Six months into the job, Kevin O'Brien, head of information systems at Comet, is brimming with excitement. O'Brien arrived fresh from helping to turn around ailing retailer Mothercare, and is now responsible for defining the IS strategy in line with Comet's business plan.
According to O'Brien, Comet has a great business culture and there is a belief that everyone can make a difference, a belief that drives values and great service at the company from its head office to its stores, distribution chain, and throughout the organization as a whole. "I find that I'm wide awake in the mornings and at my desk by 7am ready to get going, and really excited about the challenges that lie ahead," he enthuses.
O'Brien is an energetic doer, who believes in getting involved in the business. And while he hasn't always worked in the retail sector, his experience in IT is extensive. He began his career at Strand Lighting in Fife, where he says manufacturing components and processes gave him a good foothold and showed him how a business works.
At age 21, O'Brien went to London where he worked for a while at an international trading bank, before joining Lyons Tetley. At that beverages giant, O'Brien received fantastic training and increased his IT skills, he says. It was at Lyons Tetley that he learned about business pressure, people and how to maintain total quality. "Working at Lyons gave me a very good grounding in management," he comments.
"This was an interesting change and a step up for me," he says. "Virgin had 300 stores, as well as the head office and warehousing. Working there gave me a new perspective, particularly when I learned that, for example, a store can't trade if its ePOS (electronic point-of-sale) or backup systems are down, and it can't make any money. I had found my niche, and it included extra dimensions."
It was at Virgin Our Price that O'Brien's enthusiasm and forward-thinking business attitude really began to flourish. In 1999, the company decided to split the Virgin MegaStore and Our Price brands. O'Brien joined Our Price to run the IT operations. It was a very tightly run operation, with an internal team of three and extensive outsourcing, mainly to Capgemini. O'Brien, who had not been directly involved in outsourcing before, now believes that getting the deal right at the outset is the key to effective outsourcing.
As a board member, O'Brien became more involved in the business itself and by 2001 was instrumental in setting up a project to provide digital entertainment offerings in stores. At the time Virgin had wanted to put its pay-as-you-go mobile phones into stores, but Our Price saw itself as a music store and the idea of "music to phones" and digital entertainment as a likely success was not popular. So O'Brien took on the V-Shop project himself. His team put digital entertainment into pilot stores and, as interest grew, extended the pilot to 100 shops in the run-up to Christmas. The move proved a great success.
"It was so exciting," he says. "Retail was changing the way it did things and IT had a big part to play." The concept was probably ahead of its time, and at this point the Our Price and Virgin Megastores brands were remerged. O'Brien found himself with six months to reintegrate systems to meet the financial year-end deadline. "It was a great experience," he says.
The project management and customer-facing skills learned at V-Shop, provided a strong foundation and proved a great asset in his next role at Mothercare.
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