CIO interview: Andy Haywood, group CIO, N Brown

Digital transformation is driving the technology agenda at retail group N Brown, previously best known as a specialist in catalogue-based selling

The future of N Brown Group is digital, as the parent company of brands such as JD Williams, Simply Be, Jacamo and Figleaves pushes a multimillion-pound transformation agenda to become a digital-first business in the next two years.

First-quarter results published in June 2015 confirmed the trend. The retailer said 68% of shopper demand was generated online, while online sales totalled 62% of revenue.

Leading the technology underpinning the company’s digital ambitions is group chief information officer Andy Haywood, previously CIO at The Co-operative Group, who describes the initiative as “delivering the rocket fuel” needed for the company to be better equipped to do business online.

“This is a bold and big intervention that will get us from where we are now to becoming a fully digital retailer. It’s a holistic refresh of all the technology platforms,” Haywood tells Computer Weekly in his first interview since taking up the job in August 2014.

According to Haywood, the underlying toolset at N Brown is “adequate and suitable” for a business with a history of catalogue-based selling, but the recognition it had to focus on digital required different systems at the front and back end.

Reshaping the agenda

The first thing Haywood did on joining N Brown was to commission an eight-week review of ongoing IT work. The focus was then to re-shape the programme into delivery sequences in terms of benefits realisation and priority, as well as de-risking the initiatives by simplifying them.

“We've gone from longer delivery timescales to a two-year delivery window, so we’ve speeded the programme up, going for fewer, more impactful releases,” says Haywood.

Technology highlights to support the digital-first strategy include a full-scale Hybris implementation in the front end, which will cover all the customer-facing e-commerce operations.

Haywood says almost all customer revenues will come via the platform in the future, the only exception being revenue received through stores – and even then a Hybris kiosk will be rolled out in each location. With the front-end implementation, the aim is to gain agility and pace, he says.

Agility and speed is needed to react to the market and to customers

Andy Haywood, N Brown Group

“Our current digital offerings are very good, but they’re not as fast as some of our competitors. I don’t mean web speed, but the ability to change and adapt. In the digital world, we want to be making changes every hour of every day,” says Haywood.

“That’s the difference between winning and losing in the digital space - agility and speed is needed to react to the market and to customers. That’s what the Hybris digital platform will give us.

“It will give us that leading technology, but it will enable us to deliver and deploy changes in flight, rather than more traditional IT waterfall approaches,” he adds.

On the back end, there is another large implementation – the company’s core trading platform will be the Oracle Retail Suite, which will include sub-products Retail Merchandising System, Retail Sales Audit and RPM for database monitoring.

“[With the Oracle systems] it’s all about controls, stability, joining up – the usual things. We’ve got lots of heritage systems. So the idea is to get a back end that’s solid, secure, reliable and less complex than other technologies we currently have,” says Haywood.

Stable platform

The CIO’s ultimate goal is to create a “bi-modal approach”, with a robust, predictable and stable platform that doesn’t change much and is invisible to customers. For the customer-facing, digital front end, Haywood wants an agile set-up that is affordable and easy to change.

In addition, the company is creating its own private cloud using services from computer hardware company IBM. Haywood expects this will provide more flexibility in areas such as allowing business users to create customer-facing content themselves, where before they had to ask the IT team.

“This will make things much more efficient and quick – what used to take months will now take weeks and what took weeks will take days,” he says.

The company will also look to the introduction of better decision support tools for its financial services business, to allow credit decisions to be made online when customers try to apply for a credit account.

“It's about that customer-centricity being brought to bear on the transformation programme. The credit element is just one example where we’re not yet able to provide the flexibility and choice that most other businesses are giving their customers,” says Haywood.

“To a certain extent we're playing catch-up. It’s a classic retail truism that if you give customers choice – if you try to put the power of the product in their hands – they will do more business with you,” he adds.

For the transformation programme, 2014 was the year of planning, 2015 is the year of delivery and 2016 will be the year of exploitation. 

The first key Oracle deliverable is coming up before September with big deployments “every quarter” through the rest of 2015 and into 2016. The Hybris implementation starts in November 2015 and will be complete in September 2016 via a series of regular, staggered implementations.

Leadership changes

Haywood’s team at N Brown is composed of 330 professionals – and some people-related changes at the top level were a core part of the transformation. A new senior team has been recruited to complement the existing in-house expertise to focus on big-programme skills and cultural change.

“Assembling a world-class team was the first thing – focusing on bringing forward the things that are going to add the most customer and business benefit-enabling technologies to the front of the programme, introducing this kind of rigour of delivery, getting a balance between the creative ability and programme assurance,” he says.

“When we’re embarking on these huge, complex and risky programmes, we can demonstrate that ability to deliver to the business almost on a monthly basis. We’re all too familiar with programmes that promise everything and end up getting halfway through and go over budget.”

Haywood sought to do the complete opposite of such unsuccessful transformations by delivering often and being transparent with stakeholders.

“There’s a lot to be said about the confidence that we can do this. OK, it’s scary, but we have the confidence that we’ve got very good and prioritised plans,” he says.

But delivering on these commitments is also the biggest hurdle Haywood’s team will face – simply because there is a business to run that is being transformed at the same time at a very large scale.

“In retail you don’t have the luxury of doing one thing and not the other. It’s about juggling today’s challenges and delivering something that’s going to transform this business in the next 12 to 18 months,” says Haywood. “Our biggest challenge is getting that balance right.”

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