You work where? Churchill Downs

An insider's look at three cool places where you do your jobs.

Horse racing’s CRM guru

A day at the races is just part of the job for Atique Shah, vice president of CRM and technology solutions for Churchill Downs.

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Atique Shah isn't much of a betting man, but as vice president of CRM and technology solutions for renowned horse-racing operation Churchill Downs, he's placed his money on a CRM trifecta - analytical, collaborative and operational systems.

But first, Shah quips, he had to figure out what "trifecta" and other horse-racing lingo meant. Shah joined CDI in December 2003 as his next step in a long and varied IT career with entertainment, retail and sports companies. But he was clueless about horse racing.

"When I looked at the data for the first time, I had no idea what the heck it meant. It was telling me somebody comes five times a day and does a quinella. 'A quinella - what is this?'" he remembers with a booming laugh.

Atique Shah

Now Shah, showing a visitor around the Churchill Downs track in Louisville, Ky., where his office is housed, comes off as an old pro. He talks of the recently run Kentucky Derby and Oaks, explains the racetrack's soil composition, points out the building's landmark twin spires and shares the architectural history of the recently renovated 130-year-old venue, all while speaking fluently in horse-racing parlance. A native Saudi Arabian who lived for years in New York and Philadelphia, Shah has even come to relish Louisville's signature Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich, minus the bacon, served in a track-side café.

Highlights of Shah's track tour are the stylish, large flat-screen Gateway monitors affixed on walls everywhere, from the ritzy, private corporate suites high atop the track to the sprawling main floor where the general public bets. No race shall be missed. Even diners at the track's luxury restaurants have tabletop screens for their viewing pleasure.

Churchill Downs exudes a high-tech feel - and that says a lot for a horse-racing venue. Traditionally, Shah explains, the horse-racing industry viewed IT as only a support function because "nobody had looked to IT as a revenue stream." But that has started to change. "People here have begun to understand the value of IT," he says.

CDI executives have come to this understanding through their efforts to improve branding and attract more customers. For as clueless as Shah had been about horse racing before he joined the company, CDI had been nearly so about how to draw more customers to the seven tracks and nine off-track betting facilities it operates in the U.S. Having exhausted its advertising, promotional and mass-marketing channels, CDI began strategizing on ways to improve its customer outreach, Shah says. Investigating the CRM buzz they had heard, CDI executives decided to consider new interface options for the wagering platforms and to create a more interactive Web presence. They hired Shah and committed to technology investments.

That landed Shah with a $6.5 million fund for capital investments and an operating budget of "a couple of million." He began handpicking his team in March 2004. Over the next three months, he brought on a staff of 12, including a senior director of IT who also is the CRM project manager. He then began investing in CRM and infrastructure products.

His first focus was on analytical CRM, which he needed to gain customer intelligence. Shah came to discover that CDI had 27 unique, rich data sources from which he could cull information. Once he had an understanding of customer data, he zeroed in on collaborative CRM, which provides the ability to cross-sell and up-sell to customers through e-mails or from the Web. CDI's collaborative CRM systems went live last month. Work on CDI's call center, ticketing and other operational CRM systems will come later this year.

Shah's CRM and IT investments include Epiphany's CRM suite (AnalyticalPlatform, Real-Time Application, Campaign Management System and ContactCenter Application); IBM's integration software (Data Stage, Data Quality and Data Profile, formerly from Ascential); SPSS predictive analytics software (Capri, Clementine 8.5, MR Interview, NetGenesis, SPSS' Base 11.0); Gateway PCs and enterprise hardware; Oracle for data warehousing; Sun Enterprise Servers; Percussion Software Web content management software and EDS hosting services.

A pragmatist, Shah crafted exclusive partnerships with vendors willing to forge a business relationship with CDI rather than just sell products to it. "We're a sports and media entertainment company with exposure on NBC, ESPN, Fox, etc. I can leverage that to bring new exposure for vendors, if they're willing to invest in a mutually beneficial relationship," Shah says.

For example, Gateway made an investment in Churchill Downs through which its brands get exposure at the racetrack, Shah says. "You can see that relationship has helped us by enhancing the experience of the customers who walk in the door - and at the end of the day, that's what this is all about," he says. "This is not about having a cluster of databases on the back end or that I'm running a Sun Enterprise 10000. That's great. But nothing is more exciting than seeing smiles on customers' faces, and hearing them say, 'Wow, this is pretty cool.' "

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