As Tania Howarth approaches the CIO editorial team in the foyer of the company headquarters under the flightpath of Heathrow we hardly realise we are in the company of one of Britain's leading CIOs.
This isn't a detrimental facet, far from it, it is just the unassuming nature of Howarth; instead of power play, she shows an immediate concern for your welfare. It would be easy, nigh on crass to put this down to Howarth being a mother, but throughout the interview, you are constantly reminded by Howarth that her heady achievements are not purely singular and have been as part of a team.
Just two weeks prior to CIO catching up with Howarth she and her team had successfully completed the IT split away from Unilever. Birds Eye and its overseas brand Iglo had been part of the Unilever consumer goods empire until 2006 when it was sold to a private equity group. Stepping off the Unilever ship, Birds Eye found itself with no IT infrastructure at all and only an agreement with Unilever to use its systems until this summer. Switching to its own IT infrastructure was the final severance from Unilever.
"The challenge we now have is to change the culture and programming of the organisation," Howarth says. "We have been dependent on Unilever for back office and systems and that has affected the ways we do things. Now we are a medium-sized business and to grow it will mean a very different environment."
"When you are part of a big business bad results don't feel as real. When it's a smaller organisation it feels very real," she says realistically. "We are not small, but not large."
Howarth joined Birds Eye when Martin Glenn, the food manufacturer's CEO, approached her with the "difficult IT issue" of Birds Eye being cast off with no IT. "There was nothing, the separation was made in eight countries, none of which had worked together before." Howarth arrived to build a green-field system with the organisation being underpinned by a 12-month transition service agreement with Unilever. "It was very exciting to build from scratch, to build my own destiny with no horrible legacy that we all spend our careers having to work with," she says with a nod to her former CIO roles and colleagues.
Birds Eye was sold in November 2006, with Howarth joining the company in April 2007. The greatest challenge she faced was not to disturb the business, while at the same time switching it over to a new infrastructure. "The business has not missed a beat," she says with understated pride. "We've all aged and there were difficulties, but we had massive levels of energy from everyone involved. I told my team, 'I have never experienced a team that was literally thrown together, do such a fantastic job and I couldn't ask any more'." She believes the reason they all channelled so much of their energy into the project is that it -became personal for them.
Howarth used her business heritage to plan for the worst and didn’t set sail on a course that blindly believed in technology. When introducing a warehouse automation system she made sure the business could operate without the IT systems in case the worst happened. “We dusted off the Y2K plans,” she jokes.
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