When Steve Pimblett joined The Very Group in October 2020 as chief data officer, reporting to the conglomerate’s CIO, his task was to help the company uncover value in its rich data heritage.
For a company that made its name in mail-order catalog sales, the idea of creating a company-wide data catalog seemed like a fitting part of that process.
Very grew out of the successive mergers of several mail-order catalog companies, the oldest dating back to the 1890s. Its constituent companies then moved into high-street retailing, launching new mail-order brands that they sold clothing on credit and even created a consumer financial data broker, which was later spun off like many of the group’s other non-core activities.
The group’s online movement began in the 1990s with its first steps in e-commerce, followed by the closure of its physical stores in 2005. It launched its first online-only brand, Very, in 2009 and eventually abandoned its print catalogues. to go all-online in 2015.
The entire company changed its name to Very in 2020, the year Pimblett joined. It found a rich collection of data assets, including information on more than 2.2 million daily website visits, 4.8 million active customers, and 49 million items delivered annually.
Yet behind the main brand, he says, data remained scattered in silos across many business units and legacy applications, with limited automation, many glossaries, and complex data lineage, and management made it difficult to control and audit.
Data and analytics experts were also spread throughout the organization, some on the technology team but others embedded in the various business units.
“There was no one to help everyone with core standards and approaches, so each business vertical was doing it differently,” he says. “’It’s’ everything from how they collect and measure data to how they understand it and their own glossary. It was very fragmented, and I brought it together in a hub-and-spoke model.”
The new model allows Very to design once and deploy everywhere, while maintaining a product focus.
As a result, Pimblett now runs the organization’s data warehouse, analytics and business intelligence. “We’re a Power BI store,” she says. “I run the infrastructure and a core enterprise BI team.”
Establish a clear and unified approach to data
But getting to this stage was a complex process that involved creating centers of excellence for things like data analytics that possess end-to-end infrastructure, applications, and skill sets, as well as career plans for staff. .
Pimblett took a carrot-and-stick approach to getting everyone to work together, partnering with them on value creation (the profit carrot) and risk mitigation (the compliance stick). “It’s about making sure we understand the legal basis for why we’re capturing data, what we’re doing with it, where it’s flowing, how we use it, and that we control all of that stuff,” he says.
Businesses need to be aware of the dual nature of the data they hold, which can be both an asset and a liability, he says.
One of the first projects where he was able to add value through a partnership between his data center and one of the business unit representatives was the creation of a new demand forecasting tool.
“We are a multi-category retailer with over 160,000 SKUs, so forecasting how much stock to buy of each SKU is a business challenge, but also a technological and mathematical challenge,” he says.
To get business unit buy-in for projects like this, he says, “you have to sell them the benefit and result of the shared platforms, the reuse, the shared data and the efficiencies they’ll get,” not the technology. you will use
“A lot of roles in data just talk about the data,” he says. “Where do we keep it? What is the infrastructure? What is our storage technology? You know, good DBAs, modelers and analysts.”
Instead, Pimblett says, he and his data colleagues are asking business managers, “Where do you think you can create value from data? What kind of decisions are you making? Where is there an opportunity to automate? And how can we delight the customer or empower their colleagues to make better decisions? Make it a result, a value and an action conversation. That tends to compromise them,” he says.
A more agile catalog business
Very has come full circle as a catalog data-driven company, but it took some soul-searching to figure out the best way to get there.
“Cataloguing your data is more important than ever for many businesses, with so many technology options, different data silos, enterprise storage, lake houses, data lakes, and all those kinds of capabilities,” says Pimblett. “Understanding what data you have locked up in all these different stores is a big part of the puzzle.”
So it started working on a pilot project with data catalog and governance tool provider Alation about a year ago, after it responded to Very’s RFP. In a first test of the technology, he used Alation to catalog a subset of Very’s data found in an old Teradata database. It took him about nine weeks to set up the infrastructure, make the connection to the database, and index and understand the metadata. Very is focusing on short sprints like this, rather than monolithic 12-month projects that may not fit the business when they’re done.
“Running a pilot within nine weeks, testing it, proving value, and then moving it to production is pretty much what we think about our entire technology agenda,” he says.
However, Pimblett has not yet cataloged all of Very’s data. It will always be a work in progress. “We’re picking the areas of highest potential value and highest risk,” she says. “We have done it in our financial services area and in part of our marketing area. Those tend to contain the most information from our customers.”
The next step will be its implementation throughout the company.
“We have some massive systems that are slow to index, not from a technology perspective, but from a data management and understanding perspective,” he says.
Courage, not vanity
Reflecting on the things he could have done differently in the two years since joining Very, Pimblett cautions against embarking on new tech projects for the sake of it and recommends always thinking first about the desired outcome or action.
If you don’t, he says, “there will be a time when you’ll realize you haven’t lived up to your own principles and you’ll start with action and result.” In those situations, he says, you have to tell yourself, “Go back to your strategy. You have wasted value because you had a team working on a vanity project instead of creating business value.
One of the next value-creation projects Very will apply its rich data legacy to is lending: by the end of 2022, it will pilot a new personal finance business, offering loans of up to £7,500 to its customer base. ($8,800) from one to five years.
“We have a trusted brand and we have just started to innovate based on our technology and data capabilities,” he says.