by Mark Chillingworth

N Brown CIO Andy Haywood interview – Making digital fit

Apr 11, 2016
IT LeadershipRetail Industry

To look at him at him you’d not think of Andy Haywood as a veteran CIO – he constantly looks slim, healthy and is always energetic. But Haywood is a veteran, he’s had business technology leadership roles in banking (HBOS) supermarkets (Asda), pharmacy (Boots), conglomerates (The Cooperative), and is now at retailer N Brown, which operates brands such as Simply Be, JD Williams and Jacamo. On the very day this article was penned Haywood became the firm’s Chief Operating Officer (COO), part of an increasing trend of CIOs becoming COO.

Manchester-based JD Williams operates as both retailer and financial services provider. “I’m happy in this place and we are coming at it from the best end,” Haywood says of being a former catalogue organisation that has become a significant online retailer.

“We have 70% of the revenue coming from digital, which is a conversation of about how fast we can go,” he explains. With a broad retail experience that covers small convenience stores, supermarkets and pharmacy, coming into the digital retail arena from a business that has a legacy in catalogues is a good starting position, Haywood says. The leadership team at N Brown is fully behind the transition to digital services, and is not cutting off the firm’s legacy businesses to spite their faces in the name of a short?term revenue aspiration.

“We have over 30 brands with different customer dynamics within them from our traditional customer base through to younger customers, who are more fashion conscious. That’s why we offer our customers the choice of buying via digital, telephony and store channels, it’s the right thing to do for all our customers,” Haywood reveals during our interview in Manchester. He adds that N Brown spends a great deal of time understanding its customers as individuals and tailors its businesses to them, ensuring a strong customer relationship, which creates a return for the business. That customer focus extends beyond customer knowledge it extends to the product ranges.

“We understand shape and create fashionable collections that fit. The way we design is different to the majority of retailers on the high street – we are size and fit specialists, so we do more than simply taking a dress size 14 and making it bigger.” Haywood reveals.

Unsurprisingly, the digital areas of the business are where there is rapid growth. “You have got to bring the products to life as with a digital customer service it is about structure, content and flow.” “Digital has changed the fundamentals of retail,” Haywood says, looking back on his unique and varied experience. “Retailers are always miserable,” he jokes about of the trading statements from retailers that forever blame the weather.

“In the past year, I have seen the tectonic plates of retail shift,” he says of how the supermarket businesses did not foresee that they would find themselves over-spaced and being disrupted by the convenience and online sectors. He says the result is that as an industry retail is learning that digital’s impact means organisations have to be agile “1000%”.

“Our challenge is to go too slow and digital competition becomes more competitive. Go too fast and we’ll lose loyal customers,” he reveals.

Haywood describes how N Brown has become a successful online retail business by ensuring its purchased products are tailored to the customer’s needs. While the first generation of online retailing was about creating or being present on a web-based platform, with digital the same ethos of tailoring your products to the purchasing customer has to be taken to the digital service your business operates, resulting in retailers becoming technology companies.

“We are trying to become a technology company that sells fashion, so we are going to be as good at technology as we are at fashion through making a great digital experience. As a result, the programme we are doing here is world class. We are building a Formula One car and we need Formula One drivers. By getting in the right drivers we will be giving more benefits to our customer,” Haywood says.

The COO has also been working with the senior leadership of N Brown. “We did a session yesterday with all the directors and senior managers walking the walls of what the future world of N Brown will be like as a day-to-day business. This wasn’t about a concept, but the near future,” he says of the immersive experience created.

A number of transformational business technology leaders have used the digital deep dive experience using devices, physical spaces and mock ups to really take the organisation, and in particular senior leaders, on a journey into where they are heading. “It was in their language and the detail was very real. It was buzzing. The wow factor was seeing good, seasoned business people see how they can use digital to transform the business, which is incredibly difficult and every day the challenge is like doing a Rubik’s Cube, but they could see what it will do for customers and colleagues. People can touch it as it is the near future and they were able to replay all the front-end and credit systems with the back-end operations.

“The experience now is so transparent, so it is twice as hard to get a customer and three times as hard to keep them. And that is the one thing in retail, the fundamental never changes, it is all about the customer,” he says of why it is so important for his organisation.

Seeing the Oracle

To create the digital near future Haywood had to modernise some of the past technology legacy within N Brown. As a result, the retailer has become one of the world’s first adopters of the Oracle Fusion Financials application suite, which sits on IBM cloud infrastructure. N Brown went live on Oracle Fusion in July 2015.

“It was a Herculean effort,” the COO says of how his team did the heavy lifting during the previous year. N Brown has moved its Simply Be Europe website on to a new Hybris platform. Haywood also went for a staggered change with the old ecommerce platform still in operation to ensure customers were not adversely affected by any changes. He expects the UK and remaining international business to be fully on the Hybris platform by the end of 2016. “There is still a hell of a lot to do,” he smiled. The remaining UK and International websites are moving on to the platform later in the delivery cycle as they are the larger and more complex sites, and will include an improved financial services and customer credit offering.

Challenged on adopting IBM and Oracle, which some observers would call conservative, Haywood explains: “We are giving the business confidence to see the changes and the back-end services, you want a bit of certainty and muscle. With Oracle and IBM, to a large degree that is what you are paying for.

“At the front-end you want the opposite as it is moving so fast. It is all about small outfits,” Haywood says.

When at mutual retailers, funeral and pharmacy conglomerate The Cooperative Haywood was a driving force behind increasing the size and scope of the apprenticeship scheme, and he’s been a campaigner to this title to increase the awareness of CIOs helping the next generation. Now at N Brown, and having got some of the big opportunities for change well underway, he has some time to focus on apprenticeships. An initial scheme is up and running and he is looking to develop that further.

Haywood has had to make some changes to the technology team to get the major projects underway and said the change skills were what N Brown needed, as well as less reliance on contractors.

As a retailer and financial services provider the topic of security is a key part of the discussion and Haywood’s role.

“Security and cybersecurity has gone off the scale for businesses. The chief information security officer (CISO) role used to be a bit niche, but now it is so important and hard to get good people for,” he adds that the real challenge is mixing strong cybersecurity into the demands of a digital business that has to be agile and responsive to the customer’s changing needs. The joke I tell is you could have 100% security, but you couldn’t do any business.”