Sometimes doing a good job can be frustrating. For Ben Wishart, CIO of Whitbread, the company’s recent sales of stakes in the David lloyd Leisure Centres, Pizza Hut and TGI Friday, is proof of a job well done.

But it does mean he doesn’t get to enjoy seeing the benefits of the systems he has put in place being delivered, although doing that has contributed to Whitbread’s ability to successfully carry out its strategy of focusing on its core business.

Since selling off some of its operations the company now is made up of four brands – Premier Inn, Beefeater, Brewers Fayre and Costa – and is intent in making its mark internationally.

Wishart believes in leading from the front, and has succeeded in multi-tasking to produce a coherent shared, IT operation from the fragmented organisation he inherited when he joined the group three years ago.

Arriving from Tesco, he has engineered an astonishing transformation that has seen Whitbread’s IT role turned into a single coherent function from the previous eight-brand silo approach. He has introduced an IS agenda that he says has everyone focused on growing the business and enabling people in Whitbread to be productive.

“We have given a purpose and focus to the IS function, so that the people can understand their role in the brands and Whitbread achieving its business goals,” says Wishart. “Everyone has been in mixed group discussions on what they can do individually and together to land the agenda. It has been a very big-time investment, but everyone in the function is more focused and delivering more than they were three years ago, so it has easily been worth it.”

The reorganisation of the IS function was a priority. “The agenda has been at the centre of everything we have done,” he says. “It gave the brand stakeholders the confidence that we were working to their priorities while we took IS out of the brand structures. The shared service structure does not dilute a passionate focus on brands and guests. We’ve had deep engagement at all levels, for example, the group HR director and the CEO have reviewed our training and development activities that are pinned on the IS agenda priorities, and signed off their commitment that the work supports the progress of Whitbread’s overall strategy.”

The IS agenda uses the Whitbread balanced scorecard people-guest-investor structure. The IS ‘WINCard’ (Whitbread in Numbers) helps people connect with the business priorities. “The service desk is a great example. The analysts pay particular attention to recording ‘How do I’ issues well, because they know that our training and development team is on board with the agenda too. They use the data to develop high quality e-learning and classroom training, so that our managers and team members in the restaurants and hotels know what to do and can spend their time with guests doing the job efficiently rather than sitting in the back office on the phone to the service desk. Everyone is involved, people feel a part of the overall success of the company, and that has led to a positive change in behaviour, and shifted the cost base.”

Measuring progress has been critical. The company is now winning brand loyalty and awareness. “The IS WINCard created a different focus for the team,” says Wishart. “It was an important project and very successful. The turning point came 18 months ago, but it began in the whole business three years ago.”

The IT operations for Whitbread’s original eight brands operated in silos, which was of course very inefficient and difficult to maintain, with a small corporate team dominated by the brand centres.

The change involved many people in the company over a long time, according to Wishart. “I hate to use the word but we needed to see where the IT ‘synergies’ were, and make them really visible to sell the change to the rest of the company,” he says. “The pain was clear from the data. For example, there were places we bought the same stuff from the same suppliers at different prices across the group. It took 18 months to release people’s thinking from the old way to the new, and now people are pulling together in the function and across the separate business units.”

Wishart himself has been extending his remit, contributing beyond the CIO role as the company embarked on its disposal strategy and increased focus on core business. “The coherent IS strategy and the focus on building a change embracing culture has increased efficiencies and driven out costs,” he says. “We’ve still got lots to do, some services still are not right, but in the business as a whole IS has physically changed year on year, and has a better reputation.’

Simply said, Whitbread has been fixing the basics in parallel with creating the future. This means that Wishart has been driving a remarkable business transformation through his reorganised and refocused IS function. ‘The direction is more aspirational now, with more focus on technology-enabled business process innovation, particularly in Premier Inn where guest feedback on speed and efficiency of booking and checking-in is tangible evidence of the contribution our IS people have made.”

Whitbread’s IS operation is scoping new customer information systems, with the aim of better interoperation between the brands. “People staying in a Premier Inn may eat at the adjoining restaurant or go to a different high-street eatery. We are trying to understand customer decisions in order to focus their spend with us. The technology is not that revolutionary, simple things can be powerful tools for the business.”

He is also working on check-in kiosks at the hotel, freeing staff up to increase service levels to guests. “We are trialing pay online for 12 hotels in Luton, Manchester and London, which would make check-in faster at the desk and mean that kiosks could just deliver the room-key. We have yet to prove the business case,” he says. “Most Premier Inn booking is done online, but paying is not, and in a busy hotel speeding up check-in could build a considerable amount of guest equity.”

On average there is a 50/50 split leisure/business in Premier Inn throughout the UK. “We don’t yet have enough customer data to say definitively who exactly is using it most, but that doesn’t really matter. Our regular customers feel confident in our environment and want to get to their rooms fast – they want things short, sharp and similar,” says Wishart.

Automating the whole end-to-end process of hotel booking and checking-in could improve efficiency, benefit guests and free-up staff to become better ambassadors for the brand, according to Wishart. But, as his agenda says, the company has to be fanatical about structuring the process properly first, and proving the business case delivers competitive advantage.

Part of the reason for this attention to detail is that the hotel side of the business is currently undergoing a rebranding exercise, including rebuilding the website. Premier Travel Inn became Premier Inn in October. “The rebranding will make the brand more accessible, and recognisable,” says Wishart. “Our customers know us for being purple. But they used to get confused about the name. They told us Premier Inn so Premier Inn it is, we are following and responding to the customers and what they feel happy with. It also drives the need to improve areas like the website.”

The IS function is doing significant data warehousing projects and implementing management information systems across its restaurant, Premier Inn and Costa brands, and the supply chain and HR functions. The focus is on pushing out the base data people need to do their jobs, faster than in the past to support the leadership in driving a more edgy retail trading culture.

“My team’s performance has been fantastic over the past couple of years,” says Wishart. “The feedback we have had has been great, and the focus on making things simpler for guests and team members is everywhere.”

The team has also been working on systems for the Costa brand, which has thousands of outlets through other retailers and catering companies, as well as its own cafés. The retail business is relatively quiet, with various small projects being implemented, but there is huge focus on the national sales business and international growth to consider.

“There is still a lot to do, especially through the growing use of the Internet and on-demand applications,” he adds. “For example we have a joint venture in Shanghai and more deals to be done. We have a big stake in how the ventures run, and we have to create the solutions that allow us to grow profitably into markets.”

Whitbread also has joint ventures with Emirates and Emaar for the Premier Inn brand in the United Arab Emirates and India. The first hotel will open at Dubai Investment Park in March 2008, and an aggressive development plan follows. It will take a while to get started, but the plan is for rapid growth, according to Wishart.

The CIO says pulling Whitbread’s IS together so that it works better and is more efficient has been very satisfying. “It has been going quite well these days, and it allows us to be more flexible. The hotel system operates more in reservations from the Web, and we continue to provide a high-quality service for the guests who prefer to book on the phone. But overall consistency and cost effectiveness for everyone is the focus.”

The evolution of Whitbread’s IT has reached the point where it is not about unpicking something, and trying to put a more streamlined version in place, it is about creating something that will enable the business to grow even faster, Wishart believes. “The pace of growth is very important, and what we have done so far is to put IS in a position where it can enable the business to expand at the pace it wants to.”

He thinks the expected growth of the company means there is still a lot of work to be done, and has been busy equipping his team with the right skills to enable this business. This has included implementing SFIA – the Skills Frameworks for the Information Age – and he has introduced training programmes where he feels there has been a gap in the skills his people have and the needs of his agenda. The portfolio of projects around the Oracle ERP, Reservation, Revenue Management, EPOS and EFTPOS systems demands more than an acute focus on good project management skills, but Wishart focuses on equipping his people with the softer personal development and influencing skills they need too, for example his next big idea is hiring a drama company to help staff overcome fears of presenting a point of view forcefully. With attention to detail like that, Wishart has proved he is more than capable of leading IS enabled international business transformation from the front.