"There's an entrepreneurial feel to 2 Sisters and a feel that you can really drive the business," Group CIO Ferenc Vezer says of his newish role. "It is very refreshing. Founder Ranjit Singh Boparan is a well-respected businessman and he always makes time to talk to you. I'll admit I had to look up the company before my interview, though. It was then that I realised how big the company is," Vezer recalls.
Primarily an 'own-label' food producer for most UK supermarkets and the food service sector, 2 Sisters also owns brands like Fox's Biscuits, Matthew Walker Christmas Puddings, Goodfellas pizza and Holland's Pies.
"We are one of the largest food manufacturers in the UK, the second largest in turnover, and in poultry we are one of the largest processors in Europe. 2 Sisters has 50 manufacturing sites to supply leading supermarket brands, including Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer.
"We are also one of the few food manufacturers that didn't get caught out in the horsegate scandal of 2013, and that is because high quality and health and safety are very serious here. For example, the other day the CFO shouted at me for running on the stairs," he says with a laugh at his energetic style.
The company has a manufacturing presence in Poland, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Ireland, "but we are a young business with sales of £3.4 billion". That size is partly as a result of a number of mergers and acquisitions over the past 15 years.
The stand-out deal that propelled the company into the big league of food manufacturers was the acquisition of Northern Foods for £342 million in January 2011, along with the acquisition of Vion's UK poultry and red meat business in mid-2013 for around £50million.
That rapid consumption of companies during the first decade of this century has had a knock-on effect on the technology structure and strategy, though.
"I have spent the first year designing for the future of 2 Sisters. We have built a department and executed some transformations and formed a strategic alliance with Atos," explains Vezer. "I can absolutely recognise that the expectation on IT was to make systems available. We've achieved that and now we have a connection with the chairman and all the C-level, which is a massive shift, and we are asked to help as business partners."
Two major deals have seen Atos and Dell become the primary strategic partners to the technology operation, with a focus on rationalising and simplifying the data centre.
"We have built in resilience in the past 12 months, so that now IT operations is maturing and carry out regular disaster recovery tests across all systems. We have eight ERP systems and it is not easy to report across them, but we are working on a SAP Data Services and BPC solution," he says of what his team has achieved. A key to this was to centralise IT into the Wakefield hub and an SAP centre of excellence that have below 20% customisation as the company moves to a single SAP across the organisation. The strategy is over time to move to a single SAP instance for the whole company.
"It wasn't painless, the user adoption was not quite there, and as a result took two months of holding hands," he reflects. "But these are not small sites and a four-month implementation was described by SAP as aggressive," he reveals.
Despite his energy and the organisation's zeal for change, Vezer is honest and believes a single view of the entire organisation is probably three years away. SAP was selected as the dominant ERP in manufacturing and in the hodgepodge of acquired systems 2 Sisters had in its IT recipe a number of SAP implementations, so it made sense to standardise. SAP sits on IBM DBII and the CIO didn't feel the Hana cloud option had been used in a business of the size and geographic spread as 2 Sisters. Vezer's team is also introducing Microsoft Office 365.
He was lucky that a number of his team from previous role as IT Director of Hallmark joined him at 2 Sisters. "I had a strong team and we know each other's strengths and weaknesses and have been together for seven to eight years.
"The complexity in the business systems was not designed. You can have complexity, but you end up with a non-connected and mismatched business. Likewise, you can connect everything up, but it ends up looking like a Christmas tree. IT wasn't ready for all the M&A," the CIO explains.
"We are a geographically disbursed business, so connectivity and sharing is a big win," he says. Vezer faces a challenge to standardise an SAP environment for 50 factories producing a wide range products, including breaded chicken, ready meals, biscuits and pizzas. But putting the organisation on to a pair of main platforms with SAP and Office 365 and ensuring a vanilla flavour to IT should be the recipe for success.
Vezer is also trying to create greater collaboration, both as a cross-business strategy, but also to strengthen the relationship with IT. "New tools help you work more collaboratively. We in IT are attending a user conference to explain how we are removing a lot of the complexity," he says.
"Grocers want us to use the internet to make sure that our products feature highly on the web," Vezer says.
The digital team he formed after joining 2 Sisters is creating sites for the company's brands and products. It's now researching using augmented reality to provide shoppers with greater information in the stores via their mobile phones.
"Consumers are changing how they live and buy, so it is changing the grocery business. With augmented reality consumers could hold their iPhone to hover over a ready meal or chicken meal and see the entire traceability.
"Ranjit owns the Harry Ramsden brand and we sell Harry Ramsden-branded products. We are also discussing how to use gaming for an app around this brand," he says.
As CIOs know, the digital agenda isn't only with the consumer, and Vezer and his team are digitising the business to meet expectations. "Ranjit wants a single view of the business on an iPad of the day's sales and profits. Doing that on SAP is not easy," says Vezer. Apple Macs are infiltrating the manufacturer too, including on the CIO's desk.
Vezer has had a varied IT leadership career in manufacturing, engineering and retail. "This is my first experience with the food industry, but there are many similarities with engineering and plastics. What makes it complicated is the traceability. But a ready meal is just like building a car, it's a set of raw materials; so I don't see any of these industries too differently. You are always trying to see what business applications you can find for technology that is available. Our role is to help the business grow by running your systems sustainably and with a culture that can help the organisation change the game," he enthuses.
Vezer is Hungarian by birth, "I took a gap year, 30 years ago, I was studying engineering," he says of his time at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. "It became very fashionable to have a gap year.
After travelling across Europe I sobered up in Manchester at 26 and set up a business that was very successful and failed just as fast," he says of his foray into the classic car business. "They were deemed a good investment and then the market crashed and I had a load of E-Type Jaguars, Aston Martins and Rolls Royces on my hands. So I had no business and lost the house, so I finished my degree, but in IT," he says of his time at the University of Salford, and Manchester has become his home.
A career in senior IT management has seen him lead the technology strategies of Formcraft Systems, Atlantic Group, Hallmark and now 2 Sisters. That success has never kindled a personal interest in classic sports cars, instead music is close to his and the family heart with his son developing a credible career as songwriter and guitarist.