dominic howson

While not the inventors of sliced bread, innovation has been integral at Hovis since the bakery began life in 1886, when miller Richard "Stoney" Smith discovered a new way to separate wheat germ from flour. The changes introduced by Supply Chain Planning and IS Director Dominic Howson have a more digital edge, and have helped save a significant amount of dough.

Howson joined Hovis in 2014, and promptly set about moving the organisation to the cloud. His team now uses the new infrastructure to roll out a host of new apps, which help Hovis delivers 1.3 million loaves of bread per day.

These include a trade promotions platform called BluePlanner that was nominated for a UK IT sector transformation award.

Hovis has also launched a sales order processing system that provides a single web-based location from which staff can process all orders and communicate with customers. It was built internally with Microsoft's .NET framework, running on Azure and a serverless SQL platform.

Enterprise apps

"It gives us our demand planners and our commercial teams and our supply teams instant access to all our orders, whatever the source is. That enables us to handle breakdowns and allocations of issues, if we've got customer problems or factory problems, or road logistic problems," he said.

His team is also rolling out a product shortage notification system, a mobile version of a breakdown reporting system for bakeries and mills.

Hovis is best known as one of Britain's biggest bread bakers, but the company is also a milling business that processes more than 800,000 tonnes of wheat per year, and supplies flours to bakers and food manufacturers across the country. A new milling app has been developed to help ensure each customer gets the product they want.

"We've got ingredients that are specific to an individual customer," says Howson. "Mark & Spencer, for example, only allow us to use certain ingredients in their products.

"We need to get that right by getting that systemised, so that when we get the approvals, it's all marked and stamped and it's not done spreadsheets or bits of paper. That improves our business compliance."

Cloud journey

Howson joined Hovis in 2014, after US private equity firm The Gores Group bought a 51% slice of the company from former sole owner Premier Foods for £30 million.

The new IS Director immediately set his sights on migrating to the cloud, and has now moved the last of the legacy applications from on-premise to online.

"I'm a big cloud advocate," he says. "We're cloud by default in this business, so we don't own any of our own assets. Whether it runs on infrastructure as a service, or it's public cloud, or it's software-as-a-service, that's how we run as a business.

"It makes us quite agile, in terms of the size of our organisation. You don't have an infrastructure that weighs you down."

Howson is cloud provider agonistic and runs services in Google, Microsoft and AWS. He continues to look out for tactical transitions in the cloud, and is considering making Hovis one of the first customers to use SAP's public cloud ERP platform.

His next big move will likely be to Amazon Workspace, the virtual cloud desktops service that runs on AWS.

The move is an example of Hovis' utility computing business model, which makes new IT systems scalable and affordable.

"When we set the business up, it was about pay for what you use, not having big assets sweating there and then never being fully utilised," Howson explains.

"That's what we would like to get to with AWS, once we think the desktop solution is robust enough."

Sliced-bread innovation Hovis

Hovis has also launched a cloud HR solution, which serves as a one-stop shop for employee information.

Staff can use the hub access a full range of services on demand, including corporate news, performance development, and perks such as childcare vouchers.

The software helps Hovis recruit staff through its own website, which Howson estimates has halved its external recruitment costs.

The success of the system shows the benefits of links between IT and other departments in the company.

"I've worked with our HR director for 10-15 years, and he's very robust around the process is in the system," says Howson. "Having that adherence to the processes in the business is very powerful."

This emphasis on collaboration extends to the Hovis CEO, who was closely involved in the development of a new robotic process automation system.

It currently carries out IT access tasks such as creating accounts in Google and Windows, and is beginning to master data transactions and could soon be extended to other Hovis services in the cloud.

"It improves reliability and quality and they run 24/7," says Howson. "You can just schedule them doing all sorts of different work. I've already got a pipeline of stuff to get done in robotics next year, particularly in finance and HR."

Crucial ingredients

Howson admits that communicating digital throughout the organisation still needs further work, which is one of the reasons he's so keen to give different teams their own digital platforms.

The strategy appears to be working based on the uptake across the company. The apps have been embraced by everyone from factory workers booking their holidays on the HR platform, to senior directors using Blueplanner to manage promotional activities.

Blueplanner was developed in partnership with UpClear, a global provider of enterprise software. Howson's IT vendor strategy blends big corporates, SMEs and startups, who can offer innovative solutions to perennially industry problems.

Howson is currently assessing whether a startup could solve a perennial industry issue, by using IoT sensors to track stolen a bread basket.

Hovis' history of innovation has helped the company bake bread for more than 130 years and the basket tracking shows tech can still offer new solutions to ancient bakery problems.

"Our developers can sit there and knock out apps all day long," says Howson.

"Managing the pipeline of development is probably one of the hardest things because everyone keeps coming up with ideas."