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CIO Interview: Nick Mayes, IT director, Gala Leisure

The bingo club operator’s IT director is leading its transformation project, aiming to revamp its infrastructure and looking to utilise new innovations

Gala Leisure is carrying out a complete transformation of its underlying IT infrastructure to enhance the current operation and support the business development plans of the UK’s largest bingo club operator. 

Following a management buyout of Gala Leisure from Gala Coral Group in 2015, Nick Mayes was taken on as a consultant to advise on the technology needs of the business, then was subsequently asked to join the management team as the company’s IT director. 

According to Mayes, there had been relatively little investment in IT at the company, which had been largely inherited from the previous group. As a consequence, the technology setup was not properly aligned to the business and created issues such as the maintenance of legacy systems and a “cumbersome, unreliable and costly infrastructure”.

“Gala Leisure’s new owners and management team have ambitious plans which depend on a sound IT infrastructure,” Mayes tells Computer Weekly. 

“The board accepted my recommendations for a complete transformation of the core systems. Our IT structure is now not only appropriate to our operational needs but capable of expansion and growth in the future,” he says. 

As a standalone business, Gala Leisure has a technology user base of almost 5,000 people, spread across 130 UK-based clubs with their own management teams, as well as its Nottingham head office with the usual functional areas. 

At the head office, Gala Leisure runs a finance system supplied by Oracle and a business intelligence environment including technology by Oracle and Microsoft. In addition, many instances of largely bespoke middleware and applications including Lotus Domino and RPG are also supporting the business.

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Gala’s user base is not limited to the internal business: it also includes its customers, who use systems running on 21,000 mobile tablets, as well as many touchscreen gaming terminals and machines. 

To ensure the smooth functioning of customer-facing devices, the business has made some significant investments in infrastructure. This includes a Cisco networking setup at each club, from Wi-Fi to switching and routers. Additionally, each club has on-site servers running the back office and gaming systems, which are in turn connected via Gala’s MPLS WAN to a UK-based datacentre. 

As well as customer-facing gaming systems, Gala clubs also have an electronic point of sale (EPoS) environment supporting the company’s food and beverage business. Other applications running at each location also include a biometric time and attendance system. These are all being replaced over the course of 2017. 

Ready to transform 

According to Mayes, the IT team at Gala – which comprises of about 50 office-based and 60 field-based technicians and an array of service providers and strategic partners – ready to start the hands-on phase of the transformation process. 

“2016 saw our IT resources focusing on planning, initiating the business transformation programme and getting in-flight developments and activities delivered and stabilised,” the IT director says. 

“Gala Leisure now has a fully mobilised transformation team and the business is ready for change.” 

According to Mayes, some of the IT work in 2016 included running tenders for key elements of the future environment, all of which have been recently completed. 

“Our core structure had been finalised before 2016, and we had relatively few changes that we had to make during the year, but this has confirmed we made the correct decisions,” he says.

Improving the procurement function

According to Mayes, who leads a department of about 50 office-based and 60 field-based technicians and an array of service providers and strategic partners, one of the key achievements of 2016 in IT has been the formalising of a procurement strategy and improving the procurement function. 

“I have a dedicated IT procurement manager which allows me to source in a very structured way, either via our existing suppliers and strategic partners or by putting out to tender to the wider market,” says Mayes.

“This takes a lot of pressure off our IT experts and enables specialists to work with us. It saves management bandwidth and allows us to have regular supplier relationship meetings and engage better with our suppliers and partners,” he adds. 

A busy year ahead 

Given Gala Leisure’s significant requirements for change, many projects in the transformation programme will be delivered over the next three years. During 2017, the priority will be core infrastructure projects, which will then pave the way for the introduction of new applications and services. 

In those projects, a datacentre migration with a full equipment refresh has been planned, as well as the provision of new MPLS WAN and telephony services. This is hoped to provide significantly increased bandwidth and introduce quality of service and resilience to all clubs. 

The IT team will also be looking into replacing its data warehousing setup, as well as its customer relationship management and business intelligence platforms. Gala is also in talks with Microsoft about a full Azure roll out

In addition, this year will see the delivery of IP telephony utilising session initiation protocol (SIP), a communications protocol for signalling and controlling multimedia communication session such as voice and video calls, which will also mean the removal of many public switched telephone network (PSTN) and integrated services digital network (ISDN) lines. 

The ageing communications and server stack across all Gala clubs will also be renewed, in addition to the improvement and extension of the Wi-Fi setup across sites. The company’s 21,000 customer gaming tablets are also being replaced this year. 

Innovative approaches 

When it comes to possible innovations that can be applied as Gala presses ahead with its transformation, consolidation of data sources is one priority for Mayes’s team. 

“We are focusing on bringing together the many disparate customer-facing systems and services including gaming machines, electronic bingo and EPoS,” he says. 

“This will allow us to have one view of our customers allowing more relevant and personal customer relationship management and for our customers to interact with us in one common environment rather than many,” he adds. 

On the back end, Gala’s new datacentre will incorporate many innovations focused on creating a highly converged, software-defined infrastructure. This will be made possible by making extensive use of network, storage and computing virtualisation.

“We are focusing on bringing together disparate customer-facing systems and services including gaming machines, electronic bingo and EPoS”

Nick Mayes, Gala Leisure

In addition, Gala is also investigating possibilities around cloud-based internet of things (IoT) hubs, data lakes and machine learning. The idea here is to enhance data visualisation to drive and improve business decisions. 

“These innovative technologies are allowing us to move from a legacy private cloud environment to a truly hybrid cloud environment making IT agility a real business enabler,” says Mayes. 

Even though there are many possibilities around improved usage of data and cloud computing in its many variants, Mayes is conscious of the fact that introducing innovative approaches cannot interfere with the smooth running of the business. 

“Emerging technology is always exciting, but the IT challenge for Gala Leisure is to identify what can be introduced in a manner that enhances our ability to serve our customers more efficiently while avoiding disruption in the way we operate.”

Leadership challenges 

Mayes’s time at Gala Leisure is split between operating “business as usual” IT for the bingo club chain, leading the transformation and communicating with the business to ensure full alignment and stakeholder buy-in as the programme delivery progresses.

The last piece, communication, is critically important. As in many other IT-led transformations, longstanding ways of working are changed, so the IT department has to convey the benefits as the strategy unfolds, while keeping tabs on the spending aspect of the plan.

“The challenge will be to deliver the business transformation programme to time and budget, but the most important piece involves bringing the people along on the change journey,” says Mayes. 

“On the basis of what we have achieved so far, I am confident our technical staff can ensure Gala Leisure operates smoothly and efficiently,” he says. 

“Also, everyone in the company can move forward confident they can rely on its IT infrastructure to provide a solid backbone upon which future technologies can be fully exploited.”

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