With a diverse career spanning consulting (at Arthur Andersen), the automotive industry (Volkswagen/Audi), financial services (Barclays) and central government (the Ministry of Justice), keen runner Neil McGowan's recent stints have focused on the knotty challenges of multi-channel retailing.

Beginning with Great Universal Stores' GUS Home Shopping, McGowan went on to work as IT director at Shop Direct Group and Littlewoods as the pair merged. Earlier, he was IT director for GUS Home Shopping and Reality, the company that provided fulfilment services for Argos and other major online retailers. Now his mazy route has taken him to the role of CIO at JD Williams, part of the N Brown Group, an organisation that has its roots in the mid-19th century and which is an umbrella for more than two dozen online and catalogue brands, including Simply Be, Simply Yours, Marisota and Jacamo.

The group turns over more than £600m per year and is growing despite the chaos of a UK clothing sector where competition is more intense than ever.

Read the CIO Questionnaire: Neil McGowan, CIO at JD Williams

The company's differentiator: fashion-able clothing for the outsize category. The firm sells sizes all the way up to 7XL. This, he has to explain to me, means XXXXXXXL, or what is known in the trade as "sofa-sized clothing". It's a niche that fits with JD Williams' focus on remote selling.

"It's more difficult to stock the range stocks we need for outsize and to be profitable in the high street because of dormancy and overstocking. We're more centralised than a lot of retailers. We don't have to run a network to 200 stores and we have centralised communications and call centres."

Channel chasers

Of course, any USP that works will be pursued by others and McGowan concedes that "high-street players are piling into multi-channel".

"There's Top Shop, and Asos (led by CIO Gary Mudie) is growing like fury. Partly because of our demographics we tend to be in the over-30s rather than teenage fashion range. We're a different customer group but Next is strong competition.

Traditionally, the internet was a marginal sales opportunity but now it's become more significant and the competition is going to get stronger."

That requires having some nous as regards demographics and McGowan says that JD Williams is "pushing somewhat for homeowners rather than mortgage holders... pensioners with a known income. The rate of growth has slowed but we're growing nicely compared to the rest of the market: five per cent year-on-year, compared to a clothing market that is a few per cent down annually."

McGowan was attracted by the job from a few distinct angles.

"The role was a full board member and you get a real flavour for how the business is operating. IT can be seen as a competitive weapon or operational necessity but sitting on the board lets me position IT as a USP. The size of the IT team is about half the size of the function I've been running before but the chief executive has put together a very good board and the chemistry is very good. Decisions are being made at twice the speed, so it's exciting."

For those outside the rag trade, there are some eye-popping opportunities if you know where to look (or not to look). "We're the largest internet lingerie retailer in the 16-plus sector," McGowan says with satisfaction, for example.
Despite this, he believes that the firm is "at a tipping point".

"We don't have as flexible a multi-channel platform as we need to operate in that space. We have a call centre and internet channel that is rich but we need more so we're investing in modernising."

The technology enabler will be a flexible set of services based on one code base.

"We've invested a lot more time on architecture, infrastructure and roadmap so we have a better understanding of what capabilities we need for two or three years' time. The infrastructure boys need to deliver and we want more of a service-oriented architecture that allows us to mix and match components to help us increase agility and pace of change."

Supplier relationships will be a key to this, McGowan says, and with CA, JD Williams second-biggest supplier, he deliberately moved in closer.

"We sat down with them and said it's all very well every couple of years negotiating but surely there's more to life than that," he recalls.

"We are spending more time with each other so we both understand where we're trying to get to. We started adopting more of their products earlier in life. Face-to-face is really important because you have to see the buy-in on both sides."

Similarly, McGowan's intimacy with Sun (JD Williams uses the Glassfish application server) means he is confident that his investment won't be hurt by the pending acquisition by Oracle.

With over 25 brands and 30-plus websites with shared baskets across them, there must be a temptation to slim down to fewer names and systems but McGowan backs the business's focus on seeking out profitable niches.

"Bringing them together would lessen the interest," he laughs. "Our business is about looking at the demographics landscape and identifying gaps."

There's plenty more to be done, for example in social networking where the company now uses Twitter and Facebook for marketing.

"The evolution of the Net is very social and based on speed," says McGowan. At the end of the day, it's about running fast - and keeping on running.

Neil McGowan's CV

Neil McGowan is CIO at JD Williams (N Brown), a UK fashion multi-channel retailer with annual sales of ?over £600m.

McGowan spent two years as CIO for United Utilities North West, the regulated water and electricity business.
Earlier, he worked as group IT director across the Shop Direct Group and Littlewoods as they were merging, and as ?IT director for GUS Home Shopping.

Other employers have included Barclays, Volkswagen/Audi, the Ministry of Justice and Arthur Andersen Management Consultants.