Outdoor IT

Jeff Neville, CIO of Eastern Mountain Sports, the $200 million Boston-based outdoor clothing and gear retailer, has a job most CIOs would envy: In addition to running the company’s IT team of 18 employees, Neville also serves as the company’s vice president of strategy—a rare twist that put IT front and center following a management-led buyout from American Retail Group in 2004. Senior Reporter Debra D’Agostino recently chatted with Neville to learn the benefits of holding both positions.

CIO Insight: As CIO and vice president of strategy, how is your job different from other CIOs?

Neville: It’s an odd collection of responsibilities, but I think it’s becoming more and more prevalent as the CIO becomes more of a change agent, a solutions person. Right now our company is going through a transition. Five years ago, IT was told stay out of the way. We weren’t a strategic function at all. Now, after the buyout, we have a new CEO, a new board, and a new vision. There is recognition now that for us to succeed as a business, we need to invest strategically in IT.

Meanwhile, our target customer is changing. Baby boomers had been our bread and butter for years, but now we are moving more toward the X or Y generation. Those people are obviously far more comfortable with technology, and that forces us to provide the kinds of technology they want. So we started doing simple things like RSS feeds from our web site to notify customers about sales and other events on our site. We are also doing podcasts with outdoor enthusiasts like rock climbers and kayakers. It’s a way to drive traffic and get to know our target customer. We want to build a community on our site, a destination. Our future customers have an expectation of community—just look at MySpace.com.

How does that affect the way you manage the IT department?

One of the first things I did when I joined EMS was to change the formal titles of my staff. At first, the application development people were intermingled with the production support people. I pulled that apart and changed the application development staff’s titles to “solutions analysts.” I did that because I don’t want my people to be technologists. I want them to work with the business to drive solutions. So each IT staffer is aligned to a functional area in the business. There is a solutions architect for HR, for example, and another for finance, and so on. And their bonuses are tied to business results. That forces the IT team to be more interested in the business side of things.

What has been the result of that?

One of the ways we add value is through this notion of uncovering the truth. We have partnered with business intelligence vendor Information Builders to help us do better data analysis. In the past, a lot of business decisions at EMS were made on gut instinct or past experience. Now, we are using technology to do better cost analysts, business intelligence, data drilling and so on.

For example, we had an issue where for some reason our footwear sales were higher in one particular store than the rest. In the past, our first reaction would have been that the customer base in that store is just more inclined to buy footwear. Our people just didn’t have the proper tools to help them drill down to find out what was really going on. As we began to transform and offer tools with dashboards and data analytics, we started to gain better insight. And it turns out that footwear was outperforming in this one store because one good salesperson had figured out how to cross-sell socks to every single person he sold boots to. So we took that data and rolled it out to the rest of the chain. It sounds small, but that one incident increased sales significantly enough to pretty much pay for our entire rollout with Information Builders.

But how do you get people to embrace those tools?

It’s step by step, and it’s also about the culture of the organization. One of the things we learned early on is dashboards are pretty much useless unless you have embedded the need to go to a dashboard into the process. So we spent a lot of time thinking about the process and how it can be changed. During our Monday morning meetings with merchants and outside partners, we now put the dashboard up on the projector so people are forced to look at it.

Does that mean the company does a lot of outsourcing?

Well, the capabilities that drive growth, those are the things we think are key differentiators. We want to focus on understanding the customer, our site design and development, and our in-store experience. Those are things we really want to be great at. The rest of it we source to specialists. And that’s important because we’re a small IT shop, only 18 people in a company of about 1,650 employees. Our organization chart has several outside companies on it. Again, what we’re trying to get the rest of the company to understand is that this is all the extended team, a community. By letting those people manage the routine systems, we can focus on innovation.

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