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Grant Taylor of Acland Holdings: The route from CIO to COO-plus

Grant Taylor of Acland Holdings: The route from CIO to COO-plus

“I don’t talk technology much these days, I talk outcomes for the business,” says Taylor who held a succession of ICT roles before moving into operations.

I wanted to be more than just the IT guy. I wanted to be involved in the running of the business and at a senior executive level.”

Grant Taylor, Acland Holdings

“We are pure cloud, absolutely, not hybrid cloud, we don’t have any servers. All businesses will be run this way in the future.”

Grant Taylor, chief operating officer at Acland Holdings, has overseen a massive business transformation in the past year at international design company and New Zealand brand, Citta Design.

While the company has been in business for 20 years, and has grown to more than 180 staff, it did not have a chief operating officer prior to Taylor being appointed.

The owners wanted someone who had skills in systems and warehousing who could look after the day to day running of the business, as well as provide oversight for human resources, finance, and marketing and sales, explains Taylor.

“In this business, I run everything, except design and buying,” he says. The latter is run by our founder, Margot Acland, who runs the product team.

“We are a creative company, design is critical,” Taylor says. “What I brought to the table was commercial thinking and how we actually take it to market, how we operate behind the scenes to make it efficient and make the customer experience really great.”

He also brought with him business technology nous, honed from his ICT executive roles within government and the private sector.

Before moving to Citta in May last year, Grant was CIO at Kathmandu, the outdoor clothing and equipment supplier.

Read more: 'When we get it right, IT is the sewage system of the 21st century'

The retail chain was a “fast-paced environment,” says Taylor, who had previously been at the Southern District Health Board where he was CIO for nearly three-and-a-half years.

He was at Kathmandu for nearly five years and during that time the retail chain transformed its systems. He and his team completed a move to Microsoft Dynamics AX, part of an overhaul of the core business systems.

When he moved to Citta, the first thing he tackled was warehousing. “We made a lot of changes in our warehouse and we now do daily deliveries to all our stores.”

Citta Design stores are located in Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton and Christchurch; and in Sydney, Australia. Overseas, specialist retailers and department stores stock their products in Korea, Japan Hong Kong, Singapore, UK and Canada.

Read more: How to not become 'the last video store on the street'

The company also became the first retailer worldwide, to go live with the Azure(cloud)-based ERP Dynamics AX from Microsoft.

Photo by Divina Paredes
Photo by Divina Paredes

We are pure cloud, we don’t have any servers. All businesses will be run this way in the future.

Grant Taylor, Acland Holdings

‘All in the cloud’

Read more: Retailer Kathmandu moves to AWS cloud

He firmly believes Citta is providing the template for what businesses will be doing in the future.

“Everyone is going to be running their ERP as ‘software as a service’. They are not going to host their own 'tin',” he states.

“What we are doing here is we are running a single Active Directory environment with file imprint replication, with BI, SharePoint, Office 365 all in the cloud.

“Everything works with simple sign on and our network is UFB with 4G backup,'' he explains. “That means all we need to run our systems is an internet connection.”

Taylor says the cloud-based platform provided a single source of data for real-time analytics on stock, sales and customer behaviour. As well, it provided the foundation to run more innovative technologies across different channels.

“Just basically having a full understanding and knowing where the stock is in your network, is important to create an omnichannel experience,” he says.

This means knowing where your stock is when someone comes into the store, in the branch or online.

“Thus the customer can buy an item online and have it delivered to their home, or reserve the stock through click and collect and pick it up in one of the stores.”

Taylor says Citta is currently implementing CRM for AX, which will provide a platform for the company's loyalty programme.

“That is the next cab off the rank.” he says. “It's how we brand ourselves, how we work with customers and what opportunities we can put in place around this.”

He says the previous model was built around Infrastructure as a Service, which proved to be costly and had performance issues.

“We would go through multiple screens to place a purchase order; it was poorly configured. Now we can do this with considerably fewer steps.

“We now have more functionality and better performance, and it is cheaper operationally.”

He was also able to restructure the IT team.

“It is very lean," he explains. “I turned the IT manager role into a business intelligence specialist. With cloud-based reporting, the organisation needs someone to talk to the business and deliver that reporting information. That is the value of IT, providing the insights.”

The second IT staff member takes care of desktop support and manages the infrastructure. “You need to keep your users happy.”

'We are a creative company...What I brought to the table was commercial thinking and how we actually take it to market, how we operate behind the scenes to make it efficient and make the customer experience really great.' - Grant Taylor, chief operating officer, Acland Holdings
'We are a creative company...What I brought to the table was commercial thinking and how we actually take it to market, how we operate behind the scenes to make it efficient and make the customer experience really great.' - Grant Taylor, chief operating officer, Acland Holdings

Transition and transformation

Taylor has shown how the CIO role can provide a great foundation in moving to a new role in the executive team.

''My CEO at Kathmandu [Peter Halkett] said the job of the CIO is to make anything possible and there are plenty of opportunities to remove technology from being a constraint in the business.

“The way to move forward and progress is to make IT accessible and enabling,” he states. “You have to be that person at the executive table.”

“I enjoyed my time in Kathmandu but I wanted to do more, to be more than just the IT guy. I wanted to be involved in the running of the business and at a senior executive level.”

This aspiration was partly fuelled by the fact that during his stint at the Southern District Health Board, he studied a master’s in business administration at the University of Otago.

By that time too, he has chalked up a range of ICT executive posts in other sectors.

In the early part of his career, Taylor was IT engineer at property firm Jones Lang LaSalle and was IT manager at both Fletcher Challenge Forests and PGG Wrightson. He had also honed his sales experience as branch manager at Gen-i (now Spark),

With that experience, he says, you could pick up on different management styles, “of things you like or don’t like”.

More and more, he felt, he could do well in an executive role transcending ICT.

A friend knew the owners of Citta Design and told them Taylor would be a good candidate for the role, following the work he did at Kathmandu.

What followed was a “very interesting recruitment process”, he says. “They talked to me for four to six months about what it would be like to be chief operating officer.

“I actually said ‘no’ to the position and told them to go to market and they did,” says Taylor.

The owners came back to him and offered him the role, which he accepted.

“It was a huge leap of faith for them,” he says. “I was running against CFOs and other COOs. At the end of the day, not many people back the IT guy to run the business.”

But the move turned out to be a good fit for both sides.

“We are a home design brand, and we manufacture our own products to a very high standard,” he says. “And when I first arrived, we realised we did not have anybody looking after our brand [full time].”

So he expanded the marketing team and worked very closely with the head of Marketing and Retail.

He explains that Citta Design does not have a chief digital officer, as both he and the head of Marketing work together towards building an omnichannel experience for their customers.

“Between the two of us and our different experiences, we are innovating on the platform and enhancing the customer experience.”

This collaboration means Citta has a raft of digital projects in the pipeline in this space.

“We have growth strategies across all our channels, including wholesale, retail, online and Australia,” he states.

Citta will open four new stores in the next four months, he says.

In October, the company will open the 600-square-metre flagship store in Newmarket. It will showcase the company's products, along with technologies that will focus on improving the customer experience.

Citta will also try out new retail programmes here and the successful ones will be rolled out across all the company stores.

'Our stores are where design consultants can demonstrate how the products looks when arranged in a room. Customers can then share these on Instagram and other social media sites.'
'Our stores are where design consultants can demonstrate how the products looks when arranged in a room. Customers can then share these on Instagram and other social media sites.'

For instance, we are thinking that during a busy season like Christmas, a member of the sales team can walk with the customer sending each order to a mobile POS (point of sale) device to the gift wrapping centre. The customer then picks up the items already gift wrapped, thus “busting the queue” during the holiday season, says Taylor.

Other projects in the pipeline include the ability to push mobile offers for customers who are members of the loyalty club.

"Our stores are where design consultants can demonstrate how the products looks when arranged in a room. Customers can then share these on Instagram and other social media sites."

Taking care of business

“I don’t talk technology much these days,” says Taylor. “I talk outcomes for the business.”

This was how he approached Citta’s cloud-based transformation programme.

He says the old implementation of Dynamics AX “was not very good” and using his contacts at Microsoft from the Kathmandu implementation, he was able to get the company into the Technology Adoption Programme for Azure-based (cloud) Dynamics AX.

He says this meant Citta and the implementation partner Sable37 worked directly with Microsoft out of the US. When Sable37 saw the product, there was no Australian or New Zealand dollar on the system.

“They actually helped create that with Microsoft as the local partner.”

“It was a real partnership,” says Taylor. “They gave it at a price we can afford and I was prepared to be flexible with the implementation, and let their people learn.”

He says being a case study for AX in this instance worked for the company.

“It has been great in terms of the attention we get from Microsoft, because my business is not big enough and we do not have a huge budget.”

He says taking on an agile approach to business delivery was important to the project’s success.

We prototyped, we refined,” as we went along, he says. “The goal post is always moving and if you are a bit of a traditional thinker who is into waterfall methodology, that is a hard thing to get around.

“I have worked with partners in the past who would like to scope everything to the nth degree, write a document that tells you what you are going to get and deliver to that document if they can,” he explains. “The issue with doing this is you only know what you know at that time. As you go to a project like this, it is like a discovery, you learn more.

“It is amazing that we are doing some really cool things done by companies that are bigger than us,” he concludes. “One of our advantages is we are small enough to be nimble and be able to do it.”

“Watch this space,” there is more to come, he says.

Citta Design is the first retailer worldwide, to go live with the Azure(cloud)-based ERP Dynamics AX from Microsoft.
Citta Design is the first retailer worldwide, to go live with the Azure(cloud)-based ERP Dynamics AX from Microsoft.

Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

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