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CIO interview: Jon Braithwaite, CIO, Compass Group UK & Ireland

FTSE 100 catering services company is undergoing a widespread overhaul of its technology and improving the digital offering to customers

Jon Braithwaite, CIO at food and support services company Compass Group UK and Ireland, recognises that leading technology for a FTSE 100 company is far from straightforward. As well as significant IT challenges, CIOs can encounter unusual perception issues – and that’s something he realised when he joined Compass in October 2019.

“When I joined the company, someone said to me, ‘we’re the biggest and best at what we do in a business that you’ve probably never heard of”,” says Braithwaite, recognising that Compass – despite its high-profile status and a labour force of more than 500,000 globally, including 45,000 in the UK and Ireland – will not be a familiar name to everyone.

Rather than being known publicly for its own brand, Compass’ success is based on its ability to deliver great food and services to its customers. Across 45 countries and 55 client locations, the organisation serves 5.5 billion meals a year.

Parent company Compass Group plc generated annual revenues of £20.2bn in 2020 – and its continued success relies on people behind the scenes, including the IT department, putting in maximum effort on behalf of its clients, whether that’s blue-chip businesses, public sector organisations or major sporting events. That is something Braithwaite could see quickly, too.

“What attracted me to the business is that there are a lot of people who are really passionate about providing a great service to our customers,” he says. “I’ve met chefs and people who prepare our food who are excited about what we do, and super-hungry for what tech can do for them going forward.”

Braithwaite joined Compass following IT leadership roles at McDonald’s and Gala Coral Group. Although he wasn’t necessarily looking to leave McDonald's, he spoke with Compass and was able to see the scale of the operation. More specifically, the potential for Braithwaite to make a difference through technology was clear.

“The executives described a really exciting organisation that was at the top of its game in terms of its market share,” he says. “However, the company hadn’t invested in technology to the extent that it probably wanted to, and was looking for a tech leader in the UK who could take them on that journey. It just felt like a really good challenge.”

“I’ve met chefs and people who prepare our food who are excited about what we do, and super-hungry for what tech can do for them going forward”

Jon Braithwaite, Compass

On a day-to-day basis, Braithwaite is accountable for technology operations and transformation – which spans digital, data and systems – across Compass’ seven business sectors, including healthcare, education and defence. He reports to the UK CFO and is a member of Compass’ global CIO leadership council.

Braithwaite’s IT team – which he reorganised after joining Compass – is known as the digital technology function. Split into two distinct but interlinked elements, the tech component of his team looks after applications and infrastructure for key business units, such as finance, HR, marketing and legal. The digital component, on the other hand, is much more focused on the company’s customers.

The digital arm of Braithwaite’s team creates a series of apps to help people order food, while also running 11,000 point-of-sale (POS) devices across a range of organisations and events. The team considers the customer journey across these locations and devices, and explores how it can use technology to improve the food-ordering process. Braithwaite says his role is very much about showing his peers how systems and services can produce big benefits.

“Modern CIOs need to be seen as business leaders and not tech leaders,” he says. “I think those business skills – in terms of finance, marketing and presentation – mean CIOs need to be close to the business to understand its requirements, its strategy and to be aligned to it. I think the days when CIOs were just tin and wire specialists are long gone.”

Fixing technology systems

In the past two years, Braithwaite has been working hard to both simplify and digitise Compass’ IT estate. This journey has helped the business move away from legacy technology and towards becoming a nimbler, data-led organisation.

“Compass was a company that had grown organically from the point of view of its technology,” he says. “My first focus coming in was to look at all of those big systems that needed to be corrected and fixed and transformed.”

Braithwaite’s technology team has brought disparate systems together on the AWS cloud platform. Such integration means enterprise technologies can communicate with each other, creating insights for the business and its customers via dashboards. All Compass’ data systems now feed into AWS, where they are being used to optimise and improve business processes.

His technology team is implementing a new workforce management system that will enable the company to place its 45,000 UK employees in positions at various organisations more flexibly and effectively. It is also updating the technology system behind Foodbuy, Compass’ food-procurement business that buys about £1bn of food a year. Both of these systems are running in the cloud on AWS.

At the early stages of the implementation process, Braithwaite says Compass worked “hand in hand” with AWS consulting partner InaWisdom, with the supplier helping Braithwaite to make the most of the cloud provider’s services. Braithwaite and Inawisdom are now working together to explore how Compass can make the most of the data it collects. The CIO says these kinds of trusted partnerships are crucial to digital transformation success.

Braithwaite’s technology team has also dealt with legacy systems. He inherited a reasonably aged network infrastructure two years ago, which has been updated. Also, the team has moved hundreds of servers into the cloud. “That’s given us a lot of resilience and allows us to manage our costs really effectively,” he says.

Finally, the tech team has spent a lot of time working on security and compliance, ensuring systems and services are in a good shape. “We’ve implemented and transformed some of the key components of the business, which has a very large workforce that’s buying lots of products from hundreds of vendors every day,” he says.

Digitising the business

Braithwaite’s digital team has also been busy. Its 11,000 POS systems were previously provided by 37 suppliers; a standardisation and consolidation process means that number is now down to about 10.

Compass has also bought two apps companies, one based in London and another in India. These development specialists are helping to build Compass’ multi-channel approach. Braithwaite says his digital team is also trialling kiosk technology, although the pace of these trials has been slowed by the coronavirus and the need to provide safe and sanitised access to touchscreen technology.

When they’re up and running, the kiosks will allow office workers to order food from Compass’ menus, with the option of either picking up the food or having it delivered to the desk. These kiosks will also be used at events, such as football grounds, allowing fans to pre-order a half-time pie and pint.

Braithwaite’s digital team has also turned its attention to big data. Compass sells a billion meals a year in the UK, but when Braithwaite joined, the company had almost no data about what was being purchased and how that information could be used to improve decision-making processes. The digital team has turned that situation around.

“In essence, data now flows in from about 80% of our POS systems – and we’ve got a very aggressive plan to get it to 100% over the coming months,” he says. “That data flows through into our system, so we know what people are buying.

“We also get data from seven different apps in our estate. And now we’re working with Amazon to use their whole stack – from artificial intelligence [AI] to Amazon Insights in terms of reporting – to start to drive insights from that data.”

Leading a long-term transformation

Braithwaite has certainly been busy since he joined Compass two years ago. His efforts were recognised recently when he was named as one of the top 20 digital transformation innovators in Europe in a report by consultancy Contino and independent body Tech London Advocates (TLA).

The report suggests that successful digital transformation requires three things from CIOs: a clear vision, solid alignment of technology with the business, and a powerful effort to bring staff on the journey. Braithwaite agrees that transformational digital chiefs are experts at collaborating and communicating across the organisation.

Contino and TLA’s research also concludes that there are three common technological approaches to digital transformation: cloud, data and automation. Once again, that is something that chimes with Braithwaite, who expects his digital technology team to keep refining its approach to systems and services over the next two years. Across this timeframe, a combination of data, digital and AI will be crucial to the company, he says.

“We’ve really turned the dial on that in the right direction,” he says. “We now know what our customers have purchased millions of times a year across 11,000 POS systems.”

Further information will come from Compass’ other cloud-based systems. The workforce management platform means the company is beginning to develop a richer understanding of the human resources required to serve its meals. And information from Foodbuy that is being pushed to the cloud means the company is developing a deeper awareness of the ingredients that are used to produce these meals, says Braithwaite.

“That work is all at different stages of being developed and integrated,” he adds. “But it gives us the whole lifecycle from the beginning of creating a product to thinking of how many of those meals we sold to our customers. We also have data in terms of customer satisfaction – and that allows me to round off that journey.”

Braithwaite says the aim is to use data-led insight to keep improving customer service. The digital team will be focused on developing the tools to allow Compass customers to order food from multiple channels. They will also be working on services that enable the business to personalise its meals for clients.

“It’s about tailoring our products to what the customer demands at that time, and to continue to provide a great service, so that we are getting closer and closer to them,” he says.

“We’ve got a great opportunity to become far more personalised in the way that we interact with our customers through technology – and that’s a big focus for us now.”

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