CIO Interview: Andy Haywood, chief operating officer, N Brown Group

The retailer’s executive talks about his new role, leading a digital transformation and the hard lessons learned

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Giving fashion a digital makeover

As N Brown continues to enhance its digital capabilities, IT chief Andy Haywood was recently promoted to chief operating officer to accelerate the technology-enabled transformation of the company.

The retailer, which owns brands such as JD Williams, Figleaves, Jacamo and Simply Be, is shifting from being a mail-order led organisation to being digital-first. The strategy has started to bear fruit, as in April 2016 the company recorded a boost to online revenues, rising 15% year-on-year.

According to Haywood, the main highlights for the coming year in his dual role will be to establish the structure of the operations function within N Brown, as well as continuing the digital transformation programme. 

“What became clear is that although I’m leading this huge technology-enabled transformation, we’re trying to do 10 years’ worth of change in two years. So there’s lots of other areas of the business that are also being transformed,” Haywood tells Computer Weekly.

Making digital progress 

As far as the tech transformation goes, N Brown has re-platformed its back-end and it is now continuing the process with the front-end, in areas including stock planning, forecasting and replenishment and financials, with the idea being to join up the customer and staff IT experiences. 

For the last year, Haywood’s IT team has implemented a credit scoring platform by Powercurve for all the retailer’s brands, as well as Oracle back-end systems, including products such as the Retail Merchandising System, Retail Sales Audit and RPM for database monitoring, which “went in on time and were positively received, with very little business disruption”.

“What became clear is that although I’m leading this huge technology-enabled transformation, we’re trying to do 10 years’ worth of change in two years. So there’s lots of other areas of the business that are also being transformed.”
Andy Haywood, chief operating officer, N Brown

The IT team also started the implementation of its Hybris digital platform with a minimal viable product executed in less than a year, which went live in December 2015 with Simply Be’s European website.

“We deliberately chose one of our smaller brands and we received our first orders that month, all integrated into our existing back-end,” says Haywood. 

Both the back-end Oracle Retail Suite and the Hybris digital platform are now hosted on an IBM private cloud. The goal is to use the same stack and service proposition for the entire operation globally, with some customisations in the front-end, depending on the geographical market it’s serving.

N Brown’s new digital platform will be rolled out in the US this summer, which is, according to Haywood, N Brown’s largest international market and will be the “most significant implementation” of the transformation programme so far. 

The US roll-out will be followed by the migration of the remainder of the UK brands this autumn. The team will then pause for the peak trading period and resume the roll-out in the first quarter of 2017.

“By the time we’ve finished this early next year [2017], we will have re-platformed the whole business. We’ll touch every single colleague and every single customer,” says Haywood.

“To be honest, the plan doesn’t even have to be the best in the world,” he adds. “The most important thing is that it’s consistent and everyone is using it. So we’ve got departmental plans, technology plans, people plans, change plans, process plans. They all roll up into a master-plan, where consistency and timing are absolutely crucial.”

A single customer view 

A technical novelty that appeared during N Brown’s digital transformation was the need to create a single view of the customer, which was not on the original plan, but was suggested by the team later in the planning process.  

The introduction of a unified customer view will cover the firm’s retail and credit businesses. It is expected to generate revenue and customer service improvements from insights based on disparate data sources that will all live in one place. 

The data analytics software by Talend runs natively on the Hadoop big data platform and was chosen at the end of 2015, says Haywood, with the system rolled out between the US and UK front-end migrations. 

“At the moment, we are integrating an incredibly complicated business with many brands. Many of our customers have accounts with us across multiple brands [but] we’re trying to tailor our products and services as much to our customers’ needs as possible,” says Haywood.

Lessons learned 

According to Haywood, there have been several lessons learned in N Brown’s digital transformation journey. However, he says that strong leadership and clear plans in terms of scope, as well as discipline, kept the team on track. 

“There were several times along the journey where we thought ‘should we take an extra month or two?’ That would have been the easy answer but that’s not what we did,” Haywood says. 

“And when we look back now, we’re delighted. If you push an early deliverable back a month, by the time you’ve finished, you can be a year off. So it’s all about long hours, dedication from the internal teams and dedication from the partners,” he adds.  

Managing spikes of work

“When you do these large programmes, it causes natural big waves of activity and work. And I think one of the lessons we’ve learned is if you don’t get out in front of that, then it can quickly turn into backlogs,” says Haywood. 

“So the lesson is, we need to do a better job of getting out in front of the inevitable spike of work – and that depends of what part of the business we are talking about,” he adds.

Haywood says in such a large body of work, it is imperative to be able to identify backlogs and have processes in place to cope with the inevitability of changing parts of the plan during the implementation. 

“By the time we’ve finished this early next year [2017], we will have re-platformed the whole business. We’ll touch every single colleague and every single customer.”
Andy Haywood, chief operating officer, N Brown

“We have some brands on one platform, other brands go on another. That’s incredibly important as we roll out the bigger brands into the new platform. So we’ve got actions, we’ve got teams, we’ve got ownerships in place for that, but that’s a key area to watch out for,” he says.

These considerations, which stemmed from the work carried out so far, also prompted the shift of the planned completion date for the digital transformation from September 2016 to early 2017. 

“The September 2016 [initial] completion date was a stake in the ground. Re-platforming your sales engine completely, literally a month before your peak trading, was probably not the smartest thing in the world to do,” says Haywood. 

“So based on that risk/reward [scenario] we’re going to start that roll-out before peak trading in September as we don’t want to let customers down,” he adds. 

“We will get through peak trading then finish the roll-out of the UK brands. The plans are there to adhere to, but not be bound by when you’re trying to do the right thing in business.”

Empowering the business 

According to the COO, another big win that came out of the IT-enabled business transformation is the sense of empowerment and accountability from business partners. 

“We’ve got some great business sponsors who feel accountable and feel it’s their programme or project, not mine or IT’s. They feel in control of the finances, the scope, the priorities and the risks,” says Haywood. 

“At the same time, we get the balance between that and giving IT guys the autonomy, on a daily basis, to make those adjustments, because you’ve got a thousand problems coming at you every day,” he adds.

Would Haywood’s appointment as COO mean that the hardest part of the technology change initiative has already been done? According to the executive, the job is actually about to get harder for the 500-strong IT team. 

“I would say that in this phase of the transformation, in one way, the job gets harder actually because this is the delivery end. It also changes because there are less moving parts, less shaping: there’s a subtle, but very important shift in focus and I’ve been very blunt and simple about it,” says Haywood.

In his new role, Haywood has an operating board, with directors of all business areas reporting to him. According to the executive, his experience in delivering large IT change initiatives will be even more helpful now. 

Connecting the dots in the business

“My boss [chief executive Angela Spindler] connected the dots between IT and some of the other hugely important areas that need to change, develop, transform, like they do in other areas of the business. We’ve looked at where that was happening and areas that needed transforming internally and also had a heavy external partner element to it. I think that’s some of the value I bring to the party.” 

“We run [the board] like our own business unit, with this idea of big operational departments with an internal team and external partners looking at how we get a balance between customer services, efficiencies, and motivated colleagues,” he says. 

“If I look at our customer contact center, for example, that’s our main touch point for our customers as a digital business. So we’re really putting the voice of the customer at the heart of everything we do in the organisation,” he adds. 

Another simple reason for the timing of Haywood’s appointment is the beginning of our new financial year, which comes with the formation of budgets, targets and strategic agenda.      

As Haywood settles into his dual role the main challenge will be to establish the structure of the operations function in N Brown, taking the change introduced by the digital transformation into account.

“That’s the rationale – more transformation with in-house teams and external partners driving that customer service and efficiency agenda. Things were good, we’re trying to move them into great.”

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