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A Sit Down With Nick Burton, Head Of Technology And Digital At Belron Group

The UK CIO Innovation Masters Series: Matthew Griffin talks to Belron's Nick Burton

21Mar

If you’re a CIO and would like to take part and be interviewed for our special UK versus US CIO Master series please get in touch with Matthew Griffin.

Despite having over 26,500 employees operating out of more than 34 countries in five continents, I’d suggest that Belron is not a company you’re going to be instantly familiar with; but similarly I’d be very surprised if you hadn’t heard of, or even used the services of their most recognised brands (Autoglass, Carglass or Safelite) who replace one cracked windscreen every three seconds.

As I wait in the reception area of their Milton Park head office near Egham for my host Nick Burton, Belron Group CIO, it’s clear that the building and its interior have been designed to make a statement, albeit a subtly understated one. Sitting in 12 acres of manicured grounds, Belron’s original 2009 design brief for the former Johnson & Johnson estate, awarded to renowned interior designer Scott Brownrigg was to create a warm, friendly, environmentally-led atmosphere that customers and employees alike could enjoy. Whether it’s the onsite polytunnels used to grow vegetables for their restaurant, or the vibrant lime green and purple colour schemes delicately infused with hints of nature, you’re assured an interesting visit.

From the outset of my meeting with Nick, it’s clear that Belron, like many organisations in today’s world, is one that’s in transition. But, unlike many organisations that are finding themselves all too often forced to transform, this transformation is coming from within and it’s culture led, which more often than not creates the most profound and impactful type of change.

Planting the seed

As any business executive will tell you, jump-starting a cultural revolution is no small feat. It takes vision, leadership and determination and all too often, as far too many organisations will attest to, it can feel like you’re trying to push an oil-coated boulder up a mountain. This said, the journey of a thousand steps begins with one, and here it’s clear that Nick is the person who’s taken the first.

At first, some of the changes that Nick has implemented here might seem minor - such as his decision to rename the Information and Technology Function to the Innovative Technology Function - but great things grow from small beginnings, and often all you need is the seed of an idea to start germinating and suddenly great things can start happening.

By swapping the word Information with Innovation Nick has not only shown his team the direction he wants to take the business in, but he’s also subtly given them the permission to be creative, and he’s signalled his intentions to the business that IT is not simply a support function that sits in the back room. It’s a department that can help the business engage customers in new ways and create new value, and his hope is that over time he’ll be able to reduce the portion of time that they spend focusing on operations 60-70% to 30-40%.

While Belron’s core business has stayed relatively stable over the past number of years, new digital channels and technologies have given their customers new ways to engage, and this is where Nick thinks he and his team can provide the most value. Consequently, it’ll come as no surprise to hear that Belron is becoming increasingly digital Not only does this move help the company to extend and enhance their customer experience, it also helps them realise new operating efficiencies, create new services and operate with real pace.

On cloud

It should come as no surprise that cloud is one of the cornerstones of Nick’s strategy. In the past, the traditional approach to reducing costs and improving operational efficiency involved consolidating the application estates, but cloud has provided Nick and his team with the opportunity to realise the benefits of application consolidation while at the same time helping him free his team’s time up to focus on the new innovation agenda. While cloud doesn’t in itself give your organisation innovation, it allows you to try and test new things faster and with greater dexterity.

An example of such an innovation came to light at a recent Belron run hackathon, and while the innovation itself could be regarded as a secondary innovation, the real revolution was in the time that it took to ideate, build and deploy it.

In the past, Belron field engineers had to take a photo of the cracked windscreen they were replacing using traditional digital cameras; these photos would then be uploaded once the engineer had returned to base and entered into the insurance company’s case file so they could process the claim. All in all the process itself could take a number of weeks but, as a result of a hackathon, Nick’s team built a digital solution in under a day. Now field engineers can use their mobile phones to upload the photos to the cloud, where API’s automatically resize them and enter them into the insurers’ claim dossiers. Historically, building this type of system would have involved a lot of hardware and software conversations to discuss interoperability, but cloud has made all of that moot.

As Nick’s vision continues to evolve he tells me that PaaS will be the key to creating even more value for the organisation, and that one of the biggest barriers to adopting IaaS is simply being able to understand all of the pertinent local residency and compliance issues.

On suppliers

In any given week, Nick will spend about 15% of his time with a broad base of suppliers, half of which he says is wasted and over time he’s seen the mix of those suppliers change, and the rate of change is accelerating.

The cost of starting a technology business has fallen by over a thousand-fold so, as venture capitalists plough billions of dollars into new start ups in Silicon Valley, New York and London’s Techcity, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a huge surge in the number of new technology courtiers hitting the market. Nick feels that there’s a dichotomy appearing in the market place and that suppliers are increasingly falling into one of two distinct camps.

Firstly, there are the established vendors - companies including Oracle, Microsoft and IBM - who are finding it hard to iterate their products at the same speed as many of the new market entrants, and who lack the organisational flexibility to react in time to new market trends. But, while those organisational issues take time to resolve, their sales teams still exhibit behaviours reminiscent of the nineties. While we’ve always known that suppliers are quarterly driven, he all too often senses a lack of empathy, authenticity and understanding for his business and his objectives.

On the flip side of the coin, it’s the smaller suppliers who increasingly have the best alignment with Belron’s culture; not only can these companies iterate their products faster than the giants but their sales forces engage, listen and empathise, going so far as to invite Nick and his team to participate in focus and product development groups that help them iterate even better products. This said, though, smaller suppliers have their drawbacks too. They can be acquired, pivot or worse go under, but Nick has some sage advice that should help them counter some of these risks: understand your risks and have a plan to combat them.

Smaller companies have to battle with a multitude of risks that can range from low capitalization ratios and high burn rates all the way through to shallow pools of resource, a lack of references and frustrating product delays, but many of these aren’t unique to them. Consequently, it’s crucial that SMEs prepare properly and can show the customer in the most extreme cases what their exit strategy would look like if your company folded or was acquired. As an SME, if you don’t believe your potential clients are already aware of some of these risks then you’re in cuckoo land.

As for those of you that might worry that dealing with SMEs poses a greater risk than dealing with some of the larger organisations, I’d like to redress the balance. Nick availed me of one of his recent experiences with Google, who recently killed off its Coordinate product without considering the downstream consequences it would have on Belron’s field engineers, and with relatively short notification, and no real ideas on a transition plan.

When it comes to courting an audience with Nick, however, his advice is similarly clear - cold calling, while it’s still apparently alive and well, is increasingly irrelevant. The internet has helped to shift the balance of power into the customer’s favour and sales people are no longer the single source of all knowledge that they once were, so here he suggests your organisation spends more time creating a great website with short, clear videos that articulate the value you have to offer and fine tuning your SEO. That way, when he does have a project he’ll find you. Of course there are also the obligatory events, analysts and peer groups.

It’s increasingly apparent here that the supplier layer, one that should be one of the more important relationships that an IT Department has, need to think long and hard about how their sales teams engage with customers and that a shake up is long overdue.

On hiring

Versitalists, “T Shaped individuals” who have deep expertise in one area but who can draw on a broad range of alternative experiences and skills that complement the culture of the business, are the future, and gone are the days when deep expertise in a single domain was good enough.

Operating at the heart of the business, Nick’s team is responsible for identifying the right IT suppliers, suppliers who not only add value to the business but whose solutions and commercial terms complement one another without hampering its ability to transform and adapt at speed, and many of his recent hires have been less about their technology skill and more about their cultural fit within the organisation. Leadership, and the ability to engage with people to help change the mindset of their colleagues across the Belron world, are the most important qualities to support the transformation that is needed.

To his peers

At the end of my interview with Nick, he has the following advice for his peers:

  • Be clear about your personal vision for the role of IT in the business and bring it to life
  • Create a totemic change that sends the signal to the business that IT’s role is changing
  • Spend time getting to know your business
  • Always stay connected and engaged

Conclusion

It’s clear that Nick has made a significant impact on the culture of Belron’s business but it has not been easy. In today’s fast paced world, organizations that stand still or incrementally innovate will eventually find their leadership positions subsumed by new, faster, more innovative organisations. While Nick’s journey isn’t complete, he and his team have begun and I wish them all the best for the future.

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