by Mark Chillingworth

Interview: Halfords CIO Anna Barsby is powering ahead

Jul 30, 201410 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

“Halfords is a part of the British retail framework and an historic part of our high street,” says Anna Barsby, CIO of Halfords, the motoring, cycling and outdoor activities retailer. “Halfords indelibly feels part of all our lives, from buying our first child’s car seat to a bicycle or car parts. It’s extremely rare that you meet someone who hasn’t been into one of our shops.

“The key for us is to get better at being part of people’s lives as we’re an ‘infrequent’ retailer.” Technology provides a solution, she says. “It gives us the power to push ourselves into our customers’ homes to trigger a visit.”

In recent years, the outdoor living and cycling markets have witnessed a glut of online and out-of-town megastore retailers enter the market. In the past year, CIO UK has profiled the CIO of cycling e-tailer Wiggle, but the market is fiercely competitive as Chain Reaction Cycles and Planet X, among others, fight it out for a slice of the overcrowded market.

In outdoor living; the market has seen troubles for high-street favourite Millets and the rise of out-of-town and membership retailer Go Outdoors.

“It’s been incredibly healthy as it keeps us on our toes and it makes us more competitive,” Barsby says of the multiple retail threats Halfords faces. Recently, the challenge has been very real. A few years ago Halfords looked to be a spent force and seemed to be facing the same ignominy as Woolworths and Blockbusters. However, one of a series of smart moves was going into business with one of the world’s greatest cyclists, Chris Boardman – just as Team GB, Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky took Britain from a nation of also-ran cyclists to world leaders – helped turn fortunes around. This has led to a transport revolution in the UK as cycling becomes an accepted form of day-to-day transport, causing a rise in bicycle sales.

Cycling plays a major role in the newly refurbished Redditch headquarters. The entry door is guarded by one of Boardman’s latest road bikes, the topiary depicts a pro rider winning a race and the corridor to the staff café features the vast range of bicycles available from the retailer. On the wall of the café is Boardman’s famous Olympic track bike built by formula one, and sports car legends, Lotus, is also the first zone of the new Halfords website. The reception desk is also a classic Mini car and a Norton motorbike opposite for petrol heads.

“Our strategy is to be a specialist retailer and make sure that our staff are very knowledgeable,” Barsby explains. Halfords hopes to make the most of its bricks-and-mortar presence and continue to grow online. Their 2013 half-year results in November saw that cycling revenues had increased by 14.2% and that cycling repair sales had gone up by 27.2%, while online sales had also soared by an impressive 16.9%.

“We can learn from the online space and add speciality services,” explains Barsby. “Online retailers are fiercely competitive, but outdoors and cycling shops are retail choices where consumers like to get personal advice and, in many cases, touch and feel the products.”

Matt Davies became chief executive of Halfords in October 2012 following a 27% fall in annual profits. It was also the same year that Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France and Team GB cyclists dominated the London Olympics. Spring 2012 had been a cold wet, washout.

“Davies has chosen the kind of people who have a history of transformation, and we all get on really well and have the same mindset. There’s no politics,” she says. “We have a ‘Get Stuff Done’ meeting to make things happen.”

New business approach

“Our new website is about the experience of life on the move,” explains Barsby. “We also have a new store format rolling out which have screens in them, with an App that enables customers to enter their car registration number and the App tells you the exact part they need.”

This highlights the new approach. Barsby and her team are buying in data sets and rolling out new hardware with the aim of integrating their online and high-street retail experiences.

“Tablets are being used with YouTube to show customers the products we supply in greater detail. We’ve developed a bike wizard for choosing a bicycle online, but many customers still want to sit on a bike, so we looked at how we size people from standing in front of a screen. Technology is at the heart of these changes,” says Barsby.

Like her peers in bricks-and-mortar retail, Barsby is putting WiFi into every store. The company is keen to move to the head of queue in motor parts retail, too. Barsby explains a recent deal with Car Parts Direct ensures that Halfords customers can access 130,000 more car parts in what she says has “been a big initiative for this year”.

Halfords delivers to its stores once a week, but as business-wide changes take effect, Barsby says that regular deliveries will smooth the business.

“Omni-channel retail should be seamless; it’s just about a single customer view. Customers order wherever they like and we must deliver wherever they like.”

The IT team

“We’re rebuilding our network and in-store IT estate and we’ve done a lot in the first year, but there’s still a lot to do. We’ve put in new laptops across the estate to support the in-store training investment. Many of our tills and handheld devices are being changed over the next year before a major software will follow next year. I have been around many of the stores and met many store managers, and they are seeing results from our work so far. We’ve delivered a lot of quick wins,” Barsby says of the plan to put IT at the head of the Halfords team.

“We’re compressing the data centre estate from nine to four, and we’ve done an SAP upgrade that should have been carried out five years ago,” she continues.

“The business was buying IT themselves and we had very poor integration. The IT team relied on overtime to carry out routine work and we had no architecture, PMO or business analysis teams. HP partnered with us for the SAP upgrade, moving it into their cloud, and it’s all gone really well. I’m looking at cloud wherever we can, as we have two peak times of the year – Christmas and summer – and I want to be able to flex up and down.”

First up on Barsby’s cloud agenda is email and collaboration as she looks to shift Halfords off a creaking Lotus Notes system onto either Microsoft or Google collaboration platforms.

“My first big job was to sort out the people in the team – fix the basics in year one and then spend two years of transformation as part of a three-year plan,” she explains. Her office is dotted with organograms.

“The key thing for me was to get their hearts and minds, and tell them it’s going to be amazing,” she says. “I found it remarkably easy to bring in great talent. Some people came from my network, but a good agency also helped. We’ve raised the skills bar with a mixture of experienced Halfords people plus staff from financial services and travel sectors – and that blend is working really well.

“There was a culture of order takers and I’ve had to coach a few people to get them to tell me what they think by saying: ‘Your job is to recommend a way of doing things and you have a voice’. It’s a very different role to challenge the business, so it’s been a big culture shift.

“Also we’ve got them thinking what the customer journey is, not what their job is, as it’s not about the systems. This has helped change the culture and it’s now firmly about the customer and what the customer will see in 2017.”

Barsby quickly runs through the vendor relationships at Halfords: HP and Tata are working on the data centre rationalisation, IBM is looking after application rationalisation, while Fujitsu recently secured the contract to do in-store break fix maintenance and will work on the store hardware refresh.

“What I wanted was companies with a breadth of skills that each know they could do the other suppliers’ jobs as I don’t want complacency,” she says of the vendor selection and management.

Although a conservative set of vendor choices, Barsby says this enables her to focus on bringing skills in-house or select new niche vendors for the exciting opportunities Halfords faces online.

“The multichannel development team isn’t part of my department and we’re looking at app suppliers to freshen up that approach. But we’ve been nicely surprised by SAP, HP and Fujitsu trying to push innovation. I don’t want to roll out new tills, so we’re looking at tablets with card-swipe technology and the suppliers are embracing this.

“Tills cost too much and we can move to e-receipts – great for CRM. We aim to reduce the OPEX by 15% and cut the CAPEX by 20% in 2017.

“Information is at the heart of our three-year plan and we’ve recruited Halford’s first data architect,” she says. The company has a digital director too, and Barsby’s real-life account shoots down the theory claiming that digital leaders will surpass CIOs in the future.

“The digital director sponsors some projects, and I sponsor others – and it has to be like that as it’s fine line between what’s a digital project and what’s an information one. Digital development is in my team because that’s also about supplier management. This means that the digital director can concentrate on website trading with a focus on the customer experience.”

Barsby joined the new Halfords team in March 2013 from a business change role at TUI Travel, where she had also been head of IT projects and programmes. Before TUI, she had been with Whitbread and before that, spent a stint in financial services and Sainsbury’s from 2002 to 2006.

“It was great to be at Sainsbury’s for the overlap of the Sir Peter Davis and Justin King eras, and my MBA dissertation featured an interview with Sir Peter Davis’s board,” Barsby remembers.

“I was sceptical of the culture change that could be achieved, but that period really made me sit up and take notice. I’ve seen the same here with Matt Davies, so it wasn’t a hard decision to come back to retail. Matt’s a very motivating and inspiring person to have at the helm and he’s really in touch with his colleagues.

“Whitbread has some amazing brands, and they’re brilliant at the niche, and to be so big and successful and well-liked in the country is an achievement.

“The Premier Inn instruction manual for making a bed shows the attention to detail, and it’s clearly working when you look at their results. Culturally, Whitbread is very similar to Halfords.”

Barsby’s personal life has also benefited unexpectedly from being CIO. “I’ve cut my commute to 15 minutes, so for the first time, in a long time, I’ve two hobbies; playing hockey after 23 years away, and singing in a Halfords choir. It’s a lovely feeling of being looked after and we’ve put ‘fun’ as a company value.”

Barsby reports to Halfords’ CFO. “That’s great,” she says. “He has a real interest in what technology can do for the business, so operates more like a COO.”

As if to reinforce the values of fun and outdoor living that are making Halfords a relevant retailer again, Barsby heads to her daughter’s sports day as the interview ends.