CIO interview: Jaeger CIO Cathy McCabe

The luxury retailer's IT chief is taking the iconic swinging sixties brand into the digital age

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Luxury designer Jaeger has long been associated with London’s swinging sixties, so it seems appropriate to meet CIO Cathy McCabe at the firm’s Soho office, just a short stroll from the world-famous Carnaby Street.

The sixties helped establish Jaeger as an iconic brand. Today, the business is looking to build on that reputation and engage with its customers in the fast-moving digital age. With experience of leading IT-enabled change at Burberry, another iconic British designer brand, McCabe is eager to help the business transform.

As proof of her abilities, McCabe was promoted to the board six months after moving into the CIO role. Yet she also recognises digital awareness is not her only capability.

“I’m not your typical IT professional,” she says. “Like everyone else around the boardroom table, I’m a business person. We all work closely together to make the most of IT because technology touches every part of a modern retail organisation.”

Establishing the role of technology

McCabe has broad retailing experience. After starting her career as a graduate trainee with high street bookseller WHSmith, she worked in various management positions for the Arcadia Group. McCabe eventually began a consulting business, where she worked with a variety of clients, including New Look and Harvey Nichols. 

“I worked as a consultant for more than 15 years,” she says. “I never worked through agencies, or went out looking for work. All my contracts came through word of mouth and connections in my network. I tended to work on contract for a retailer and then receive my next recommendation.”

McCabe started working with Burberry while she was consulting. The company's chief technology officer at the time, John Douglas, approached her about a permanent position at the luxury retailer. “I was looking for a challenge,” says McCabe of her decision to accept the offer.

After joining as an IT business relationship director in 2010, McCabe was promoted to vice-president of IT customer and payments in October 2011 and stayed with the company for another three years. “Burberry was fascinating and provided some great experiences,” she says.

“It was exactly the right time to go into a permanent IT leadership role because technology was key – and for Burberry, it became the DNA of the brand. The main thing I learnt from my time at Burberry is that technology must have a seat at the top table if it is going to drive transformation across an organisation,” she says.

McCabe’s key IT projects at Burberry included the refresh of electronic point of sale (Epos) equipment and customer relationship management (CRM), as well as repositioning the role of data analytics in the business. 

By the time she left, Burberry was at the cutting edge of big data and employed a specialist team of data scientists. The aim was to use data-inspired developments and to put the customer experience, including purchase patterns and retention strategies, at the heart of business decision-making.

Building a platform for change

McCabe is looking to use her broad range of experiences at Jaeger. She says her key priority at the firm is to transform the IT landscape. “When I took the role on, it was clear that the board wanted me to transform technology from a business perspective,” she says.

“We've got a lot of legacy systems. Some elements of the platform are very strong, but some of those systems are bespoke and extremely old. Our platform needs a bit of care and understanding.” 

After dealing with legacy concerns, McCabe will focus on digital initiatives. “We need to think about our vision around IT to create a competitive advantage over other retailers in the market. We need to create a roadmap from concept to consumer,” she says.

McCabe spent the first three months at Jaeger ensuring the external managed services team were capable of maintaining day-to-day IT operations. “I needed to make sure they were keeping the lights on,” she says, before adding that a good relationship with suppliers allows her in-house team to focus on IT-enabled innovation for the business.

“At the moment, I don’t see the need for a massive internal IT team,” she says. “I felt we needed more assistance in terms of on-site support, so we have people in London and at our distribution centre in Kings Lynn, who provide a higher level of service to our business users.”

Using partners to achieve business aims

The support team also provides more options for in-store support, such as performing health checks and ensuring everything from a systems perspective is working properly. Outside establishing strong support, McCabe says she wants to make as much use of trusted providers as possible.

“I see our partners as an extension of our internal IT team. It's not about ‘them’ and ‘us’ – we don't want to just pass problems to the first-line support team. 

“We want to work together to understand the business issues, to work out the pinch points and to think about the resources we already have that could be used in a more effective way,” she says.

CIOs must scan the market, look at whats happening and think carefully about changes

Cathy McCabe, Jaeger

“I really want to make as much use of our partners as possible. I want to have three or four key partners and a select group of startups who will work on our business priorities. I want them to think about our priorities, work together and think about how they will help us to achieve our aims,” she says.

McCabe is using the established bedrock of service provision to help tweak the existing IT strategy. In 2016, she will start to think about the kind of changes needed to be made to key systems, including enterprise resource planning (ERP). McCabe recognises her experiences at another high quality retailer will prove invaluable. 

“For me, there's a huge affinity between Burberry and Jaeger,” she says. “Jaeger is an iconic, global brand with an incredible amount of heritage. There are some wonderful assets at Jaeger we can draw on to help create an exciting vision for the business. 

“That vision is not just about technology, but IT can help to enable the business and the way it is perceived by our customers.”

According to McCabe, Jaeger benefits from having access to a loyal customer base. The aim, she says, will be to tap into that relationship, but also to think about how the retailer can “surprise and delight” its clients. 

Rather than simply using a traditional loyalty card programme, McCabe is eager to think about how a high-end retailer might deliver experiences and rewards to its customers. 

Making the most of innovative ideas

So, how will McCabe put her plans for digital enablement into action? The key challenge, she says, concerns bandwidth. “There is so much to do. I must develop a really clear idea of which projects will create the most value for the rest of the business.”

The high level of work helps explain why McCabe is eager to start with customer-facing systems and to develop a high level of integration. 

“If you really are keen to change your loyalty programme, then you also need to think about digital enablement and your broader mobile strategy,” she says.

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McCabe says a broader focus on mobility might, for example, include the strengthening of wireless infrastructure or the deployment of Apple iPads to in-store sales assistants. Working closely with the rest of the business will help establish the right priorities. But, regardless of technology aims, McCabe recognises that funding will be another significant challenge. 

Jaeger is a private equity-backed company and must make sure any technology investments deliver a return, both in short-term costs and long-term scalability. McCabe says debates around funding create an opportunity and she is keen to explore every possible avenue.

“I want to try and create high-quality technology platforms without a huge sunk investment,” she says. “I enjoy looking at innovation, keeping a track on startups and working with a network of partners to think about how we can use technology to help the business meet its objectives though technology.” 

Creating strong links with the startup community

According to McCabe, having a “finger on the pulse” of digital developments is a crucial success factor for modern CIOs. She works alongside entrepreneurs and mentors retail startups. McCabe is also helping to create a virtual lab internally to help draw on a wider pool of entrepreneurial ideas. 

“Keeping abreast of wider changes is so important for CIOs,” she says. 

While believing retail technology has been staid for a while, McCabe says the industry now faces a glut of new innovations, such as iBeacons, mobile payments, smartphones and tablets. She says retail firms must think about how technology can help make sales assistants more productive.

“It’s the most radical change in retailing since the barcode was introduced 30 years ago,” she says, reflecting on how innovations at that time allowed retailers to start developing automated replenishment, rather than having to order goods manually.

“There is such a broad range of developments taking place now. You can't be an expert in every area of technology and I’d never pretend to be, either,” she says. “But when CIOs are looking to create a competitive differentiation, they must scan the market, look at what’s happening and think carefully about change.”

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