As Tania Howarth approaches the CIO editorial team in the foyer of the company headquarters under the flightpath of Heathrow we hardly realise we are in the company of one of Britain’s leading CIOs.
This isn’t a detrimental facet, far from it, it is just the unassuming nature of Howarth; instead of power play, she shows an immediate concern for your welfare. It would be easy, nigh on crass to put this down to Howarth being a mother, but throughout the interview, you are constantly reminded by Howarth that her heady achievements are not purely singular and have been as part of a team.
Just two weeks prior to CIO catching up with Howarth she and her team had successfully completed the IT split away from Unilever. Birds Eye and its overseas brand Iglo had been part of the Unilever consumer goods empire until 2006 when it was sold to a private equity group. Stepping off the Unilever ship, Birds Eye found itself with no IT infrastructure at all and only an agreement with Unilever to use its systems until this summer. Switching to its own IT infrastructure was the final severance from Unilever.
“The challenge we now have is to change the culture and programming of the organisation,” Howarth says. “We have been dependent on Unilever for back office and systems and that has affected the ways we do things. Now we are a medium-sized business and to grow it will mean a very different environment.”
“When you are part of a big business bad results don’t feel as real. When it’s a smaller organisation it feels very real,” she says realistically. “We are not small, but not large.”
Howarth joined Birds Eye when Martin Glenn, the food manufacturer’s CEO, approached her with the “difficult IT issue” of Birds Eye being cast off with no IT. “There was nothing, the separation was made in eight countries, none of which had worked together before.” Howarth arrived to build a green-field system with the organisation being underpinned by a 12-month transition service agreement with Unilever. “It was very exciting to build from scratch, to build my own destiny with no horrible legacy that we all spend our careers having to work with,” she says with a nod to her former CIO roles and colleagues.
Birds Eye was sold in November 2006, with Howarth joining the company in April 2007. The greatest challenge she faced was not to disturb the business, while at the same time switching it over to a new infrastructure. “The business has not missed a beat,” she says with understated pride. “We’ve all aged and there were difficulties, but we had massive levels of energy from everyone involved. I told my team, ‘I have never experienced a team that was literally thrown together, do such a fantastic job and I couldn’t ask any more’.” She believes the reason they all channelled so much of their energy into the project is that it -became personal for them.
Howarth used her business heritage to plan for the worst and didn’t set sail on a course that blindly believed in technology. When introducing a warehouse automation system she made sure the business could operate without the IT systems in case the worst happened. “We dusted off the Y2K plans,” she jokes.
It hasn’t always been easy, and Howarth realised the scale of the task just six weeks into the job. “I realised that it couldn’t be done in a year and for the cost that the due-diligence had said,” she says of the separation. As a result, Howarth and the management team negotiated an extension to the Unilever transition contract.
With some extra room to manoeuvre, Howarth set about designing the IT from which would enable Birds Eye to sail away alone from the Unilever port. She selected an SAP enterprise application system for all areas of the organisation except HR on an IBM platform with Fujitsu as the data-centre partner. Satyam Computer Services was chosen as the application development partner. “They have been outstanding, which is often not what you hear about consultants,” she says.
With so much work to do in such a small amount of time, Howarth had little choice but to outsource much of the work. She hired a small permanent team and then contractors were sourced. “The team was a pioneer team rather than a bunch of consultants,” she says, and is keen to point out that the group she had did not exhibit any of the weaknesses and poor loyalty CIOs regularly see among contractors. “Even if you hire in contractors, they should really feel that they work for you. They all worked horrendous hours. Throughout everything the goal was clear, the consequences were clear.” Howarth believes the loyalty may have come from the fact that “they felt they had air cover from me in case it did go wrong”.
As with the season, January and February 2008 were “dark months”. Howarth recounts how in a team meeting she could read on every single face the demand that the deadline be pushed back, and when she refused, every face told her “you are a mad woman”.
Tania Howarth: CV
1984-1985: Trained as an accountant with Price Waterhouse
1985-1994: Various project and IT systems management positions at ICI and Sun Microsystems
1994-2003: Walkers Snack Foods, a division of PepsiCo in the UK. CIO from 1998
Coca-Cola European and African Groups
April 2007-present: CIO and group
HR director for
Birds Eye Iglo
“But we got over it and it [refusing to move the deadline] was probably the best thing we did.” She focused the team on managing the risk and she noticed then that their confidence grew and as a result there were “little victories”. “Fundamentally they believed that it could be done.”
Howarth’s “air cover” support extended beyond the Middlesex office and across the planet to India. She took CEO Glenn to India to personally meet the Satyam developers working on the separation.
“That earned a lot of kudos. To [outsourcing partners] the brand often means little and we are often faceless to them. Martin [Glenn] came and met the team and told them they held his business in their hands. You must give them the face of the customer,” she says.
Glenn “threw down the gauntlet” to Howarth having worked with her at Pepsi. “I wouldn’t have taken the job if it wasn’t working for him, the trust had to be there,” she said of the challenge and personalities involved. That trust was tested as well. When Howarth realised that the original 12-month separation was impossible she knew she could go to Glenn and “talk through the alternatives and make recommendations”.
Her appreciation for Glenn is clear. “His style is something I connect with and I am trying to blend that into my work. He’s a great simplifier of complex issues and has a laser intellect,” she says. This works to his advantage according to Howarth, who says “people want to do their best for him and be in his orbit”.
Her husband has also played an important role in her career. When it became clear that two careers couldn’t ensure a balanced and healthy life for their two children, he gave up work.
“It was getting to the point when it would kill one of us,” she quips. Howarth is relaxed and philosophical and believes her pursuing a career has been beneficial for her son and daughter. Her husband had been in the sales side of consumer goods and moved into project management where he experienced the IT world. Coming home one night he asked her, “How can you work with these people?” From then on it was clear, he would step off the career ladder and let Tania reach the heights she has.
Howarth’s career has centred on the food industry, with her CV reading like every schoolboys dream diet, including stints at Pepsi brand Walkers, rivals Coca-Cola and now frozen food giant Birds Eye. It was at Pepsi that she met Glenn, before Coca-Cola approached her. “Consumer goods is a great space and you can motivate people around the brands,” she says of the advantages of the sector and how it helped with Birds Eye separation. Howarth never intended to have a career staple of food companies, but she enjoys the fast-moving consumer goods space. “The customer is so important because of customer management and product pricing.”
Howarth arrived in the IT world by accident. The quietly spoken Geordie did languages at university in Manchester. “I guessed that there was no decent money in this and I thought about accountancy and did train with Price Waterhouse, but I found auditing tedious,” she says.
Chemical giants ICI had a well-regarded graduate training scheme at the time and had a new IT division that required non-technical graduates. Howarth applied and was successful. “I loved it and set up helpdesks when that was very new, I learnt to program in Cobol, but I was really bad at it. So I convinced them I could be better used.” So she went, via a manufacturing division to their London HQ.
From ICI Howarth took the unlikely step of joining an IT vendor, Sun Microsystems. “It was time to move and see something else. ICI was a lovely place to work, fun jobs, paternalistic management, but not cut-throat, and I wanted to experience the vendor side,” she says of the move.
“Sun is the polar opposite of ICI. ICI is the professional uncle, Sun the spotty teenager. Sun was very high-energy, a bit chaotic, but with a global team and a tough user base it was a fantastic opportunity. I learnt a lot about global team working. It is good to see the inside, as a purchaser of a service it gives you an insight into their business. And I learnt a lot about sales commission!” Interestingly, Howarth the CIO has never bought any Sun systems: “The opportunity never arose,” she says.
In 1994 the Pepsi group approached her. The soft drinks giant had just acquired crisps manufacturer Walkers and Howarth joined to integrate the two. “It was a good time, it was a well established company, but there were a lot of new people about. It is a very results-focused organisation.”
“I was really nosey about the business and then it became about solving problems,” she says of her time at ICI which set her on the way to becoming a CIO. “If you are standing up and telling people that there is a better way to do things, you had better know the business quite well.”
Martin Glenn, CEO, Birds Eye Iglo
Martin Glenn was appointed CEO of the Birds Eye Iglo Group in November 2006 as it split away from Unilever. He had led the bid for Birds Eye made by equity group Permira.
Glenn, like CIO Tania Howarth, had been at the soft drinks maker Pepsi, where he spent 14 years, mostly in the Walkers Snack Foods division. His career there began as a marketing director in 1992 and ended as CEO before taking on the responsibility for the Pepsi company across the UK and Ireland.
Glenn has managed to be leading businessman and retain a sense of responsibility and community. At Birds Eye he had committed the company famous for its fish fingers to using sustainably caught fish, and works with the Marine Stewardship Council. At Walkers he promoted employee volunteering.
Business, not technology
Understanding the business and people are still the passions that get Howarth out of bed every morning. “Fundamentally the reason I love the job I do is the people, not the technology. It’s a people business, like any general management role,” she says of being a CIO. That interest in people has seen Howarth’s responsibilities at Birds Eye extended to include HR. CIOs are often given change management or supply chain responsibilities, and some CFOs add the CIOs role to their quiver, but human resources is not a common addition. “HR is a hobby of mine. IT people are intrinsically about delivering transformation of the way you work. IT people get the process, but typically don’t get the people change management needs. HR get the people dynamics, but they often don’t get the process bit.” Howarth, with her IT and change background and clearly visible people skills aims to meld the two together. Having spent a little time in Howarth’s company, it is not difficult to imagine she will succeed in joining HR and IT in a mutually conducive relationship that has never been conceived of before.