CIO update: Paul Coby's impressions of John Lewis

See also: CIO Summit 2010, Paul Coby keynote speech
Paul Coby will appear as a speaker at the CIO Summit 2011 on the 1st of November at the St Pancras Hotel, London

If anyone thought that Paul Coby’s move from CIO of BA to IT director at John Lewis Department Stores was a slow-down for him, they are sorely mistaken. If anything, the pace has just speeded up for one of the CIO community’s most well-known practitioners.

Meeting him at the retailer’s headquarters in London’s Victoria, it is easy to see how much he is enjoying the new role he has had for around six months. He talks with enthusiasm about the culture and business model he has had to become familiar with in that time.

This is Coby’s first foray into retail and he relishes having to learn new terms that are associated with the retail industry.

He says: “The airline industry reacts quickly, but the pace of the retail business is much faster. It has peaks. Everyone is aware of revenue. It’s all about newness in the assortment.”

There are similarities between air travel and shopping. Both are highly reactive to consumer demand.

They both rely on number crunching to set up an attractive proposition to customers, but whereas BA can stick to a schedule and associated pricing for twelve months, John Lewis — which is never knowingly undersold — has to react to changes in consumer demand and the behaviour of competitors almost instantly.

Coby is one director at John Lewis amongst a management team including MD Andy Street, an operations director Dino Rocos, who focuses on distribution, a retail director Andrew murphy with responsibility for the stores, commercial director Andrea O'donnell in charge of the retailer's direct and multichannel operations, the financial director Rachel Osborne and HR director Laura Whyte.

Coby says all of the roles he has been introduced to are familiar to him, except for the head of buying. This department procures the retailer’s product line. Every retailer has buyers, but as Coby observes, it’s a role not found outside vertical sector.

He says, “They are key to the business. They are the people who have the sensing and vision of marketeers with the analytical skills of a CFO.”

One of the most exciting product lines for John Lewis at the moment is its fashion offering, which is growing in online sales, even though the retailer isn’t known as a leader in this area. Fashion now accounts for 27 per cent of online sales, says Coby.

He says. “We’ve got some fantastic fashion brands now. Having the teams that know where that’s going is key.”

This illustrates the relationship Coby has had to foster with the buying teams as the retailer’s website becomes an ever more important sales channel.

It’s also an extreme example of the cultural mix he has seen between retail intuition and a commitment to hard numbers that runs through the whole organisation, right to the shop-floor he has found.

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