Kevin O'Brien is taking Comet to new heights

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.

After joining Mothercare, O'Brien found that the children's goods company which had once been a trailblazer was not in good shape. It had warehousing problems, declining IT investment over the previous 15 years, and its competitors were growing fast in comparison. "IS really had to fit with the business plan for Mothercare," says O'Brien. "It had to help improve the product and reinvigorate the high-street shops."

And so work began at its Hammersmith store, where O'Brien says he begged for help from suppliers to prove concepts. "It really improved my negotiation skills," he laughs. "We worked on everything from layout and store design to service and environment. The sales soared and we knew we had cracked it."

IT enabled effective warehousing and supply, and vastly improved systems support. Mothercare leaped from having a loss when he joined, to sales of £411.4 million (US$805.3 million) last year, and group profits of £22.6 million. "It was turned around and I think the systems improvements helped to drive it," he says. "We used a step-change approach for the business that avoided risks, but made massive improvements."

Embracing new challenges

Diverse challenges and the dynamism of business at Comet excite O'Brien, who says business alignment has helped him learn about retail dynamics. Since he started as head of IS, O'Brien has been out and about to distribution centers and stores finding out how the company delivers its customer journey. "We have a range of old and new systems, so our immediate strategy has to be to get the best out of our investment and put together a roadmap for the future. We need to challenge the core business processes to get the most out of them, and improve efficiency and sales where we can."

The IS strategy and roadmap will run for a three- to five-year period. O'Brien wants to prioritize the systems that need attention and then ensure that the company has the right skills and structure. He believes that building a strategy like this involves getting all relevant parties on board.

"Right now, it isn't my strategy, it is a team strategy that we are devising for the business," he says. "The rest of the heads of department are looking at the organization's priorities moving forward, and there is a monthly IT sub-committee meeting to look at capital projects and ensure that those already underway are progressing properly. We have an open-door policy. Anyone can come in and talk through an idea -- I won't be too busy. The idea then goes through to the IS sub-group and then the operations board for final approval. Doing it this way means that the main stakeholders are engaged first."

Working in close co-operation with others is an important tool for a CIO, O'Brien says. "The level of engagement with team members is significant. If the team are involved, they all own the project and will each strive to ensure its success, and from a leadership point of view, this is critical."

O'Brien also believes that his ability to interact effectively internally and externally will stand him in good stead at Comet. "Networking with people is very important, it enables you to look at things differently and see what others are doing and learn from them. Sharing non-competitive information is very useful for everyone, and this also works with suppliers."

Conquering Everest

While O'Brien is responsible for consolidating the number of suppliers and systems the company uses, of high priority at the moment is the 'Everest' project. Everest will see the replacement of the company's non-store infrastructure, and O'Brien wants the latest versions of Windows in place to provide staff with the tools to be more effective. He believes that once the non-store infrastructure is in place, Comet will be able to better utilize IT. "Young people who work in our stores use all sorts of communications, for example, speech, text, blogs and Facebook, but to understand how best to utilize these channels and use their expertise, we need to have an up-to-date infrastructure," he says.

As part of Everest, different areas of the company have 'super users' or 'Sherpas', who fully understand the benefits of the upgraded systems, as well as some of the risk areas, for example if an application is old and needs work to be effective on the newer systems. O'Brien believes this creates a great forum for learning and getting the most from the IT investment.

However, although he believes Everest will provide a strong platform, and acknowledges the power of social networks, he recognizes that caution is necessary. "With 11,000 employees, it wouldn't be appropriate to use email for some areas. An intranet for store services and head office would work better, and allow the relevant information to be relayed to the right people, through video streaming, forums and blogging for example. This will give a direct improvement and Everest will make it possible, but using the appropriate tool is key."

Soaring sales

As far as customer-facing operations and its online offering are concerned, Comet is already doing well, having had its best ever web-generated sales during the last Christmas period. Sales value increased by more than 32 percent year on year and up to two popular products were sold per minute at the busiest times on the company's website.

The Click & Collect online service that supports online shopping had a direct impact on sales figures. The feature enables customers to order products online and then collect them from store in as little as 30 minutes later.

During Comet's peak trading week, more than 65 per cent of its online customers opted to collect their orders from store. This included those people choosing to order products online on Christmas Day and collect them from the store on Boxing Day.

Apparently, while web-generated products such as the Nintendo Wii and TomTom satellite navigation systems were the top-selling before Christmas the Samsung 40-inch HD-TV and HP Pentium Dual-Core laptop with 15-inch screen were the bestsellers on Boxing Day.

An equally important feature in boosting sales at Comet is its Click & Chat feature that lets customers ask Comet experts about products and technologies.

The stores' mix of online, physical shopping environments, after-sales service and advisors appears a powerful combination and is already working effectively, even before Everest is conquered.

Setting the standard

Chris Lake, the Editor-in-Chief of E-consultancy, a publisher that carries out research for internet-based companies, believes this type of service will be critical for companies in the future.

"Good service is becoming key," he says, "For the last 10 years, the internet has been seen as a good route to acquire new customers, but now companies are utilizing it to retain their customers. The way to go is to finesse the website, and use integrated online and offline service. Comet is doing a good job here, using effective feature filtering that makes its website very easy to use."

It is this attention to detail and future growth that makes O'Brien excited about his role at Comet, and he is keen to use the experience he has gained in previous roles to make his contribution to the company. "The people who raise their heads up and who are prepared to take a risk should be supported and encouraged," he says. "I like being part of this type of company, and being involved in the business as a whole is important to me. I am helping the team to deliver a facelift and then we can move forward."

This story, "Kevin O'Brien is taking Comet to new heights" was originally published by CIO.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey 2021: The results are in