The Warehouse Group CIO reveals ‘why the best place for a business technologist is in retail’

I have got skills with a butcher’s knife that would probably be quite unusual for someone in my role.Simon Kennedy, The Warehouse Group

Simon Kennedy was born to be in retail.

As a teenager in the 80s, he worked in the sausage factory owned by his family, which produced and sold sausages through the company's stores in London.

“As they say, 'L P is world famous in New Zealand'. In our case, 'Kennedy’s was world famous in south east London',” says Kennedy, CIO at The Warehouse Group.

After completing his degree in modern history and economics at the University of Oxford, Kennedy became a management consultant, working with Accenture and at Ernst Young.

He also worked at another consulting group, Kurt Salmon Associates, before joining Reliance, a conglomerate headquartered in India. In 2009, he moved to New Zealand, becoming the group CIO at the Warehouse Group (TWG).

“This is my first CIO role,” he explains. “My background and career before that is consulting.”

But almost all of that consulting was in a single sector - retail. It started with Accenture when the company asked him to work with retail clients. “One thing led to another, and you become specialised almost by accident.”

His time at KSA, a niche consultancy for the retail and consumer goods sector, led to the opportunity at Reliance Industries. There, he was a vice president in the Chairman’s Office, heading the business architecture team that supported the conglomerate’s growing retail business.

Today, he is responsible for information and communications technology for the Warehouse Group, which includes The Warehouse, Noel Leeming, Warehouse Stationery, Torpedo7 and TWG Financial Services.

He strongly believes the best place to work for a business technologist is in retail.

All the big technology trends - cloud, social, mobile, how people are accessing information, data analytics, Internet of Things, connected devices - they all converge in retail,” he says.

“All of those trends are relevant to our customers and relevant to us.”

A life in retail

As a student, Kennedy worked in the summer in the family business, mainly in the sausage factory with 40 to 50 other staff.

“I have got skills with a butcher’s knife that would probably be quite unusual for someone in my role,” he says, with a laugh.

His father ran the business, taking over from his grandfather. “You can follow that back to 1877,” he says.

“Sadly, the final eight stores closed their doors in 2007,” he says. A google search for Kennedy’s Sausages will reveal how their customers mourned the loss of the brand after 130 years.

“As they say, 'L and P is world famous in New Zealand'. In our case, 'Kennedy’s was world famous in south east London'.”

Kennedy did not work in the family business after finishing university. But looking at it now, he says, their products would these days be marketed as artisan food that could command premium prices.

"Perhaps an opportunity was missed," he states. “These were hand-made, high-quality products.”

“The same products, pretty much unchanged, for generations. At the turn of the century, sausages were a staple breakfast food for working families. Roll forward to the 1990s and things have changed a lot.

“The quality was still very high but the market has moved away,” he says.

The family retained their outlets in south east London, but the business continued to decline. With hindsight, he says, they should have shifted market, perhaps to the more upscale West London area.

“That is a key lesson for all kinds of businesses,” he states. “Follow your customer.”

Next: London-Mumbai-Auckland: The making of a CIO

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The making of a CIO

Kennedy shares his approach in his professional life. ''I enjoy trying to do a good job - whatever is in front of me, and if that leads somewhere, that is great. I don’t plan a long way ahead. Other people would offer different advice.”

Whatever one’s choice, he says, it is important to do well with what is in front of you. “You can’t control the future, do the best, here and now. Do what you can in front of you, opportunities will take care of itself. It worked for me.”

As to how he got into business technology with a social sciences background, he had always enjoyed written-based subjects such as English and history. But he also wanted to work with numbers.

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All the big technology trends - cloud, social, mobile, how people are accessing information, data analytics, Internet of Things, connected devices - they all converge in retailSimon Kennedy, The Warehouse Group

He thus combined his history major with economics, because the latter had involved maths.

He joined the Accenture London office straight out of university. The management consultancy provided him a lot of challenges and opportunities but “we had to work hard, with a lot of intensity”.

“At that age, it is a good thing to do this before you have many life responsibilities,” he says. “You can pitch right into it.”

At that time too, he had no technology background at all, “like, none, zero”. That was the days before students had computers, he explains. “Everything I learned in the space came through Accenture.

“I got a good grounding in business systems; processes around implementing new capabilities in the business, how to land things in a way that works for the team and with customers.

“There is a lot to admire to the culture, the scale, the horsepower they have got to drive change,” he says, on his stints both at Accenture and then Ernst Young.

He moved to KSA as he also wanted to expand his experience working with a smaller team, “rather than grand scale outsourcing”.

“It was nice to be back in that more business oriented space.”

His move to Reliance happened “in a real roundabout way”. He was then with KSA when he took the phone call for a colleague who was away. Reliance was looking for someone to help them in a big retail project.

He ended up joining the company and staying in Mumbai – an interesting life experience, especially with a young family.

After three years, he and his wife decided whether to go back to the UK permanently, or go to New Zealand, where they had both worked in Auckland for two years with Ernst Young.

The Land of the Long White Cloud beckoned and they chose to migrate to New Zealand.

His social sciences background has always been helpful in all the roles he has undertaken.

“The history side of it brings an understanding of context. In business, there is a lot of truth to the fact that it is only the future that matters. The past is done, you can not rest on your laurels. But at the same time, understanding the context is going to help you make your moves into the future.”

We constantly ask, 'Is this right for our customers? Is the experience consistent with the total brand offer?'

He smiles as the discussion veers towards the current mantra of being a “customer centric CIO”.

Customer focus is not new, he says. “As a boy, I can remember my grandfather in the Kennedy business talking about the absolute all time classic saying of ‘the customer is always right’.”

“That intense customer focus has not changed through the decades and through the generations and through the centuries.''

At the Warehouse, he says, “We talk about being a customer-led business. That is the place to start.

“At the moment, our customers are on a digital journey and we are on a digital journey as well.”

He says there are now many “touchpoints”, online and offline, that help trigger a customer’s need, or decision.

“We are very conscious of wanting to support a more sophisticated customer journey in all of our brands,” he states.

“Our customers will choose how they want to shop with us, the services they want and what is going to add value is really up to them. We have to be in the best possible shape to put options to them and finding ways to add value.

He cites examples of how technology has enabled them to meet a range of customer needs.

The Warehouse stores now offer an “Endless Aisles” service. All stores can access the company's full range online and make that available to customers at checkout. They can add the order right there in the same basket, in the same transaction and choose to have it delivered to home or store.”

This is in addition to the online “Click and Collect” option, which enables pick up at any store.

The Warehouse Stationery stores, meanwhile, provide digital photo printing services and photo studios to customers. At Noel Leeming stores, open learning centres are available, where customers learn about the devices they bought and how to maintain them. The team also visits schools and community groups to discuss the latest technologies.

“Increasingly technology is an enabler for that customer experience, but it is misleading to think it is the only thing.

“The human component is so critically important,” he adds. “How can we bring the people and the processes and systems together to create a good customer experience?''

He says two questions they ask constantly are, “Is this right for our customers? Is the experience consistent with the total brand offer?”

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How can we bring the people and the processes and systems together to create a good customer experience?

Common concerns

He says the group is actively driving retail capability, not only within the organisation but with external parties.

The company, for instance, is supporting the bachelor of retail and business management at Massey University.

''We provide practical help and sponsorship. Many of our senior leaders have delivered guest lectures for the course and we also provide support to team members who would like to attend.''

Kennedy acts as an advisory board member to the Future Leaders Programme at the University of Auckland Business School, as well as to the Masters in Business Analytics programme at Massey University.

“Certainly there is an overall skills and talent shortage in the technology space. I think oftentimes, retail is undervalued or underestimated as a career opportunity.”

While any one individual might not be able to solve this problem, he says, it will help “if we all do our small bit, whether it is about advisory boards or providing opportunities for students to complete project work or supporting internships. Together, we can increase the level of talent and the diversity coming into the industry”.

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We are like a rugby team: Everyone has their core roleSimon Kennedy, The Warehouse Group

Kennedy talks about how he is leading his team in the evolving digital environment.

The work has to be balanced, he says. “We need both reliability, resilience, day to day stability of our core trading platforms. And we want innovation and new things for customers at pace.”

Technology departments across all industries are all working on that challenge, particularly in a large scale organisation like the Warehouse, that has got significant continuing operations, he states.

“The key piece of value for me is respecting what each of those team members involved in the spectrum [bring],” he says.

“Yes, we need to value the creative genius that pops up now and then and creates brand new ideas. We also need to respect the skills needed to keep things 99.99 per cent up and secure. It is about trying to create harmony across the whole team.

Kennedy keeps abreast of retail trends across the globe. “The problem is trying to digest all that and filter out what makes sense.”

“It is also listening to our customers and making sure we are meeting their needs in the here and now, and remembering that something that works in another part of the world may not work here. We need to translate it, not copy it.”

He says an advantage of the Warehouse is they have a lot of “good internal knowledge” across the group. Apart from the retail stores, the group has branched into finance services and insurance through Warehouse Money, and into the mobile network space through Warehouse Mobile.

“What we learn in one brand, we can take into another brand.”

He says there is also now more crossover knowledge between technology people and those working in functions outside of technology.

“That creates a more informed dialogue on what is going to work and how the technology we are bringing in will add value,” he states.

“It makes for a close knit thinking among the technology, merchandise, marketing and digital teams on what customers need.”

“We are like a rugby team: Everyone has their core role,” he says. “But great teams understand how the core roles come together to meet the team objective.”

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