M&B COO Robin Young has transformed the company's IT systems so that core applications can be used to support its 10 different business units. A central menu management system helps every pub and restaurant in the business order food and drinks stock cost effectively.
He has just finished an estate refresh, opening up their use as training terminals and beefing up the power of local wireless networking, so that they can all use handheld Chip & PIN terminals effectively.
Young is thinking even further ahead. His IT strategy might be based around the business units using a common software set, but he wants to leave the hardware choices to them, ultimately making use of customers’ own devices as ordering and payment platforms.
Young has no timetable for this, but considering recent launches of digital wallet services, the opportunity may arise sooner than later.
Business performance will also be measured through a central business analytics system.
At the moment, business intelligence is collected piecemeal through a number of systems and Young feels there is too much human intervention before the information reaches the people who need it most.
“Over the next 12 months we will work at de-layering the information and taking the opinion out of each layer,” says Young.
“We’ll leave the machines to do the crunching and bring the analysis in at a higher level.”
Change of strategy
This last comment is very relevant to the way Young and his outgoing CIO Mike Sackman have approached IT staffing.
The IT team had experienced a shift in remit when hosted projects, such as the Fujitsu datacentre, called for a focus on bringing business benefits.
Young expects a hands-on attitude from all of his staff and his IT professionals are no exception.
“There has been a turnover in the IT team as we move from keeping the lights on to being an enabler for sales, profit and customer satisfaction,” he explains.
Those in the team that were content merely to watch things tick over in a maintenance sense have found work elsewhere.
They have been replaced by staff who can demonstrate a talent for dealing with third parties and who are happy to pitch in behind the bar to get some experience of how the IT strategy impacts the front-end of the business.
Sackman, who is moving on to Argos, is being replaced by interim Tony Bentham for six months.
Young has worked with Bentham before in a number of financial services environments and values his ability to estimate the return on investment of IT assets accurately.
Sackman’s ultimate replacement will be hired from within and this is an indicator of Young’s desire to nurture the talent that is already inside the company.
M&B is clearly not a typical corporate environment. It has some peculiar challenges and presumably the best people chosen to meet them are those who already have some experience at the company.
Young himself joined at a time when M&B were undergoing a management turnover. He is a lively, enthusiastic man, with a disarming manner and a have-a-go attitude that is undoubtedly common throughout the company.
The executive turnover at the top of the organisation has been extreme in the last two years and Young is dismayed that some media have chosen to portray this as a sign the company can’t hang on to top management talent.
He describes it more as a period of renewal that the company has now emerged from.
Now that data reporting has begun to be automated the board feels able to loosen its grip on the company and let decision-making filter down the management hierarchy.
Young arrived at the company two years ago, fresh from running a consulting business that he set up after a career in the financial services industry.
As a consultant he worked with the UK government on a project managing its shareholdings in the Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock banks.
This background underlines his focus on commercial performance.
Prior to that, Young did a spell at Citibank and managed the integration of Egg Group when he was CIO and director of change there.
But, he also has some prior experience in the leisure industry with a spell at McDonalds.
Other companies on his CV include Ford, GlaxoSmithKlein, Halifax and Procter & Gamble, which is where he originally got interested in business IT.
His exposure to IT was much like that of many other senior executives, who showed an interest in the new technology of the day when their peers ignored its development in business.
“I’m not a techie by background, I’m a businessman,” he admits. “I’ve been able to speak both lingos and understand where the trigger points are for both parts of the organisation.”
He was introduced to M&B through an informal meeting with the company’s HR director, but was not initially set on joining it.
“I met him and there was an almost explosive energy about the character. The way he described the business was almost religious,” he says.
“I agreed to do some work on a contractual basis but when I arrived at the HQ, the welcome I got, well it hit home that this was a fun place to work. It was infectious.”
Young is clearly fascinated by the business opportunities that IT can bring to the business, but is conscious of the danger of getting too absorbed in IT projects at the expense of other operational concerns.
He recognises that he needs a head of IT, be it CIO, IT director or CTO, to let him pull back and concentrate on the business strategy at a wider level.
In turn, he expects his own IT lead to come out from under his feet and engage with the rest of the operational board.
Young also expects them to have the strength to push back if he’s tempted to get too involved in IT projects again.
“I am a pain to deal with and I need them to say it’s not my job anymore, and that even though I might enjoy watching them deploy software over the weekend, to tell me to go home.”
Young is fond of all of his team and describes the culture as one of a Knights of the Round Table approach, where everyone has a voice.
His team, he says, contains 10 of the best operational experts in the casual dining industry.
There are many strong personalities within it, just as there always will be when every member of the team is best-in-class, often with conflicting opinions.
“My job is corralling those opinions,” he says. “My job is not telling people what to do.”