IT Underneath the Fashion: An Interview with BCBG MAX AZRIA's Kent Fuller
by Bill Keyworth
BSM Review's Bill Keyworth interviews Kent Fuller, Director of Enterprise Infrastructure Services at BCBG MAX AZRIA GROUP, a highly visible clothing design and retail business. In this interview, Kent reviews several successful IT initiatives that exemplify how IT at BCBG is creating better alignment with its business community.
Welcome Kent, let’s start with your current role and set of responsibilities within BCBG. Can you tell us a bit about what you do?
I report to the CIO of BCBG and my primary focus is IT Infrastructure, meaning that I don’t carry responsibility for the Applications side. At BCBG this encompasses Client Services which support corporate desktop and all retail store hardware, including Point of Sale and back office computers, as well as Level 2 support. Responsibility for LAN, WAN and Telecom networks are within my domain as well as the Help Desk which supports both the stores and corporate offices. I also have the systems engineering team which is responsible for the servers, datacenter, night operators and Microsoft Exchange.
What are some of your highest IT operational priorities right now from the business perspective?
Storage is high on the list. Our business requires that we retain a large number of photographs and grow that storage by 2 to 3 terabytes a year – so we need to replace or expand our current storage system. Given the large number of store and corporate locations deploying technology, certain capabilities within our active directory need to be enhanced. Due to our business growth, we’ve got end-of-life issues with our Exchange and phone systems, which prompt us to examine the feasibility of Cloud Computing and Voice Over IP (VOIP) as potential infrastructure alternatives for business reasons.
Supporting multiple types of internal transactions at the stores has created consideration for MPLS networking (i.e. multi-protocol label switching.) In addition, a huge percentage of our datacenter servers are end of life enabling serious evaluation of Virtual (VM) for purposes of flexibility and cost control. As is obvious, these are all big infrastructure projects driven by the changing needs of our business.
That’s a huge set of strategic initiatives for IT. Is there an expectation on the business side that IT is going to be able to pull that kind of infrastructure change within a reasonable time frame?
This is the interesting part of the priority discussion. Typical within the retail industry, BCBG is a very cash flow type company, so IT investments are highly dependent upon sales. With the tough economy in the last couple of years, the question is what will the business be willing to fund this year? And that is an ongoing discussion.
Who would you say is the customer of your IT organization?
My IT customer is pretty much every department and every store within BCBG. I support the corporate group and all the businesses, including wholesale, design, retail, etc. Within the company, IT Operations touches every business unit and every store. Obviously, BCBG’s customer is the buyer of our merchandise at our stores. We get most involved with that shopper in providing support for the Point of Sale device. We are the first line of support for our two POS systems and we resolve any issue with ringing up a sale such as the register being unable to have the correct markdowns and pricing.
Who determines if IT is being successful in resolving these business issues? …is it an executive committee? …is it the store managers?
Our value is pretty much determined at the store level. Any store level problem is quickly escalated to our retail operations team by the store’s sales person. We meet weekly with this Retail Operations Team and review outstanding tickets, unresolved problems, and stores with continued connectivity problems. For example, Puerto Rico has a lot of connectivity issues. We have time zone issues that surface in support of our store in Guam. Our IT focus is on the store customers …that is our business …and we've got to make sure that the sales clerks are able to sell and easily close the transaction …and they're not having to deal with interference from the technology infrastructure.
What are the metrics for success at the store level that determines whether or not IT is meeting their needs?
Well, one of the obvious metrics is “register down” as this impacts the sales transaction. Those become high, critical issues. Each night we pull all of the sales information back to corporate …and then push down through that calling process any markdowns or price changes. So if we have a store that’s experiencing multiple days of failed polling in either connectivity or register problems ...those get escalated rapidly within the company and we have daily processes where we work diligently to resolve those issues.
What is the visibility to the store managers of IT issues impacting their store operations?
Usually the store managers are aware of any open tickets that they may have. However, resolution responsibility from the business perspective resides with the Retail Operations Team here at corporate which takes a holistic view of IT issues at our weekly meeting. They bring up problematic stores that have repeated problems and together we discuss those in our weekly Retail Office Meeting that held at the corporate offices.
So the Point of Sales support team and the Help Desk team both participate in that Retail Operations Meeting. In addition we have what are called Relationship Managers which serve as the official liaison between IT and the business units …and they participate in the Retail Operations Meeting. We have a Relationship Manager for retail and wholesale administration and then the actual Retail Operations Team participates in that meeting as the liaison with the stores.
It seems like that Retail Office Meeting is crucial to everything you are trying to accomplish in aligning IT with your business customers. Was that meeting in place when you joined BCBG?
First, my customer is retail operations and I've got to make them happy. Their customers are the people buying things in the stores …so that's where we really come together to make sure that we're all on the same page, that we’re appropriately focusing on the right things, that we know what are the hot issues. Before I came to BCBG there used to be a corporate IT with the retail organization having their own special IT group that just focused on store issues. What we ended up doing was merging the retail help desk and the corporate help desk and made it one help desk, thereby bringing retail support into IT and allowing us to build one IT department. That is when we started the Retail Office Meeting to proactively engage all interested parties to IT. Previously, the retail group would just kind of walk down the hall to the retail help desk and escalate through an ad hoc, reactive manner.
How did that evolution move from reactive IT operations to this move proactive state of being?
This change was pushed by both of our previous CIO Bryan Timm and our new CIO Nader Karimi when he came on board. We used to have five or six meetings throughout the week that required me to meet with the retail manager …and then meet separately with the director who managed the sales clerks in the stores …and then meet in yet another forum the retail operations people. We were actually meeting with five or six different groups each week to talk about the same thing ...so the goal was to bring it all together into two one-hour meetings once a week. The first is the operational meeting that covers tickets, issues and problems. The second meeting deals with any retail projects that are going on...like updates to systems, modifications to our POS, and laptops to our partner shops.
What are some of examples of business decisions in which your input as head of IT Infrastructure is required or desired?
Let’s use the example of our laptop project for partner shops where we have BCBG stores within other stores, such as a Macy's or a Dillard's. These BCBG stores didn't have any back office equipment and use the department store's Point of Sale systems. So we had a big project where we rolled out laptops to one hundred and ninety one partner shops enabling each to have some BCBG device in the stores for timekeeping, store transfers, and corporate communications.
In conjunction with Retail Operations, we determined the partner shops needed a very basic machine to provide limited access to pre-selected web applications. We then built a gold image where we restricted the partner shop’s we access our retail MaxLink site, which is our portal for the stores. Retail Operations wanted to lock the laptops down so they couldn't access Facebook and Twitter and all other web distractions detrimental to sales activity. IT then worked with IBM for device design and deployment to all of the stores. So basically, the business units tell us the requirements and then we define the hardware and software that will meet those needs.
Another example is the replacement of our old POS registers with newer technology. Two years ago, Retail Operations wanted a new POS system and we worked together to select and successfully implement within about ninety stores. Unfortunately, a lot of the reporting and basic information that Retail Operations were expecting from the new POS system is costing a lot in customization. So together we stopped the rollout of the replacement POS system until IT and the business unit can decide whether we need to look at a third POS system. As stated before, we're a very cash flow company so the selection of our new POS system depends upon what constitutes the lowest spend to provide the functionality required.
You’ve referenced store connectivity and a more functional Point of Sale platform as core business concerns. What are some of the other the top IT concerns of the store managers or the retail operations executives?
Another business challenge at BCBG is timely reporting for both the retail team and the buyers. To illustrate, buyers need to know what is selling at each store so they know what to allocate back out into the field to make sure supplies are based on what's actually being purchased. The demand to know what’s selling is critical in the fashion industry and improved reporting of sales for competitive analysis is definitely advantageous.
Retail Operations would like a portal for all stores where large packets of information can be accessed by store personnel …so that visual displays and upcoming sales can be readily communicated. When we’re able to resolve the issue of portable technology disappearing at the store, we’d like to investigate putting an IPad-like device at the store to enable such a portal and the availability of critical store date without bulky printouts.
How is your IT organization organized to effectively manage IT and ensure alignment with the business end user?
IT is made up of four horizontal units: Infrastructure, Applications, Project Management and Information Protection & Security. Architecture roles cut across all of these groups for a more corporate-oriented view. Sitting on top of those four departments, we have seven Relationship Managers (…previously referenced) for design; production; sales force and marketing; supply chain and planning; retail operations; wholesale administration; and corporate systems.
Relationship Managers (RMs) reside in the business units and attend their meetings, figuring out what the business needs from each IT team. They're like translators and diplomats between IT and the various business units and work directly with us. They bring the requirements and issues to IT. For example, last year the operation center closed 33,000 tickets …so if tickets aren't getting handled in an appropriate manner or if chronic IT problems are surfacing …it's up to the RM to escalate to the right IT people to get their business unit taken care of.
So instead of the business manager breathing down my neck, I now deal with a RM who can adequately describe the problems, expediting resolution on our end …with the business quite a bit happier about IT. The IT organization and the RM role have been driven from the top down by Nader Karimi, our CIO, which has made all the difference.
Do you use ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) processes within BCBG?
Not formally. I think that a lot of ITIL comes with common sense while putting in the processes. I’m a big process guy …so I like documenting the workflow and making sure the business understands how things are supposed to work. Yet, I'm willing to change those work flows and processes as needed, but we at least have them documented with everybody understanding the steps. There are times when the house is on fire and people are panicking …but I want to put things through the process, escalating as needed.
For example, BCBG uses change control for everything in infrastructure that has to be changed. Let's say a router code needs to be changed. The technician submits a ticket and emails that to his manager. The manager has to approve it and then once a week the change control board meets and reviews all of those change requests. However, if we're having an outage and something needs to happen to fix that outage ...such as a circuit's down, we can escalate it through that process in about 10-30 minutes. The ticket for the circuit fix is submitted, letting the guy that runs change control know that we have this emergency change. That manager approves it, and even though it's an emergency we still want a record of the change so if other problems are caused down the line, we will always have that record. It doesn't have to take a week for a change control, it can take ten minutes. Yet the process is followed so that everybody's aware of the change as it happens.
I understand that as a result of your recent service management implementations, you were able to use those tools, experience and process templates to provide business value for non-IT organizations. Which IT processes did you feel translated into establishing a better relationship with business?
The impact on our purchasing process was huge. At the time, purchase requests would be submitted through time-stamped paper forms and they would stack up at the help desk until someone had time to manually enter those tickets. Hiring managers weren't held accountable when they didn’t submit a form until the day their new employee was starting. Sometimes the form would be submitted in advance but it would get lost. HR was getting frustrated because new hires would arrive and there would be no office or IT equipment for them.
So once we implemented that purchasing process online, there was a designated place for everybody (…hiring manager, HR, help desk) in the company to have access to all equipment requests. Because this central purchasing process required business unit approval, a report could be run to view all of the purchases made by that business unit on behalf of the new temp, the new hire or the new intern. Because there was a single place for the information there was no more of “I forgot” or “I didn't do it in time.”
Now the IT purchasing committee meets a couple of times a week and reviews all requested purchases for approval. Yet if there's an emergency and a senior executive needs a piece of equipment immediately as they're travelling that night to Hong Kong, we can escalate that purchase through that process in about 30 minutes and get it over to the telecom team to deploy the device for immediate use on the trip to Hong Kong. Yet we’ve documented that purchase through our process. So the purchasing process has been a huge success in our alignment with the business.
The new hire project has been big, too. The documented process forces the hiring manager to think about what their new employee needs before they arrive at the company. Tickets are submitted but aren't triggered for action until HR says yes, this is an employee. It keeps IT from wasting their time creating accounts and multiple systems for somebody that may not even be working here.
What was the IT role in the development of this HR process?
I worked with HR and we talked through a recommended course of action and identification of potential issues in the process documentation. It began with meetings with HR and I did white-boarding sessions where we actually created flow charts. I was leveraging work done in previous companies that was a new approach to process within BCBG. I wasn't trying to dictate to people the way it had to be. Rather, I just wanted HR to tell me “how do you want this to work?” As we discussed it, HR came up with certain ideas and we’d discuss the pros and cons of that idea. In the end, we documented a viable workflow and it became their idea and their process ...but with clarity regarding the limitations or consequences of their decisions.
I would then work with the consultant from our technology vendor to take a first cut at the process implementation. We’d subsequently have follow up meetings to discuss the new hire process with HR and make sure it was correct. Then we would implement that process into our Service Management system, including the actual forms and workflows, and jointly test it. We would actually push dummy tickets through, make sure we completed the check boxes, identify escalation needs and issue a correct ticket. We’d enter the employee’s name and the date and make sure that it all worked the way HR wanted …and then we went live with it. But I would continually stress that HR could always come back and change the process …to modify it so that it was exactly how HR thought it should be. But we were also able to document the way it would actually happen.
So you were creating documentation to ensure subsequent stability and follow through in these IT and business processes …while you were emphasizing it being a living process that could be altered as needed at any time.
Yes. Each service management process, be it IT or business, was documented so if anybody asks “what's the process” or “how does it work,” we can pull that workflow, discuss it, change it if needed, and then update the documentation again. Too often we automate workflow and process and because it was so labor intensive, we then state “this is the way it has to be forever” when in reality things change ...all the time. Our service management processes have taught us how to accommodate that flexibility and we are now able to share that expertise and tools with the business units in their service management processes.
What does the term “business service management” mean to you?
There’s the term “service management” in your question …so I would offer that BSM is aligning service management with the specific needs of a business …meaning that what I do in BCBG is definitely going to be different than what is required for an insurance company or a university or an electric utility. It’s going to be different for every company.
Do you feel that alignment between IT and the business units is important within BCBG?
Yes, absolutely. The IT service processes and help desk meet only part of that need for alignment. I think the Relationship Managers and IT organization meet other critical needs. So it's not just the formal help desk and processes that are important, but it's also how you liaison with the business ...how do you make the business end users feel that IT is not just a process. Every time you tell somebody just open a ticket and I'll get you to you later, you’re missing the opportunity of making the business user feel like you're there to meet their needs. Let's face it, we’re not an IT company ...IT's not our core business. Our business is making dresses, designing dresses, selling those dresses. So we need to make sure that IT is “servicing” ...to make sure that IT processes don’t get in the way of IT wanting to enable the users to do their core business. It’s making sure the distinctive personalities of the marketing and design groups feel as comfortable with IT as the accounting or HR departments.
That’s a great summary of why BSM should be important. What do you feel is your biggest obstacle in moving forward with that kind of IT/business alignment?
The answer is probably limited resources …which would be true of almost every IT shop. BCBG is a retailer and we need to get this retail business to look at IT as something that can “help the business” versus just a cost center …or necessary evil. If we could get that right, I believe much of the disconnect would go away.
We're a pretty youthful company so a lot of our users are out in the real world with their smart phones, Facebook, Twitter and IPads …and they “get” the modern use of technology and what IT can bring to the table. And then they come to BCBG. I don't want to have to tell them I can't do this for you because I don't have the money or the resources to do what you’re asking.
Our CEO met with one department that felt they all needed new computers with the all new Adobe Photoshop CS5, but that’s a multi-hundred thousand dollar project. So this department comes to the business executives and our operating committee with this request for huge bucks to upgrade all of these computers …and the business goes no, we have more critical needs and other things we need to do with that money. I’d like to be able to deliver to that department all their brand new computers and all their latest Adobe …but it's out of my hands.
Part of the challenge with my position is that I’m infrastructure ...and that's plumbing. No one gets excited about putting in a new toilet. It's the plumbing that has to be the foundation for all of the other things to work. And so I need to fix the plumbing. If I go talk to people in marketing and say “I need to fix the active directory,” they have no idea what that is or what that means to the company. It's only when they can get their hands on it to use it …when they get their new computer and a new IP phone system and then voice mail is automatically connected to their email …when they can actually see and touch the benefit is when they “get it.”
Kent, this has been insightful, and I understand your statement that BSM is different for every type of business as you’ve walked us through the IT demands of a clothing design and retail company. Thank you.
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