A look back at last year's CIO50: #8 Ursula Phillips, Real Pet Food Company

Ursula Phillips
Ursula Phillips

CIO Australia is running its fifth annual CIO50 where we highlight the achievements of the top 50 senior technology and digital executives who are driving innovation and influencing change across their organisations.

2020 has been a very difficult year for organisations across Australia and around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has put enormous pressure on tech chiefs and their teams to deliver remote working solutions that provide business continuity during a crisis.

Nominate for the 2020 CIO50.

We are taking a look back at last year’s top 25. Today, we profile Real Pet Food Company's Ursula Phillips, who ranked number 8.

Anything is possible with the right team but you must be ruthlessly protective of who you allow into that team, warns Ursula Phillips, chief information officer at Real Pet Food Company (RPFC).

“Recruit for attitude, not skills,” Phillips says.

“If a person has a growth mindset and learning agility, they can learn the technical skills you require of them. Someone with a poor attitude will always do more harm than good to the team, however technically talented they are.”

One of Phillips’ first hires at RPFC was a person who came across to IT from the company’s customer service team.

“Sukhpal came to the team with minimal technical skills but with a customer-centric approach and a commitment to learning. After nine months in the team, he can claim business analyst, test manager, project manager, ERP and EDI as strings to his bow,” Phillips says.

“He also became a father for the first time earlier this year. Because we can trust him to be conscientious about the outcomes he delivers, we can also afford him the flexibility he needs to be there for his family at this critical time. This creates a virtuous cycle of performance, work-life quality and job satisfaction for both him and the organisation.”

Phillips also suggests tech chiefs make the tough calls and make them quickly.

“Upon starting at RPFC, it became obvious that we that we did not have the team we required. Not only were we short of many roles, but the two resources I had inherited were not going to grow into the roles we required of them,” she says.

“After making those initial tough calls and releasing both of those team members during their probation, we felt the pain of empty seats and some projects had to be put back. However, we have since built a dream team of dedicated, motivated individuals. Had the two original members been allowed to stay, we would have set a bar for performance that was much lower than required.”

As of July 2019, Phillips and her team were implementing ERP projects across Australia, New Zealand and China with the United States to start in Q3 and United Kingdom to follow in 2020.

In the months prior, the team had delivered new solutions for demand planning, trade spend management, operational management and reporting, consumer complaints and IT service management.

“We have transformed business operations through insights-led decision making. We’ve also integrated two acquisitions into the company, one in Australia and one in the US, and opened a corporate HQ in Singapore. We’ve done all of this with a team of only 12 dedicated people,” Phillips says.

Rapid growth brings challenges

Since 2015, Real Pet Food Company has acquired nine businesses in Australia and internationally. Organic and inorganic growth has more than doubled the company’s revenue.

“Over the next three years, we aim to grow RPFC into a $1 billion business and achieve IPO readiness,” says Phillips.

“The downside of such rapid growth was that our systems had not kept pace. Acquisitions had been made in quick succession with little time spent on integrating the new entities into our systems landscape.”

In 2017-18, RPFC embarked on the ‘One Domain’ project to bring all entities into the same ERP instance but this consolidation had broken the links of a point-to-point reporting suite and the business was effectively left flying blind. It was clear that data had to be at the heart of the organisation’s culture and it was essential to move RPFC to become a data-led, insights-driven organisation without impeding the agility or decisiveness that had long been in its DNA.

The business needed visibility into its performance. It was now operating in five countries and it was no longer possible to ‘sense’ business performance across sites. Yet collating data across entities was a slow, labour-intensive exercise delivering insights too late to take corrective action.

Secondly, less linked to poor quality was costing the company money. Preventing stockouts, improved scheduling and enhanced planning in the manufacturing and logistics process were major opportunities for margin improvement.

Lastly, without real-time information, RPFC was losing opportunities to tackle problems in a timely manner, losing money on pet food that had expired in Australia alone. Due to the perishable nature of the produce the organisation produces, the supply, manufacturing and distribution processes must all be synchronised and this requires end-to-end visibility of the supply chain.

Phillips and her team took a multi-pronged approach to handling this. They replaced the ERP backbone and delivered expanded functionality such as Blueshift, an integrated business planning tool; partnered with Data Addiction to provide ‘business playbooks’; and implemented a master data solution called ‘Datos.’

Blueshift uses an integrated sales and operations planning process to improve forecast accuracy and align production to a centralised demand forecast and overlaying promotional activity. The system uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to further enhance accuracy from historical data and trends analysis.

‘Playbooks’ source the right data from the company’s worldwide systems and use data analytics and ML to provide the business with insights that make a difference, Phillips says.

“The operations playbook was first. The solution augments operations data with sales and inventory data sources to provide a 360-degree view of the performance of the operations group,” she says.

Datos is a product that synchronises data from any source and uses algorithms to improve data quality. It highlights where data in a core system is out of alignment by comparing it to a ‘master'. In this way, errors can be rectified quickly before they result in unplanned costs and business disruption. The product also keep an audit of data quality over time so RPFC can investigate anomalies and reports data improvements over time, highlighting what needs to be done next to further improve it.

Impact on business rhythm

Blueshift, Playbooks and Datos have radically changed the conversations that occur in the business from executive forums to one-on-ones. A single view of business performance indicators is now being shared transparently and required actions are insights-led. Guesswork is kept to a minimum and sites can also collaborate and learn more easily from each other.

“Executives can now see the overall performance of the business and the underlying trends at the touch of a button at their PC or mobile device. They can drill down to better understand the performance of individual manufacturing and warehouse sites without moving away from a common dataset,” she says.

The move to shared datasets and open visibility was new to RPFC and adoption required planning and thought. Together with Data Addiction, RPFC identified ‘champions’ in the business whose requirements would deliver real value quickly, says Phillips.

RPFC knew that having advocates from the business and the executive team would promote acceptance and seeing others able to perform at pace would drive demand.

The ‘insiders’ program was also formed to bring data scientists and business SMEs together to share ideas about what was possible with solutions. The purpose was to determine how each individual could make a difference to the way they worked and how they could better meet the needs of their customers.

“Experimentation, innovation and creative thinking are core to the culture at RPFC, but data analytics and ML has enabled this to be supported by data-based evidence,” Phillips says.

As a CIO with group-wide responsibility, it is Phillips’ priority to understand markets outside of Australia and understand how they operate.

“To this end, I have made a point of spending time in each market and to lead major project initiatives in person to demonstrate executive commitment. As CIO, I am a sponsor and champion for multiple initiatives and work directly with the project teams. I am also the face of IT to the business and frequently host IT updates in our Friday huddles or IT ‘lunch and learns.’

Phillips has held a seat on the executive team and also sit on the transformation executive committee. This has enabled IT to be involved in key business developments from the ideation stage to be able to influence outcomes before they become a commitment and to execute with enough lead-time to meet business goals.

“I have built excellent relationships across the functions and am a trusted advisor for many of our department leads to bounce ideas off both formally and informally,” says Phillips.

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