaele believes IT departments should focus on business-critical projects, rather than dedicating time and effort to managing day-to-day operations. Systems should become easy-to-operate commodities handled by staff in the various departments, freeing IT specialists for more important work. This means boosting automation while rationalising and standardising IT services to find savings.

“My budget stays fixed, but the more savings I create on infrastructure in running activities, the more I can spend on projects,” he says. 

There will be many vital projects for IT to focus on in coming years – but ultimately, it will be the chefs of Europe who guide Vandemoortele’s fortunes.

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