The job of the CIO has changed dramatically, with leading executives having to adapt to new technology. Brent Curry, the CIO of leading South African clothing retail company, The Foshcini Group, offers an insight into the challenges.
Brent Curry is an experienced IT leader who has sat on The Foschini Group Board since 2015. Initially joining the company as an industrial engineer, Curry started by putting in a paperless ticketing system in place in the warehousing operation before progressing to the logistics department and then IT.
The company has slowly migrated a lot of the divisions and Curry now sits on the main board of all the Group’s territories – South Africa, Australia and the UK.
Overseeing a portfolio that covers IT, logistics, e-commerce and group marketing, Curry plays a key part in the company’s Digital Transformation strategy in an industry that is changing all the time.
The Foschini Group currently employs 25,000 people and comprises of 25 retail brands, including American Swiss, Next, Phase Eight, Sportscene and Totalsports.
The company also has a big financial services division and sells all insurance products, as well as making clothing. A lot of its work is based on technological trends, with customer service labs used to showcase the technology. Curry has been driving the digital side of the business for many years, including its e-commerce strategy and extending it into the mytfgworld brand.
How do you envisage the industry looking like in the next few years?
We’ve taken a view of what we think the retail future would look like in 2025 and have created concept videos of what we think our stores would look like. We’ve launched a mobile training app for our staff because data is very expensive in South Africa. It can look at training and how to serve a customer and how to operate different technologies through a training app.
We’re putting all the data together to have better data signs and opportunities with the customer and our planning systems are upgrading with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, as well as putting customer counters into store with conversion rates, rolling wi-fi to all our stores, having the right stock in the store, looking at the profile of the store and what customers are buying. We’re putting new planning systems in which use AI around forecasting customer behaviour. Customers can scan the product and see the availability in the store and other stories. We’ve also got digitised gift cards. When 16 to 25-year-olds come into our store, they want to shop differently, so we’ve got to address those needs and react to it.
Can you explain a recent solution that you helped implement and how successful has it been?
We launched our e-com in late 2014 and put in a strategy together. We then went to marketplace to look at what platform we could use if we wanted to use the e-com button more in the future. And the Oracle AVG offered that. One key thing that we wanted to differentiate was to have one check out, so if you go to any of our brands, you can shop across all of them and do one check out. The second one was that we could link it to our Private Label card. Half of our sales are done through our credit offering and a lot of those customers don’t have a credit card. We could therefore introduce them to shopping online and the Oracle platform offered us that. We’ve had no issues using it and it’s all primarily outsourced and hosted on a cloud base. It was a product where we could get resources from around the world to support, with its functionality meeting our long-term strategy.
Last year in South Africa was the real Black Friday for retailers. We doubled what we thought we would do and this year we had a 24% growth on last year, again way above our expectations and out-performing a lot of our competitors. It was one of the best in the industry.
What advice would you give to aspiring CIOs?
The job of the CIO has changed dramatically. I’m very fortunate that I sit on the board and our group realises that IT is critical, and it deserves to have a board position. A lot of CIOs report to the CFO, whose objective is to control costs or cut them and sometimes you’ve to got to invest money to make money. My role is more of an advisory one to the CEO. Our previous one took me to a lot of visits oversees when we were doing any due diligence on businesses, so I was party to all of those. I believe the CIO role is more a strategic advisor to the CEO and needs to research, looking at trends and talking to the partners. You’ve and you’ve got to have those traits in order to speak to senior people.
What is your managerial style?
The IT tole in the past was very functional where you just ran the systems, but today IT is a commodity and it’s easier to get solutions. So, you’ve got to collaborate, and I think my style is very much like that. I come from an engineering background and enjoy the innovation side. You’ve got to be a ‘product person’ who goes into a store and say, ‘we think if you did the following, you’re going to drive turnover’.
What would you say your typical day is like?
We’ve got 103 key projects running at any time, 50 of which are Tier 1 projects, then we have strategic plans that have dependencies. I have to make sure that each project has government teams and are all meeting deadlines. I’m driving new initiatives through IT teams and making sure they have the resources to do it. Then, on the business side, the change process is in place. Fortunately, we’ve had a very stable environment, so my day isn’t made of up of what we can do to fix some sort of instability.
What have been the main challenges you’ve had to overcome and what are the important lessons you’ve learnt in your career?
The biggest thing I’ve had to do is the development of people. In our Group, IT is a critical component, so I don’t have to sell it to them, which is a great asset. But the business doesn’t always know what it wants, so you have to have the skill sets. And thirdly, you need to have leaders in the IT driving them forwards, but also addressing the issues and I’ve spent the last couple of years developing the leadership team, which has been critical. A lot of people come from a technical background in IT, like coders, but sometimes they don’t have the managerial or visionary style that is needed. But you can develop people and I think that is key going forward.
What do you think is the biggest cyberthreat facing organisations today?
The biggest threat that we see in the retail and credit environment is ransom malware. We have our own cybersecurity centre where we have a lab monitoring all our stores, the head office and user behaviour. Also, data leak. In the UK, there is GDPR, in South Africa we have POPI, so we have to make sure that no data is extracted out of our environment. And with behaviour, if someone downloads terabytes of data, it flags up straight away in our cybersecurity centre. We can lock someone’s machine down or go to the person straight away. We’ve got about 4,500 people in our head office. Malware is the biggest one, but second to that is internal threats and how to protect yourself.
What can be done to tackle the skills shortages in IT?
We have a bigger problem in South Africa for a number of reasons. Through the academic process, in schools, you can drop mathematics and science after primary school level, so people can’t get into computer science and, if they did, they have found it difficult. But a lot of companies are starting academies to train people, so you don’t have to go to university for four years. We do try and get South Africans who have been to the UK for seven years to come back and entice them with bigger job offers and we’ve been relatively successful.