by Mark Chillingworth

Interview: Genus CIO is mobilising the science business herd

Mar 26, 201411 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

In the closing weeks of 2013 David Cameron made pig semen a headline topic. However, this was not another PR stunt by the prime minister, but a £45m export deal between China and the UK. As ever the political classes are way behind the business community, and the UK is already a significant provider of pig semen and husbandry services in China.

Genusis a UK-based global business that offers animal breeding and genetics services across the UK, Europe and the US, and has been rapidly expanding into Asia in recent years.

“It has been a satisfying journey transforming the IT and helping the business expand,” explains Keith Hopkinson, CIO at Genus, about the past three years.

“We apply biotechnology to advance the science of animal breeding,” he says of the business model of Genus. “Over the past 10,000 years all animals have been evolved by humans.” After all, the Friesian cow with its distinctive black and white patched hide is a world away from the bison and buffalo that once roamed the world. The Friesian, like every animal in the fields of the rural world is a man-made creation.

As we meet Hopkinson at the Basingstoke headquarters of Genus, the organisation is completing a $40m acquisition in the US, the latest in a series of expansion moves. “The US is the most developed porcine business, with Europe catching up,” he says of the important pork market.

“We have joint ventures in China and more planned. On the UK/China trade deal, we were approached but declined to be involved. We are already on the ground in China with nucleus herds, a large investment in technical expertise and developing relationships. Exporting elite genes in the form of semen would be logistically challenging and doesn’t fit our business model. It is telling that not a single dose of semen has yet left the UK for China.”

Global operations

Genus can trace its origins to the Milk Marketing Board of the 1930s. Today, the company has two divisions that focus on beef and pork genetics. Operating in 30 countries, it has non-genetically modified breeding stock; its porcine business sells breeding male and female pigs as well as semen from nine pig lines; and its bovine business has a breeding selection programme that tests around 400 dairy bulls per year on a five-year rotation. Genus has bovine studs across the world in the UK, Italy, Canada, Brazil, China and Australia. From these studs, around 13 million doses of semen are collected every year, frozen in tanks of liquid nitrogen and sold globally.

It also has one of the most sought-after bovine lines, a Holstein bull in Wales who has sired over 250,000 sons and daughters and is still going strong.

“For our customers that means they can meet the demand for pork, beef and milk. Growth in the Asian economy means the demand for protein is a multiple of the growth of income. Vietnam, South America and Korea are all seeing high rates in population, living standards and income. These countries need to be more efficient as farmers. In China, the herd sizes are very, very small. So they want to improve their genetics,” he explains. Hopkinson adds that Genus breeds are animals that not only deliver high yields of beef or milk, but are also healthy and don’t have problems in birthing, for example.

“Agriculture is moving to a model of DNA-based genetic evaluation. Instead of waiting for a bull to grow up, you can look at its DNA and predict from its birth about how it will perform.” In the past, farmers had to wait five years, now Genus can provide that insight in months. “We have seven billion people on the planet and they have to be fed and this way you can do more for less,” he argues in the mantra of CIOs to achieve increases at less cost.

Hog cycle

Regular readers of the Harvard Business Review may have heard of the ‘hog cycle’, which describes the cyclical fluctuations in pork farming as a result of supply and pricing. Pig- and dairy farming can be very profitable when prices are high and when demand outstrips supply. As a result, though, increasing supply can often quickly outpace demand and prices drop rapidly, and thus farmers exit the business. Genus has positioned its business to be, as Hopkinson describes it, at the very top of the pyramid of business demand supply, providing insulation from the hog cycle.

“Genus has moved to supply the genetics at the top of the pyramid,” he explains. Although at the top of the supply chain, Hopkinson says a recent strategy review across the organisation identified that being close to the customer was critical to the organisation, its scientists and leadership.

From a close to the customer backdrop, Hopkinson is currently focused on a major mobile technology strategy that will enable Genus to improve its operational efficiency and remain close or become closer to its customer base.

“Within every country we operate, we have a mobile workforce that goes to the customers. Transactions on the move is a real opportunity for us to improve the business in terms of efficiency and speed. “I have been in IT for 20 years and have not seen an opportunity as big as this to improve businesses,” he enthuses. Hopkinson says the recent developments that have driven up bandwidth, dropped the price of devices and improvements in usability have really made mobility a “will do” by everyone in the business world.

“Android devices for £100 opens up a lot more opportunities for people to be technology users. So apps for transactions, information and services that we will provide to our customers means we can be more customer-centric and efficient.

“We have a range of projects on at the moment that have the leadership’s attention,” he says of the full support his latest strategy has. At present, Genus employees are still dependent on information and systems ‘back at base’, but Hopkinson is clear that the days of this working method are numbered. “The focus is to produce a set of apps that will sweep out all the old mobile technology and provide a modern platform for mobility,” he explains.

Hopkinson has outsourced some commodity areas of technology supply so he can recruit mobile skills in-house. “With app development, it is a case of suck it and see as there is no right or wrong direction. We have 36 staff in-house. What they are doing has changed as they are now focused on delivering value,” he says of the team and skills modernisation many CIOs are tackling.

But his adoption of mobility is not a reaction to the bring your own device (BYOD) phenomena that has swept into many organisations.

“To me it is an anathema to bring what you use at home into work. People are used to multiple devices. BYOD has largely happened as IT departments have been weak when the senior management want to use their own iPad. I’m making sure we are providing equipment that is on a par, so employees don’t have the desire of the new.”

Personal devices

All mobile devices within Genus are company owned. Employees sign that they are responsible for company data, and that no company information should be stored on a personal device.

“People know they have to get the chief execs’ approval for iPad use, so they have to justify it. No-one can store company information on a personal device, and as employees they sign that they are responsible for company data.

Genus, like many organisations had a range of mobile technologies in the enterprise from Apple, BlackBerry and Microsoft. When Hopkinson set the company on to its mobility path, he originally built the strategy around the adoption of Microsoft Windows 8.

“Windows 8 has been personally disappointing. Now the strategy has no Windows in it at all. It couldn’t be a more abrupt turnaround. We are now focusing on Android and iOS for delivering mobile applications and information.

“The Microsoft vision of Windows 8 being a platform for all formats just isn’t the case. There are three versions of Windows 8. Windows 8 was a backwards step for us and we will now stick with Windows 7. It is a shame,” he says.

Hopkinson points out that Android adoption rates are rising globally, and especially in the important Asian markets, while Windows 8 continues to struggle in comparison. Some CIOs have expressed security concerns with Android, but Hopkinson again believes in a good mobile device management (MDM) strategy and technology.

Underpinning Hopkinson’s mobile ambitions is his Business Information  (BI) plan. “When I joined, we talked to 100 managers to understand how IT could help the business. We are a global business with lots of applications, and you couldn’t pull the business together as everything was on disparate systems and information was expressed in different ways. So we set out to create a global vision for the business and a three-year strategy to deliver.

“By being able to see across all the systems, we can make better allocations and gain a better price. Now we have BI that can take that information and get it out to the business,” he says. Genus opted for IBM Cognos to create its data warehouse and reporting environment. “It is now our key tool for reporting on our inventory and to forecast demand in different markets,” he says.

Also pulling the business together is the introduction of Microsoft Lync for collaboration, which Hopkinson says has been well received and has “changed the business significantly”.

“To me it’s another technology that you have to chose, it’s another string to the CIO’s bow for delivery,” he explains.

“The business didn’t have a CIO before, so I have been the first person to articulate a role for IT in the business. IT has become much more aligned to the business and we have been successful in delivery. It is perfect for me as it was an opportunity to mould a strategy. It has felt like ploughing a field that has not been ploughed before.

“There was an opportunity to reduce IT costs. We were able to reduce costs as we manage the operations much better by focusing on gaining value. At my first board presentation I said I didn’t need to increase the budget and they may not have believed it,” he recalls with a laugh.

But he did achieve it and now has 50 per cent of his spend outsourced. “To me there are aspects of IT that are better outsourced and there are aspects that you outsource at your peril, the equation for that is different with every business.” Hopkinson has an IT team that stretches to people in Manilla, China, Germany, US, Mexico and Brazil.

“I have this set up so that IT is well aligned to the business, as the business is dispersed, so this way my team has a close relationship with the business. I wanted people to be embedded into the business. It helps with applying IT and to understand ideas that can be brought into the business, I’ve held dear to that all my career.

“I report to the CFO, which was a change for me, but is not a problem. It depends on the CFO and the business. My CFO allows me to operate with the other directors and the CEO, who I see on a monthly basis. Every quarter we have a formal review and I present to the operations board, while two or three times a year I sit with the plc board as they follow technology keenly.

Hopkinson began his career with Unilever as a production manager and project engineer. Like a number of the UK’s leading CIOs, Hopkinson found Unilever a great place to kickstart a career that, unknown to him, would lead to being a CIO.

“Unilever had good prospects for management training and they paid well. They allowed you a broad exposure to all parts of the business. I was an engineering graduate, but I got to understand accounting and marketing, and that has been such an advantage in my career. They also push you into operational roles, so by my mid-20s I was responsible for a bakery and it taught me people management skills that mean I can deliver value,” he says of his early career.

Away from science of genetics and enabling Genus to become a truly mobile operation, Hopkinson plays golf and tennis, is a school governor and has a “deep love of history and architecture”.

CV: Keith Hopkinson

2009 – present: CIO, Genus plc

2001 – 2008: Global IT director, IMI Norgren

1998 – 2001: Head of IT, Sun Valley Foods, Cargill

1997 – 1998: IT project manager, Cargill

1993 – 1997: Group engineering manager, Sun Valley Foods, Cargill

1983 – 1993: Production manager, project engineer, UEMTS, Unilever