Big interview: Eat financial director Strahan Wilson

UK sandwich shop chain Eat is looking to add around 100-120 new stores to its portfolio over the next three years, with the business aiming to strengthen its position in its London heartlands and enter new major cities across the country.

New to the organisation is financial director Strahan Wilson, who joined Eat in December 2013 and is working with the other members of the senior team to implement a more agile way of operating. It is an approach involving collaboration between departments.

Investment in technology and using new systems represents a key part of the process, according to Wilson, who argues that deployment of technology is increasingly becoming a source of differentiation in terms of a business's success, but for it to have a true impact, departmental silos must be broken down.

Wilson told Essential Retail: "One of the things we've done since I joined is to sit down as a board of directors and say 'what is it that will make the biggest difference to Eat in the forthcoming years and what does that look like as a cross-functional project?' and then asking 'what is the operational context and marketing context and, very importantly, what is the IT context of it?'

"This effectively allows us to align the IT resource behind those projects, and you end up doing projects that are important for growth rather than projects that are intellectually or technically interesting, and perhaps not as value-added."

The financial director says that Eat's board meetings are increasingly moving away from an historical review of financials and much more towards steering group or project management type meetings, which include conversations with marketing, communications and IT.

Eat is partly owned by Lyceum Capital after the private equity firm took a stake in the business in 2011, and has been led by former managing director of Costa Retail, Adrian Johnson, since January 2013. These major changes in ownership and management have taken the retailer in a new direction from its owner-managed early days, under the stewardship of co-founders Niall and Faith MacArthur, helping position the company for further growth in the coming years.

"We're at an interesting transition point now because the beauty of entrepreneurial culture is the speed of the decision making but the downside is perhaps you are beholden too much to the original founder," said Wilson.

"We're at that point now where we are trying to retain all that is good about an entrepreneurial company but bring in certain structures – investment in future and strategic direction, for example – where we can make fewer mistakes than we perhaps did in the past. We don't want to become a large company from a bureaucratic perspective but we want to leverage all that is good about good process."

One new processing tool introduced by Eat in recent months is Anaplan, which is a platform the company is using to manage its financial planning and analysis processes, including reporting and integrated planning. The implementation of the software does not involve external agency involvement and allows the Eat team to calculate all costs by year, week and store, as well as pull data together for monthly reports that can be used in board meetings.

For Wilson, whose career has seen him hold commercial roles at fast food chains Burger King and KFC-owner Yum! Restaurants, Anaplan is a well-known vendor – and the director was keen to implement the system on his arrival at Eat. The introduction of the technology, he acknowledged, has increased the pace of the planning process and ensured the business has a more immediate, one-click view of its financial plans, as opposed to multiple spreadsheets.

"It was a case of how can we scale the business without putting the organisation under undue pressure," explained Wilson.

"If we are opening two or three stores a month it would be someone's role – or two or more people's role – to actually do all of that. Anaplan is a central plank towards facilitating that growth – both in reducing administrative burden of scaling but also in providing the insight we need to understand our business, as our attention gets diverted to quite an aggressive growth plan."

Anaplan, which is used by international brands including drinks company Britvic, is just one of a number of tech investments Eat is currently directing its money towards.

Key focus areas for the company are, Wilson noted, on how to link loyalty and marketing messages with technology, and how to move tills from behind the counter to directly in front of the customer.

He described these points as "the two major strands of our IT development over the coming two years", and revealed that a mobile till pilot in its Ropemaker Place London store has been successful and will be rolled out to further outlets in the coming months.

"Mobile marketing is absolutely where we want to be," he explained.

"We don't have the budgets of the multinationals but because of the density of our population and stores, proximity marketing works very well for us."

Working collaboratively across departments, as Wilson acknowledged is now a feature of the Eat workplace, will be important in ensuring such projects bring further commercial results for the business. Previous experience at the likes of Burger King and KFC, where there are a number of franchise partners making up the structure of the organisation, has seemingly taught him that business-wide buy-in is a crucial facilitating factor.

"The company-owned stores were highly innovative – because speed of service is absolutely imperative in our business sector – but you have to take everyone with you."

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