IT director Jonathan Vardon keeping Boots in good health

In the wake of one of the worst starts to a year for the retail sector, Boots the chemist chain, remains - no pun intended - in good health. Its stores remain popular with customers, it has a presence in all the key channels, it fared better than some in the ongoing corporate tax scandal and it continues to grow as an international brand.

"IT's job is to boost business performance. If it doesn't, then we may as well shut up shop," Boots IT director Jonathan Vardon says of the major business process and technology transformation taking place at the company. Vardon is relaxed, and with Christmas trading brisk at the Oxford Street store below Boots London office where we meet, he is enthused by the course the organisation is following.

In June of 2012 US pharmacy retailer Walgreens acquired a 45% stake in Alliance Boots, the company of which Boots is a part.

"It is a partnership. For the US they have an opportunity to get into the UK and European market and they have the option to buy the remaining 55% stake in three years' time," Vardon explains of the merger between these two dominant global retail players.

Global partnerships

As well as its deal with Walgreens, Boots acquired Nanjing Pharmaceutical in China in 2012 and this global reach is a key driver of Vardon's technology and online strategy.

"Everything we are doing has a digital lens," says Vardon. "The new Burton-on-Trent warehouse will drive our online and international business," he says of recent supply chain improvements. Revisions to the pharmacy business are also being carried out by Boots and Vardon says the focus is on making sure in-store and online areas of the business support each other as much as possible.

"We have done a lot of work on pharmaceutical management systems. Boots and IT has been guilty of point-to-point solutions," he says, and indeed industry watchers have been critical of the pharmacy systems and prescription services offered by Boots.

"The leadership understand the complexity of the IT estate and the very old ways of working and there is a great recognition and expectation of what IT can do," Vardon says of the role IT is taking in the business transformation.

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"For IT it's a chance to really drive through changes in anger. What we are seeing is the huge volumes that we are putting through at the moment.

"The last couple of years there has been a huge capital investment in IT to really put it at the front of the organisation's transformation. Not only will this continue, but we are significantly increasing our investment in 2013-14 when compared to 2012. IT has never worked more in partnership with our business teams."

Boots IT director Jonathan Vardon

Vardon inherited a transformation plan from his predecessor Andy Haywood. "Andy initiated a three-year transformation activity called Break Through. The first year of my role was to make sure we delivered on that activity."

Haywood, now group CIO for the Co-operative Group, hired Vardon himself and is a keen advocate of Vardon's talents - telling this title how proud he is of Boots for backing Vardon's progression. Whenever a protege moves into the top seat there is a tendency to live in the shadow of the previous incumbent, but Vardon, while committed to completing Haywood's plans, has some clear strategy ideas of his own.

"Now the strategy for the next three years is a platform for growth and for ensuring IT is all about the customer. All our KPIs are about how we help the stores to trade, increase sales and ensure there is a feelgood factor for stores, customers and colleagues.

"I'm really excited about the ambition to have IT at the centre of that transformation."