by Mark Chillingworth

Harvey Nichols IT Director leads from the shop floor

Sep 13, 2009
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

CIOs are responsible for the IT shop within their organisations but Martin Schofield is responsible for shops quiet literally. As IT and logistics director at high-end department store group Harvey Nichols, Schofield is also in charge of the private company’s growing number of stores beyond the capital as well as the flagship outlet in Knightsbridge, Kensington. His career has seen him rise from programming to a leadership role in one of Great Britain’s most famous shops and he is using his understanding of technology to deliver the unique shopping experience visitors to Harvey Nichols expect. Harvey Nichols ranks alongside Harrods as one of the top names in retailing, a luxury department store offering boutiques and designer brands combined with restaurants in-store and at the Oxo Tower on the river Thames in London.

There are five stores in the UK, including the famous Kensington branch, a new store in Dublin and three franchises around the world in Hong Kong, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. It’s a privately owned business that last year reported a drop in profits, but Schofield is confident that the company is on track to perform well as the recession retreats. In 2006, Schofield became responsible for logistics as well as the IT function. Department stores sell the wares of fashion brands, and Schofield set about increasing the accuracy of the stock management at Harvey Nichols. “Without accuracy we are failing the customer,” he says. “I want to get to the point where we can say to the customer ‘we don’t have that in stock, but I can get it for you’, or ‘it’s over there’. “We started at 25 to 30 per cent inaccuracy and we are now down to five to six per cent inaccuracy, which is ahead of the game,” he says. To ensure customers could always find the products they wanted and to lower the amount of reductions Harvey Nichols made to goods, Schofield set out to improve the knowledge and involvement of staff towards stock management and introduce technology to deliver the information workers and their customers will require. “We did some good stuff on stock accuracy. We did a lot of education on accuracy. I want 100 per cent accuracy and we are looking at how technology can enhance that.” As with many in the retail sector, radio frequency ID (RFID) technology was assessed. Initial trials were disappointing as Harvey Nichols discovered that the systems that were available were not suitable for a retail environment, especially a high-class one like Harvey Nichols. Now the company is working with PeopleVox, which has successfully merged RFID with a handheld device that is reliable, small and attractive – elements that are important to organisation of this calibre.

IT at Harvey Nichols is delivered by a team of 28 people but when Schofield arrived he said it was a department very much in the mould of PC fixers. He undertook a revision of the department and its costs. Now the department is seen as a consultancy and under his leadership it has inked a number of deals with mid-tier vendors rather than the big, dominant vendors. “It was a conscious decision to be open minded about vendors. The size of this company doesn’t justify SAP and we don’t do the big tender documents as they are often pointless. What I look for is a relationship. Functionality we can develop, relationships are harder. “There are risks as they are smaller, but we put it in the contracts that we get the source code if the worst happens.” It’s proved a good policy for him; the Harvey Nichols brand name is one vendors, especially the smaller ones, want to work with. For Schofield, it’s about how he works with his suppliers that matters. “The measure of a relationship is how you deal with problems. All projects are challenging and if you can, you need to find a relationship that can deliver and solve them, and solve them without litigation.” Schofield says his whole policy towards managing IT, logistics and retail stores is to have financial control and use common sense. “IT must understand the end-to-end of the business, whereas most departments understand their silo. Programming is common sense and looking for a solution.” Schofield avoids some of the well known methods of CIOs, including SLAs and sponsorship. “We don’t have formal SLAs; they are a barrier. The culture should be that people can talk to me in the corridor about any problems.”

Fashion has been the dictator of Schofield’s career since he joined Harvey Nichols in 2003 from high-end clothing brand Burberry. This was his first role as the overall head of IT and since joining the Kensington-based company he has shot through the ranks. In 2006, logistics was added to his responsibilities and he was made a director on the board at the same time. In January of this year he was made retail operations director, which means the five stores around the UK and Ireland, other than the Kensington store, are now his responsibility. He laughs that he is no longer able to read business and IT titles as he’s busy reading Harper’s and all the fashion titles to keep abreast of what his customers will demand of Harvey Nichols. “It’s a many and varied role. What is really nice is to be given that confidence to work outside of IT. All my predecessors were pure retail,” he says of the operations role. His staff roster is pretty impressive: 28 IT staff, a logistics team of seven, the general managers of all the UK stores and 1500 store staff. Prior to Harvey Nichols he’d been retail systems manager at Burberry for four years and retail projects manager at Debenhams for 13 years. This career exposed him to retail systems, leadership, business systems and “some big roll-outs of point-of-sale systems”. Although the economic slowdown has impacted every end of the retail sector, Harvey Nichols and Schofield continue to look to improve their business and its use of technology. “We are looking at attended services with a handheld device that will aid the sale and give a more one-to-one sale experience. I’m looking for the perfect device,” he says. Harvey Nichols is also continuing to improve its use of a real-time infrastructure so that all stock in the supply chain is visible to staff, and a customised database of customer interactions is being increasingly utilised.