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Changing jobs: the retailers who have moved vendor side

Once a retailer, always a retailer? Not necessarily.

With such advances in technology over the last few years, there are a number of senior retailers that have opted to switch sides and start working for the vendors that once tried to sell to them.

It's nothing unusual in business, but why do people make the move and are there any common challenges? Essential Retail caught up with former Boots CIO Jonathan Vardon, Figleaves.com founder Michael Ross and ex-Marks & Spencer (M&S) eCommerce programme manager Craig Smith to find out what life is like on the other side.

Jonathan Vardon, head of retail, UST Global. Former CIO at Boots

What have been the main challenges you've faced since switching from retailer to tech vendor?

I'm not sure I would call them challenges – the opportunity is for me to see how CIOs see IT vendors and how I can help to bring my experience of sitting on their side of the desk to benefit them. It's strange not taking the final decision for the retail organisations I work with, but that's something that I'll get used to. The biggest difference I've found is the amount of travel I'm undertaking as I spend time with as many of my global customers as possible – I think my family (who live in Yorkshire) are still getting accustomed to that!

What was your main reason for switching sides?

Aside from UST Global being a rapidly growing organisation that I admire with very strong ethics and a fantastic customer list, it was the opportunity to broaden my skillset and experience beyond that which was possible in my previous roles. I now have the opportunity to engage and work with many different retail organisations, some global and others country specific, offering me a rare insight into the varied business and IT challenges/opportunities they are facing across different geographies. 

This, along with a much wider and deeper understanding of the technology solutions and partners, ranging from heavy lifting activities such as legacy modernisation, infrastructure management, supply chain and point-of-sale to leading digital propositions on big data, analytics, mobility, eCommerce, social, personalisation and cloud, provides me with the sort of insight and experience that wouldn't have been possible when looking at a single organisation's IT and business plan. 

I'm now in a much stronger position to leverage this insight from both sides of the table to offer our customers the right solutions for their business based on a real understanding of the pressures they face accompanied with industry wide knowledge of the right solutions to meet their needs.  

Can you sum up the major retail highlights in your career to date?

Clearly, my time as CIO for the UK's leading pharmacy-led health and beauty retailer was a major highlight. The company was on a transformation journey to meet the needs of its customers amid a changing business landscape. The transformation was one of the biggest agendas in UK retail – including an industry first CRM loyalty solution across the 17 million loyalty card customers, supply chain fulfilment systems, international and domestic multichannel capability, mobility solutions, contactless in-store payment and a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to simplify the legacy estate, all to enable the organisation to have a customer focused lens and respond in a more agile way.

What are your key plans for the 12 months ahead?

Craig Smith, director at REPL Digital. Former eCommerce programme manager at M&S.

What have been the main challenges you've faced since switching from retailer to tech vendor?

Innovation has become the lifeblood of the retail sector in recent years, but staying ahead of the technology curve is perhaps even more important for the tech vendor than it is for the retailer. As a supplier you absolutely have to come up with new and innovative approaches and ideas – ideas which present compelling reasons for retailers to partner with you. Fortunately this is the bit that I enjoy most, and the area in which REPL Digital has quite rightly built its reputation.

What was your main reason for switching sides?

It was always my plan, in truth. I've always wanted to be in retail, and at the cutting edge of the technologies which are driving change in the sector. But it felt important that first I should experience first-hand the challenges of working for a large international multichannel retailer, in order that I would be better able to identify and develop products and solutions that best address the real-world problems facing these businesses.

Can you sum up the major retail highlights in your career to date?

I think it's important to understand both the buying and selling sides of retail, and I've been lucky enough to have worked on both sides since I was very young. It started as a teenager, working at my father's business on the shopfloor of Evans Cycles in London Waterloo, and then moved on to working with tier one retailers like Tesco, Sainsbury's, Lidl & Michaels Stores (in the US) to improve their efficiencies in buying and merchandising. My last role before REPL Digital was at Marks & Spencer, where I am probably best known for leading on the in-store digital innovation in recent years.

What are your key plans for the 12 months ahead?

REPL Digital is already growing at a huge rate, and this is something we're all committed to continuing over the year ahead. Although we work with retailers across the full spectrum of digital innovation, a lot of our focus in the next 12 months is likely to be around in-store digital in particular. This is an area which I think retailers are really starting to understand and get to grips with, and where REPL Digital has a huge amount of specialist expertise and experience. I think 2015 is going be incredibly exciting, both for in-store digital innovation and for REPL Digital.

Michael Ross, founder of OrderDynamics, and ex-CEO and founder of Figleaves.com.

What have been the main challenges you've faced since switching from retailer to tech vendor?

The omnichannel world is a complex beast and hard to optimise. As a retailer (I was founder and CEO of online lingerie retailer Figleaves), it took me seven years to understand that some elements of the industry were more important for driving profit than others – and these differ for every retailer.

Today's retail business model is far more complex than many people understand and has a different growth structure. Retail is going through a complete transformation in terms of what customers want, what retail looks like and the technologies required to succeed.

Initially, it was a challenge transitioning from the role of 'poacher' to that of 'game keeper' in the retail world but I feel much more at home on this side of the fence.

What was your main reason for switching sides?

Today's retailing world and the data it generates need to be understood for businesses to make money. How do you articulate to other businesses a vision that demonstrates adding value when getting to the right answer is only one piece of a very complex model?

Despite taking Figleaves' turnover from £0 to £25 million, I never felt I was a natural retailer. I'm a mathematician and immersing myself in all the data generated – and making sense of it – is where I feel comfortable.

Can you sum up the major retail highlights in your career to date?

I've organised a Jeff Bezos [Amazon CEO] vs. Anna Kournikova tennis match to launch Figleaves.com in the US and launched Elle McPherson's lingerie line in Europe. However, my personal highlight was launching our Dynamic Action tool and watching it change the way our clients approach trading.

Brooks Brothers is a great example. The company knew it was missing opportunities on its website but didn't know where to look. When they started using Dynamic Action, they found £1.4 million of sales opportunity. Knowing that I helped them to solve the problem I grappled with at Figleaves was a highlight for me.

What are your key plans for the 12 months ahead?

Retailers are approaching a digital industrial revolution and we are creating tools that will be key to online retailing for the next 12 months to 20 years. It's a disruptive time for retailers and it's no longer enough to know what happened; they need to know what will make a difference. We want to change the conversation in the Monday-morning kick-off meeting from "what happened?" to "what are we going to do?"