The Premier Inn on York Way in Kings Cross, London probably wouldn’t be high on too many lists of romantic getaway destinations but it is a functional place, handy for the station, decent bedrooms, useful for meetings, incorporates a Costa Coffee and is priced for value.
Both the Premier Inn and Costa Coffee brands are owned by the former brewing giant, hence covering off two elements of the new tripartite tag ‘Eat, sleep and drink Whitbread’.
The ‘eat’ aspect covers nigh on 400 restaurants under the Beefeater, Brewers Fayre, Table Table and Taybarns brands. For ‘drink’, there are about 950 Costa outlets in the UK and more than 400 internationally. As for the ‘sleep’, the company owns close to 600 Premier Inns, most of which are in the UK, and there are plans to increase numbers of rooms from the current 42,750 to 55,000 over the next four years. The more narrow focus follows a period of streamlining that has seen Whitbread sell off David Lloyd health clubs, Pizza Hut, and Marriot hotels.
I’m at the Premier Inn to meet Andrew Brothers, IS and change director since last year at Whitbread after the former CIO Ben Wishart moved upstairs to become COO International for Whitbread Hotels & Restaurants.
Brothers started his executive career in retail, working as a store manager at Sainsbury’s and spending 10 years in operations roles at the company.
“It was a great grounding for what I do today,” Brothers recalls, adding that he also learned valuable lessons from the decline in Sainsbury’s’ fortunes that famously led to Tesco becoming the undisputed king of UK supermarkets.
“It wasn’t good to see and I learned not to overcomplicate my business. I saw ‘analysis paralysis’ going on so one thing [to learn] is not to go down that road. What Tesco did so well was to be innovative. You’ve got to have speed to market.”
After Sainsbury’s, Brothers went to work at consulting giant CSC, giving him his first involvement in IT, before being headhunted into IBM’s retail practice as Big Blue created the Business Consulting Services wing. There, he spent the best part of six years as an associate partner and his role included running the Tesco consulting account, where he helped deploy a mobile shelf-edge system and a Retek non-food implementation and collaboration system.
“It was hard work as Tesco is very demanding and dynamic,” he remembers. “The best thing was the real insight into an organisation that’s very focused and very ambitious. Yes they push hard, but I like that because you get things done.”
From Tesco, Brothers became MIS director at Whitbread where he was charged with developing a MIS strategy. Working with Hitachi Consulting, Whitbread created a 1.5 terabyte data warehouse, using Oracle tools to provide sales and margin analysis and strategic planning for the hotel and restaurant business. More than 600 reports are now generated every week, feeding the information needs of more than 400 users. The programme will now be extended to Costa.
Another key challenge was sourcing reliable performance indicators for management. “The driving factor was the old adage of ‘one version of the truth’. It was a two-year project that led to today’s ability to have detailed daily and weekly automated reporting of key management data and a repository for finance and marketing teams. We’ve continued to develop that warehouse and as we grow internationally we’ll pull that data in.”
So what did Whitbread see in Brothers, who was after all a relative latecomer to IT and something of a specialist in retail? Part of the appeal was that Brothers had already worked with Wishart at Tesco, but there was more to it than that.
“They were after someone who could do business change. There was a fair amount of grilling regarding my IT knowledge but more important was to show empathy with change. We need traditional IS to keep the lights on but also we need to help change the business. I’m pretty versatile.”
The need for a business-focused CIO is accentuated by the nature of the sector in which Whitbread plays with its focus on value and no lack of choice for buyers.
“The biggest challenge is making sure we continue to support the business needs. We’re in a really competitive environment and the biggest thing is to make sure we can help grow sales and improve customer service and cost control. We are very much in the loop [of management strategy] and each year we have a pipeline of activity we build with the business.”
That said, part of the CIO role is to come up with bright uses of technology such as the kiosks that let Premier Inn guests check in without having to queue at a reception desk, or the payment card systems at Costa Coffee.
The innovation game
“We’ll be innovative,” Brothers promises. “The kiosks are a good example but any innovation has to add value to the customer from the point they book or from when they come into the site.
“Our attitude to technology is that you’ve got to be in it to win it, but it’s not about technology at any cost. We’re asking things like ‘How can we use mobile and social networking?’
“We shouldn’t ignore what’s out there in terms of the channels that ‘Generation Y’ is using. We have to ask what a future market wants and today’s students and young people are going to be the corporate foot soldiers of the future, [the same people] who are a large part of our estate.”
As for the ‘lights on’ element of managing IT day to day, Whitbread has swapped out Oracle back-office applications for Microsoft Navision at Costa (“to be more aligned”), installed VoIP at head office, standardised stock and order management and implemented browser-based desktops that support flexible working.
“During the snow it was absolutely fantastic because staff got the same application view as they got from the office,” says Brothers.
Brothers runs a majority-outsourced IT operation at Whitbread with finance and accounting handled by Steria, Ceridian managing payroll and HR and Cognizant looking after helpdesk operations. It’s a lean and mean operation with 70-80 outsourced staff and fewer than 50 in house, and, following some downsizing, five out of seven of his direct reports are in new roles.
“It’s a bit of both,” Brothers answers when I ask if this is classic cost-cutting or ‘sticking to its knitting’ focus. “It allowed us to reduce cost and simplify processes and it allows us to concentrate. I’m not interested in spending millions but in having a very strong, focused IT department. We’re very well governed. It’s real. We want to be one of the most cost-focused companies in the world.”
Brothers says he enjoys a good working relationship with the board, helped by his long-running dealings with ex-CIO and “trusted advisor” Wishart.
“We’re lean and mean and it makes us quick to market. Our decision-making process is very quick and we sit with the senior team. I can’t say ‘it’s a whizzbang solution that’s all about the cloud’ because they won’t get it, but you earn the right to play by making sure the things you change bed in and work properly. What’s great is that when the business wants to do change projects they naturally come and talk to me.”
Similarly, Brothers says IT is becoming “really close” to marketing as the internet drives the ability to make customer offers. The company recently launched a new PremierInn.com site (with its £29 per night deals) and when we met in January the company had taken 59 per cent of the week’s bookings online.
What next for Whitbread? A Bangalore hotel has just opened following openings in Dubai and there is a “small pipeline” to follow. In line with the interest in social networking, an internal blog for IS has been set up and invites to visit have been sent to selected business executives to build linked-up thinking.
As for Brothers, he isn’t shy of admitting that he would one day seek to move into a pure leadership position. “I’d like to do a role in the business. What I like is the variety and intellectual stimulus and building teams. Here, I get to work with lots of bright people.”