While retailing has been the focus of his career, Powell stresses his responsibilities have also included finance, along with manufacturing at PRG.
Nonetheless, he admits his 12 years with Marks & Spencer has made him attractive to New Zealand retailers, with Placemakers and the PRG approaching him with work offers.
Powell fell into IT by accident. He had wanted to join the British Royal Air Force (RAF). But, born in 1961, an 'odd' year, meant the RAF was not recruiting the year he left school in North Lincolnshire. Joining British Steel as a computer operator in 1977 was the next choice, but British Steel brought forward its recruitment that year, forcing the young school leaver to start on the shop floor of a Scunthorpe menswear retailer.
Fortunately Powell's career took off several months later, when he joined British Airways in London as a management trainee. This saw him work across various parts of the airline where he got into IT, first as computer operator, then senior operator and eventually shift manager, controlling the shifts of 19 staff.
A life in retail
Managing shifts led him to similar work with High Street retailer Marks & Spencer, providing support for Eftpos, stock, payroll and other systems.
Powell became Marks & Spencer's IT service centre manager, then IT operations manager, leading 100 staff. He eventually became IT project manager, heading an IT budget of over GBP100 million (around NZ$250 million) as the retail chain moved from ICL to IBM mainframes.
In 1995, Powell was put in charge of IT in Asia, with a Hong Kong-based role seeing the implementation of a variety of IT projects across the former British colony and South-East Asia.
There, Powell learnt Cantonese, building up a rapport with local workers, enjoying and accepting the local culture, which made him stay three years in Hong Kong, instead of an expat's usual single year.
But by then, Marks & Spencer was losing market share, and Powell had wanted to go back to his place of birth. So, with a young family in tow, Powell came to New Zealand in 1998. He became MIS service delivery and development manager at Farmers, then divisional manager of IT at Farmers Deka, controlling an annual $10 million IT spend.
PRG followed in 2001 as GM of IT. Powell joined Placemakers a year ago.
Being a business manager
Reflecting on his career, Powell says: "I'm not an IT person, I'm a business manager utilising my skills in IT. At PRG, Farmers, etc, the goal is to engage with my colleagues in commercial decisions as to how IT is an enabler."
As general manager, business systems at Fletcher Distribution, Powell is a member of the Placemakers executive team. "The chief executive and my peers expect me to be able to comment on sales and sales performance and work that needs to be done on product affinity and marketing. I will talk to people in English. If there's bits and bytes in there, I won't throw them around. It does not look good," he explains.
Placemakers, Powell continues, does not have a CIO, but he is effectively doing that role. Either way, CIOs or whatever they are called, he says, must be part of the executive team, able to engage people around commercial issues, as "the most important part of an IT team is business awareness".
Powell credits his financial and commercial awareness from his stint at Marks & Spencer, which also taught him structured processes.
"To be a good and successful head, you have to know the value proposition. Not just the cost of doing a project but the cost of not doing a project," he says. Projects may also avoid cost as well as give a benefit and managers need to say over how long the benefits may accrue.
"If IT executives haven't got financial acumen, they will struggle, especially in this environment. New Zealand is far more cost conscious than other countries," Powell adds.
Road maps show the way
A major part of his role is writing a "technology/business systems road map" which Powell describes as "a living document". It takes three to six months to write and is "refreshed" annually. The road map features a focus of 12 to 18 months, giving indicative projects 12 to 18 months away and guidelines beyond then.
The road map shows the business strategy, the strategic requirements at a commercial level and the vision pushing it through. From this, come the projects to fit the strategy.
Creating the road map involves interviewing the joint venture partners at the branches, sitting down with other business managers and talking with them. The road map is also shared with suppliers who are constantly told that Placemakers looks for value and suppliers need to understand the business and respond to its changes.
"It all comes back to being a business manager, rather than IT manager. The focus is around commercial problems, how we do things, purchasing, planning, where are the gaps," he explains. "We (also) need to understand the current environment to create the business systems road map. That approach was ingrained into me at Marks & Spencer."
In recent years, Placemakers has enjoyed double-digit growth, with new branch openings, giving the company around 50 overall, outlets which are 49.9 per cent owned by the storekeeper.
"We have control but the guys in the branch are the entrepreneurial sports. They create relationships and service them," explains Powell.
As the distribution arm of Fletcher Building, Placemakers employs around 100 people at its Panmure head office, with around 2500 in the stores nationally.
The desktops and Intel-based servers are Dell, with HP at Unix level, with Microsoft software.
Placemakers sees challenging times ahead as residential building consents fall, so to stay ahead of the competition it must offer the best customer service, and this is reflected in the technology/business systems road map.
One project is giving sales staff Telecom Harriers or iMates, fitted with the Simplicity CRM tool from Segar Associates. The aim is to help sales staff service trade customers by using one simple device to manage their details such as visits and orders.
The buying office, which helps determine what is sold in the stores, also demands tools to accurately predict what customers will want. This needs a data warehouse, Powell says, "with Oracle and Business Objects being critically important", and "having an integrated ERP is also a major necessity".
Currently, Placemakers uses an ACE system from ECS of America, a specific-industry system, featuring project management, project ordering and POS running on a Unix system. But aged six years old, the system is not meeting the needs of all its customers, just some of them. Thus, Placemakers is looking at alternatives from other ERP specialists. "But the first responsibility is to visit ECS and tell them our business model has changed," says Powell. "If their products are okay, we will stick with them."
Placemakers also recognises a "need for speed" so is halfway through a frame-relay implementation with Telecom, which has already been completed in Auckland and the South Island.
When the new Mt Wellington branch opened early this year, Placemakers looked at telephony and installed an IPFX integrated platform - a Cisco-driven PC-based telephone exchange.
The converged PC-telephone system brings up customer account details through caller line ID instantly when they ring in.
The 'road map' has themes of 'create', 'change' and 'improve.' Under 'create' are the CRM and sales force automation projects. It also includes datawarehousing, using product information to drive buying and retail decisions.
'Change' sees projects including speeding up a current EDI-dominated e-business platform to include electronic interaction and collaboration with suppliers. Decision reporting will also change. Instead of using reporting tools for everything, Placemakers will focus on the top 10 and bottom 10 KPIs and drill down further on them using the 80:20 rule. This means having 80 per cent of improvement coming from 20 per cent of effort categories.
Under 'improve,' the Ace ERP system will be reviewed. There will be an e-business program to turn Placemakers into an electronic business. Legacy systems will also be improved. For example, some branches are trialling GPS for tracking trucks. Powell says he has built a relationship diagram to show his colleagues how the road map should work.
Diversity of experience
Indeed, it is how Powell has brought structures and systems, coupled with his wider commercial expertise, that brings forward most praise from present and former colleagues.<p/>Placemakers CEO David Worley says Powell's background lets him clearly see the challenges and priorities at Placemakers.
"That brings much to the firm. We are able to prioritise correctly. His diversity of experience gives him a very commercial perspective, which means we have a few large important things that we are focussing on - legacy platforms, e-business, and the supply chain. He brings clarity of thought, has a good enquiring mind and makes others on the executive team think harder," states Worley.
Steve McIntosh, formerly of PRG, and now infrastructure services manager of the Noel Leeming Group, refers to Powell's structures that are probably unique and follow best practice. "It always goes back to structure, they stand out," he says. "He brought a structure to the company that was lacking before."
Powell also has an 'open door' policy where staff can bring him any problem.
He keeps abreast of technology with such knowledge and experience that "no one can pull the wool over his eyes", says Macintosh.
Rate your challenges
When interviewing business executives, MIS asks them to rate the most challenging elements of their job.
Here, Brent Powell reveals his challenges from top to bottom as general manager, business systems, Fletcher Distribution.
Strategy and planning
Getting the support of board and CEO
Finding and motivating the right staff
Getting support of other company stakeholders (including users)
Keeping projects on time and on budget
Powell's pointers for managing people and technology:
Always make sure that the business is involved in the strategic planning process and that the outputs are validated and signed off by them.
The key is making it a commercial document, avoiding excessive technology-speak and filling the papers with "bits and bytes".
Keep the lines of communication open at all times.
"Make sure you provide relevant and meaningful information in plain language and small doses, and don't blind them with science or baffle them with bullshit!"
When recruiting staff, don't make rash decisions.
The recruitment process is best done through criteria based interviewing. Define the qualities you're looking for in the candidate and get hard evidence of situations where they have used those qualities.
Don't be swayed by what a candidate thinks they would do in a situation - the selection should be based on what they've actually done. And always act with integrity through the recruitment process. Keep your promises to the candidate at all times.
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.