Few of us work in the sector we had our eyes on as youngsters. But that is not the case with Brill Brindle, technology and distribution director at corporate travel specialists Hogg Robinson Group. As a young boy in Crawley, Sussex, he used to walk into Gatwick airport and gaze longingly at all the airliners in their hangars – this was in the days before the security we know today. He went on to become an IT leader in the airline industry and today challenges the business travel world as a CIO who took the alternative route of developing an in-house IT platform from which the Hogg Robinson group today operates.
Hogg Robinson Group (HRG) manages the travel needs and budgets of major corporations, government agencies and sporting organisations. Staff at its offices around the UK and agencies abroad provide every travel service a business requires, from booking rail and air tickets, organising hire cars and hotel rooms, ensuring the traveller has the right currency in their pocket and that the entire booking was done within the bounds of the organisation's travel procedures and budgets. Increasingly, companies approach HRG and task it with reducing the travel budget, which in recent years has even led to a travel company advising organisations to travel less and make greater use of video conferencing.
"Our guys are tasked with questioning the reasons for travel," Brindle says. "It's been a bit hit and miss though, as video conferencing starts generating more travel as more people connect and have more ideas so more people need to travel. Face-to-face is very good and important."
Brindle explains that it is the complexity of corporate travel requirements, in terms of policies, budgets and demand, that have secured the business travel providers, while the high street holiday travel companies have suffered since the arrival of the internet. Not that the internet hasn't had a major impact on the business travel sector. Self-service travel booking is part and parcel of everyday life so HRG offers a web platform that allows PAs and travel managers at their clients to use web-based booking tools.
"Travel distribution technology was built around airlines, who wanted to sell their stock of inventory. You were using someone else's environment to do your business. The internet enabled that distribution of inventory through lots of other channels," he says of the past.
When the internet opened up the inventories of the airline operators for all to see and enabled the airlines and hotels to sell their inventory directly to the corporate traveller, HRG had to remodel the way it operated.
"I always had a view that the trend would move," Brindle says. "I don't read business books, but one, Paradigm Shift [by Don Tapscott and Art Caston], influenced me and at the time you could see that travel would change in how it distributes its wares," Brindle says. David Radcliffe, HRG CEO, could also see how business travel would need to change route. The two joined forces at HRG and in 2000 the company delisted from the London Stock Exchange. With Radcliffe at the helm and Brindle in IT it set a course to become a total business travel service provider underpinned by a technology platform that had not been seen before in business travel.
"One client talks of HRG as being like Harrods department store, and how it is easier to get everything in Harrods than walk up and down the high street," he says. Airlines still dominate the industry, "as they are the paramount form of travel".
The strategy is paying off as recent figures demonstrated, with year-end results up to March this year showing a six per cent increase in revenues. Significant contract wins include broadcaster Sky, the Nationwide Building Society, computer manufacturer Lenovo, while Barclays, HSBC, PwC, Sony, Prudential, News Corporation and BNP Paribas have all renewed deals with HRG.
"Technology remains a critical success factor in our business; even more so during tough economic times," the company said. "Our decision, made some years ago, to develop and own our technology has proved to be the right one since it gives us the necessary flexibility to ensure that our focus remains on serving the individual needs of our clients."
However, HRG is going through a period of change.
"The fragmentation of the distribution model is why we developed the platform. If a business is to be in control of how it will change, it needs to be in charge of its direction," Brindle says of the decision to develop its Universal Super Platform (USP), which underpins the HRG business. USP connects to all the Global Distribution Systems (GDS), which distribute air, car and hotel inventories. Brindle claims that a large part of the decision to develop the platform was down to the skilled staff within HRG and their in-depth knowledge of the industry.
HRG developed USP on Microsoft .Net and BizTalk Server technology. By opting to develop this platform, HRG had to become an early adopter of web services and a Microsoft house. Again, Brindle points to the deep business knowledge his IT team had, which enabled it to develop USP. "If you don't understand why you are doing a web service and what it will do for your business, then the length of development will go on forever."
Brindle has a team of 210 IT staff around the world, a development squad of 40 in the UK and smaller teams in Germany and Canada. PNMSoft is a key partner and he has recently begun to outsource some development to India in order to prevent his department becoming too unwieldy.
"The development director and I said we will not get over 50 developers," he says, with the knowing smile of someone who has spent a great deal of time managing programmers. Like Brindle, who has been with HRG since 1998, his IT team have a "solid length of service". This team was all put onto a skills development plan as the company moved onto the Microsoft .Net framework to keep the developers skills moving.
In the 11 years that Brindle has been at HRG his role has expanded, with distribution and a seat at the board being added to his IT leadership role. Brindle enjoys explaining the facets of travel, inventories and distribution systems are elements to the travel experience that we casual consumers pay little heed to, until it breaks down, but to Brindle it's the subtle plot line to a great movie.
"Human logistics is fascinating," he says. "Travel is entwined with the economy of a nation and the travel systems have become so important. The technology infrastructure of how we move people around is incredible."
Brindle grew up in the shadow of Gatwick airport in a time when travel was more innocent. Airport security was yet to rear its ugly head, he would wander about the airport and the smell of aviation fuel and the excitement of travel would be upon him.
With this level of enthusiasm, business and technology understanding, adding distribution to his list of responsibilities became natural, Brindle says. He explains that as the CIO he is responsible for the desktop experience of buying into travel. His technology portfolio connects to suppliers such as Trainline.com, Virgin Blue, Purple Parking and Premier Inn for servicing client requirements and it is the contracts with these suppliers for the passage of the client that is the distribution relationship.
Although revenue has increased at HRG, like all members of the travel industry HRG has felt the chill of the current global recession. Brindle explains that clients are expecting the same volume of business travel at a lower cost.
"I have had to restructure areas and we have had to go back to our suppliers and renegotiate deals, and if people left we didn't replace them." He said suppliers came to the table and deals were achieved that were mutually beneficial.
"I didn't want to cut too deep as it will slow down the platform development," Brindle says, and HRG has taken the recession as an opportunity to speed up the transfer of its newly-acquired businesses to the USP platform.
"In travel you acquire businesses and you find all sorts of systems and we are busily shutting them down, so we are investing in what we do. You make sure there is an RoI and that is where the relationship with the FD is very strong," he says. Speeding up the move to the USP will increase savings and deliver an RoI, he contends.
Brindle came to HRG after nine years at Amadeus, one of the main IT platforms in use within the travel and tourism sector, and his last role there was to set up technology teams developing systems for travel management companies. This involved critical integration projects, which was becoming critical and led to him working at HRG.
"Having been at Amadeus I have the advantage of knowing how everything comes together in travel, and it helps when dealing with suppliers," he says.
His first travel job was at British Caledonian Airways, which British Airways bought in 1988, prompting Brindle to leave.
"I didn't want to work on the Bath Road in Hounslow," he says of how the British airline industry, at the time, centred around BA. Caledonian is a rare company that many of its former employees form groups to celebrate their former careers and there is a wealth of websites dedicated to the now defunct airline.
"Caledonian was a great company and Sir Alan Templeman and Sir Freddie Laker were great leaders. The organisation was extremely friendly and people wanted to work together and be a team. It was very innovative."
A number of CIOs take to the skies at the weekend, and Brindle's office sports more than a few model aircraft and pictures of great planes like the Avro Vulcan, but Brindle doesn't fly himself.
"If I was to do it I'd have to go the whole way and become a commercial pilot," he says of his all-or-nothing character. Instead the CIO stays well and truly on terra firma at the weekends and is a keen cyclist, runner and horse rider.
"Anything I do is to keep me outdoors; I like riding bikes and running as you can switch off. Exercise is so important; I can get rid of a lot of stress."
Perhaps having turned IT into the cockpit from which HRG flies its business, he feels no need to reach high altitudes. Brindle and HRG have demonstrated how technology and the internet can be harnessed to remodel a business in a changing environment and use change as the navigation towards a new business destination.
CIOs should plan for their succession. In the current economy you could be forgiven for engineering yourself out of a job, but Bill Brindle at Hogg Robinson Group is one CIO who believes in succession planning.
"Identifying a succession plan is certainly sensible. If I get run over there must be someone who can pick up the ball and make sure that the people below them can do the same," he says.
The hardest part according to the CIO is taking the time to teach people how to your job well rather than always doing everything yourself. He sees many IT leaders who have made this mistake and have damaged their organisations and the careers of their teams as a result.
"If your people are not developing skills they just become expensive developers and not managers," he says.
Brindle doesn't agree with the current trend towards mentoring a chosen one who will become the CIO on your departure. "Mentoring on one person can make life difficult and gets others off-side," he says. Instead a wide group should be developed.