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Global Powerhouse: An interview with Carl Powell of Fletcher Building

Global Powerhouse: An interview with Carl Powell of Fletcher Building

After integrating Fletcher Building’s business technology systems in 40 countries, Carl Powell focuses on sharpening the group’s capability to compete in the digital environment.

Carl Powell had worked for nearly two decades at UK logistics company, Unipart, when he was offered another group CIO role with another global firm.

The company, Fletcher Building, was based on the other side of the world in New Zealand, and was in the midst of its biggest technology shift for businesses across 40 countries.

“It was moving from a number of well-run but very decentralised businesses, to taking more of a group view with a small active centre,” Powell says. “From an IT perspective, that means looking at technology as a group asset, rather than 50 sets of assets each individually owned by a business.”

He observed very few global businesses at this scale were still operating with that set-up, and took on the challenge. In late 2013, Powell uprooted himself from his base in Oxford, and joined the executive team of the largest listed company in New Zealand.

Fletcher Building is also Australasia’s largest building materials supplier, with iconic brands that include Firth Industries, Fletcher Steel and its New Zealand distribution businesses, PlaceMakers and Mico.

A testament to the group’s growth is its ranking as number one in this year’s CIO100, the report on top ICT using organisations in New Zealand based on screen numbers (36,114), turnover ($8.87 billion) and staff (18,600).

“I was very happy at Unipart and I would have quite happily stayed there,” he says. “But I thought it would be good to experience another global role in another continent. If I was ever going to move, the time was right, and then Fletcher’s offer came up.”

The only thing that would have stopped him from accepting the Fletcher Building role was his family – his wife and two children aged 16 and13. “But no, they were all extremely supportive and all wanted to come.”

Inaugural role

Read more: ‘Every business unit is now a technology start-up’: Gartner

Powell’s role was an integral part of FBUnite, the group-wide business transformation programme that has been running for more than 20 months.

“FBUnite isn’t just information technology. It’s about developing a winning culture, being responsive to market changes, optimising our operational performance and creating the lowest possible cost structure,” he comments. “So it’s across the board.”

From an ICT perspective, the next phase focuses on creating a single, integrated ICT function globally.

“Centralising in this way will allow us to more efficiently and effectively deliver technology to the whole group through ‘centres of expertise’, which concentrate on delivering strategic IT products,” he says.

“It will also allow us to offer greater career and development opportunities to our people and invest in new capabilities.”

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Upon joining Fletcher, Powell says there was a need to quickly assess the current state from both a technology and capability perspective, as well as understand current business strategy and executive priorities.

“I spent the first six weeks with what felt like a fire hydrant of information hitting me firmly in the face,” he says. “After that, I could turn the fire hydrant around and start creating the high-level strategy.”

This roadmap covers three areas.

The first Powell calls ‘integrating the enterprise’, or taking a group view of Fletcher’s IT assets and consolidating these onto strategic products. These include ERP, CRM, BI and infrastructure.

“While industrialising the core, we will be preparing for a digital future. The second step is investing in high value, high impact digital initiatives,” he says. The third area of focus is creating a single, integrated ICT function globally.

Read more: Five big ideas to avoid doing stupid digital stuff

I spent the first six weeks with what felt like a fire hydrant of information hitting me firmly in the face!”

Carl Powell, Fletcher Building

The first stage has already taken place, with all ICT across the Fletcher group now reporting functionally rather than through individual business units. Powell explains that this was necessary to be able to manage the planned changes.

Prior to this, the businesses operated in a decentralised way. “All of our businesses were run by general managers who had a lot of autonomy over what they did,” Powell says.

The result was each of these became “very, very close to the market and the customer, however from an ICT perspective, it caused an incredible amount of diversification”.

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The transformation programme is not intended to change this customer relationship.

“Putting the customer at the centre of everything we do is critically important to us, so we must ensure that as we create the new centralised organisation structure, IT remains very customer intimate,” he says.

“We will do this by ensuring the divisional and business unit heads of IT remain close to their business but functionally understand the overarching group strategy.”

The shift, Powell explains, encompasses a number of other business areas such as HR, finance, and group procurement.

“Taking away transactional activity from our business units, like accounts payable, for example, allows the businesses to focus solely on their commercial activities and customers.”

Read more: How I became a CIO: Jason Millett and Kevin Angland share their journey

Digital opportunity and risk

Digital transformation is a major component of Powell’s portfolio and goes beyond information technology.

“The term best demonstrates how the boundaries of IT are changing. Information technology used to be seen as something inside the four walls of enterprise control,” he says. “Digital is a term that was christened for expanding our mindsets on what information technology is and can be and makes us look outside our four walls.

“I see the word ‘digital’ as a call to action for all business communities – whether ICT, marketing or operations – to look at an entire ecosystem of technology.

“This [includes] mobile devices, social technology and physical objects, all of which are an opportunity or a threat depending on how you choose to use and interact with them.

Read more: Leadership is demonstrated, not measured

We’ve recently set up a digital innovation lab with the sole purpose of rapidly turning ideas into value-creating reality.

Carl Powell, Fletcher Building

“Although it is unpalatable to some organisations, this is also a space where you need to take some risks,” he says.

Applying this perspective to Fletcher, Powell says the group is assessing digital opportunities and creating capabilities across different businesses units to capitalise on new, emerging and disruptive technologies.

Powell says the company recently set up a digital innovation lab with the sole purpose of rapidly turning ideas into value-creating reality.

Read more: The CIO imperative to step up and influence: Impossible, improbable or unavoidable?

“We’ll take a few risks along the way and I’m sure we’ll make some mistakes, but I also believe we’ll create real value and make it easier for our customers to do business with us.

“Our construction business is one where digital technologies are playing a strong part in directing the industry at the moment,” he says.

“Being able to use technology like tablets to visualise through augmented reality when you’re onsite what a building might look like after it’s actually been constructed, is something that’s very possible today.”

I see the word ‘digital’ as a call to action for all business communities – whether ICT, marketing or operations – to look at an entire ecosystem of technology.

Carl Powell, Fletcher Building

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Digital is also a mechanism to deliver an exceptional experience to the company’s customers, says Fletcher.

“We’re looking at using digital to drive greater customer loyalty,” he says.

“How can we interact with our customers in a way that is both more appealing for them but also makes Fletcher a very easy company to do business with?

“How can we use mobile technology much better to be able to allow our customers to interact with us? And how can we communicate with our customers in a much better way?”

For Powell, digital is also about disrupting business models. For this, he cites the case of UK online retailer, ASOS, which now ships to more than 200 countries including New Zealand.

Read more: Westpac’s mobile payment stickers allow customers to make payments with any mobile device

“They have completely disrupted their own particular markets by being able to provide excellent online digital service without having the necessity for bricks and mortar shops and outlets,” he says.

“It is very clever the way they’ve done it using all of the current social and marketing techniques available and knitted these services cohesively, while being very engaging with the customer. That’s a very disruptive way of utilising technology.”

Next up: The making of a CIO

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Tags strategyVodafonestaff managementdigital strategyFletcher BuildingmazdaplacemakersCIO100State of the CIO 2014Formula OneASOSCarl PowellMico

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