Z CIO Lois van Waardenberg: Pure energy
- 16 February, 2015 05:30
As she puts it, technology is an inextricable part of solving what matters to Z Energy’s customers.
Very little transport fuel (or core business) gets delivered without the assistance of information and communications technology of some kind, says van Waardenberg.
Digital services are integral, she says, from our fuel deliveries using a mobile POS in a mini-tanker to service station customers paying at the pump or inside the store.
“The bottom line: business challenges are created and solved by people, sometimes using technology.”
Being in the highly competitive retail sector, (Z Energy took over the local operations of Shell) her goal is using technology effectively to win, serve and keep loyal customers. This includes simplifying the IT systems environment, with an ERP as a core component – and a focus on what’s now and what’s next in the “experience” we provide our customers.
The bottom line: business challenges are created and solved by people, sometimes using technology.
We have to serve our customers fast, in a friendly way, and hassle free, while achieving financial and operational targets, she says.
Her team continues to work across business units on a raft of projects with major business technology foundations. These include the ‘Pay at Pump’ services and speedy point-of-sale on retail sites. Z Energy also refined its commercial offers by teaming up with the team at Xero to provide invoice data directly into their Xero feed for free.
The business is constantly moving, she states. “We are proactively looking at ways to provide unique customer experiences that go beyond the current technology or industry trends.” .
Next: Music and IT
The creative bridge to IT
Van Waardenberg smiles as she relates the nuances of her role, as she says no one could have predicted the opportunities she has had in her career.
Van Waardenberg started as a classical pianist and a music teacher.
“I did that for quite a long time, and I decided to go back to the commercial world, or to use other parts of my brain again,” says van Waardenberg, who was then based in London on her overseas experience.
She then took a master’s in computer science. “That decision took me on a meandering career full of unexpected twists.”
Meandering is an interesting choice for her post-graduate roles because since she returned to New Zealand in 1999, she has worked on both sides of the Tasman. She has been CEO of Transformation Analytics, and held a range of executive, business, and consulting roles at HP, RHE, Suncorp Group, Optimation, Solnet and Southern Cross Health Society.
She is a director of the startupWriter’s Diet,, which offers a free electronic feedback tool for writers “who want to shape up their sentences but don’t know where to begin”.
With any leadership position, the more creativity you apply, the better you get on – it’s not all about thinking in straight lines.
“It’s a tool that helps writers improve their writing in a fun, colourful, energetic way,” she says. The project was a finalist in the 2011 University of Auckland’s Spark $100K Entrepreneur’s Challenge.
In July 2009 she finished another degree, graduating with a bachelor of law from the University of Auckland in 2013. The law degree was a side-step that’s useful in all kinds of ways – she focused on policy, IT and IP and international trade and investment law.
Somewhere along the way she also took a sabbatical to be with her husband, who was diagnosed with cancer. Her husband passed way and she says it took her quite a while to get back into the industry.
Over a year and a half ago, she was tapped to join Z Energy, the company formed when Shell divested its New Zealand operations.
‘We are all about service and speed’
“With any leadership position, the more creativity you apply, the better you get on – it’s not all about thinking in straight lines,” says van Waardenberg.
“Ideas come from anywhere,” she adds. “You become used to not focusing down on things but having the feel of things.
“That is very akin to a more conventionally creative task. You feel your way a little bit, experiment, listen out and stay open. If you are dealing with people it’s really valuable to have those skills.”
She finds her law degree “very useful” at Z Energy. “I have always been interested in the policy side of the law rather than the details of the legislation.”
Having experience in setting up her own startup is also important in her current role.
“One of the things I bring to an organisation is to bring that sense of urgency that you have when you are doing something where it’s personal scarce resources that are at stake. It’s this is the kind of energy she wants to fill the technology department with.”
She says Z Energy is a great place to bring to this kind of attitude. “We like to move fast, we aim to be a tightly integrated organisation.”
To be effective, my team needs to be trusted by business colleagues to provide what they need, in the way that they need, and be an advisor of choice to them.
In Z, the IT department “is part of the business – different from the too-common story of the technology people in the corner being out of sight and mind”.
She finds having the Z office in Wellington’s Queens Wharf laid out as an open plan helps with this goal.
“It does make some things we want to do a lot easier,” she says. “We can always walk over and talk to our colleagues and vice versa.”
She has a “medium sized” team of 35 and a number of key partners to which infrastructure and some development is outsourced.
Z Energy is a “tight knit corporate” of around 320 people, she says, but its network of retailers is also an important group of users. “And then of course, there are our commercial and our retail customers – who we serve through service stations, truck stops, air stops, at marine bunkers and through direct machine refuelling.
We are all about service and speed, she says, and this has an impact on the systems her team provides.
“To be effective, my team needs to be trusted by business colleagues to provide what they need, in the way that they need, and be an advisor of choice to them,” she says.
“That doesn’t mean they will get everything they need through us – it is easy to get technology provisioned from all sorts of places these days,” she states.
“But if we are close to our business, we can provide a kind of value that can’t be found by a collection of temporary partners. Intimate knowledge of our business and technology environment is fertile ground for the recognition of technology-enabled business opportunities – and that’s something we’re all interested in.”
The way to being trusted, to being strategic, is to be reliable.
“Reliability brings freedom,” she says. “I am trusted by my colleagues if I provide reliable services, I do what I say I am going to do, and deliver what I say I will deliver. That’s a good grounding for being that advisor of choice when a business unit is considering a new strategic option.
“I want the driver for this to be, ‘we did something with you the last time and we got a much better result than if we would not have worked with you.’”
When it comes to the issue of shadow IT, where business units buy technology without IT’s knowledge or imprimatur, it’s always going to happen to some degree, she says.
“You can sit down and cry about it, or take action – use the insight gained from the behaviour to understand what is missing, and what is going to work to help the business succeed in the long term.”
Next: Digital transformation
The digital perspective
As to technologies she is keeping an eye on, it is the same as everyone else – big data and analytics, the Internet of Things, “cloud” (taking some of the complexity out of IT provisioning, eventually), and digital customer experience.
Z Energy is also tracking any technology that will enable adjacent industries and pure-play tech companies to disrupt their business. “Now that we’re at the point where customers are used to technology and connectivity anywhere anytime, the possibilities for disrupting any part of the customer lifecycle are wider,” she says.
“Look at TradeMe, for example, [it's] disrupting the real estate and second hand car industries – unexpected and simple to do. Airbnb, Uber, Lyft … even hard-asset based industries are experiencing disruption.”
Van Waardenberg loves the customer-facing aspect of her role.
It’s the end customers, who really define my role. Their requirements become my requirements.
“It is not just corporate IT, it is direct to the customer. How can I make their life easier, faster, and how are we able to get closer to them in a way that is not annoying or intrusive?”
So how does she filter things? She says she looks at IT trends that apply to two industries – retail, and oil and gas.
Recently, an executive who works in retail transport fuel in Africa met with her and her team and they had a “brilliant sharing session”. She says she got their respective people to get in touch so they can have an ongoing conversation.
She says they were able to do this because the colleague was not a direct competitor.
“An important part of filtering is to create a roadmap of where the business is going,” she says. This involves talking to management across retail, commercial, supply and distribution to understand what the current problems are.
“Get them to do a crystal ball gaze on who their customers will be in three years’ time – will they be different, or, if not will they need something different?
“From there we can gather a picture of the organisation which lets us filter the kind of new technologies we should be looking at.”
Van Waardenberg is cognisant she is one of the few women ICT heads in New Zealand, but is adamant there is nothing stopping women from considering a career in IT.
As for her message for women who would like to nurture a career in this field, she smiles: “What is it that you want? Make it happen.”
And to those who make it to the top IT role, she is forthright that it is a “tough role”.
“But it is always going to be fascinating,” she says.
“In the end, it is all about people – listening, understanding when to nudge, building energy in the team – and staying intent on the customers,” she states.
“It’s the customers, and yes, I mean end customers, who really define the role, after all. Their requirements become my requirements.”
Send news tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Divina Paredes on Twitter: @divinap
Follow CIO New Zealand on Twitter:@cio_nz