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CIO Catalyst Brian Wilkinson

CIO Catalysts: Introducing Brian Wilkinson, chief information officer at KeHE Distributors

Our guest for this installment is Brian Wilkinson, Chief Information Officer at KeHE Distributors. With almost a decade of experience at KeHE, Brian is leading a large digital transformation initiative to scale the business and keep the beating heart of KeHE running. Brian and his team are continuously promoting growth by streamlining once very manual processes and bringing new solutions to customers. His passion for continuous improvement is evident as he explains that his job is not only to keep the lights on but to make them shine brighter.

During our interview, Brian shared his insights across a range of topics including tackling the various elements of a crazy GOOD™ digital transformation journey, the future of virtual and in-person events, finding ways to promote company culture while in isolation, recruiting IT talent, and so much more.

I believe we need to keep the lights on, but we also need to make them brighter. I am always looking for data points that can tell me where the light's either dim or are dimming. If I'm just keeping the lights on, I'm not doing my job.

Mark Ardito:
Brian, why don't you briefly tell me about yourself. How long have you been at KeHE Distributors, how would you describe your role, and what are your main initiatives this year?

Brian Wilkinson:
I started my journey with KeHE ten years ago, this May. Over the last three years, I have been in my current role as CIO and loved every minute of it. While delivering food sounds like an easy task, it seems every day brings about new discoveries and opportunities to bring innovation to an industry long seen as a laggard in technology.

Currently, our biggest initiative at KeHE is a digital transformation to enable our operations, along with our partners, to reach digital excellence. We're transforming a 30-year-old homegrown ERP system into a modern-day, cloud-first, serverless platform. The expectation is that this is going to dramatically simplify business processes and allow us to scale the business while meeting our goals over the next few years.

In addition to transitioning our system to a modern-day platform, we have other ongoing initiatives to improve the types of products that we bring to market. A key focus for us is how we bring those products to a digital marketplace and continuously improve our supply chain services and the company's other solutions.

Modernizing a 30-year-old system, that is really music to my ears, but that's a pretty difficult thing to do. I am interested in the correlation between organizational change and the transformation that's needed. What organizational change do you think helped push to make that transformation possible?

Two primary drivers put us on the road to a digital transformation. One, we needed to modernize our 30-year-old system so that we can keep, what is effectively the beating heart of KeHE, running. The second reason was the need for process optimization; certain methods are clunky and very manual. Right now, we are tackling both of those challenges at the same time.

In terms of how we attack the work, we are taking an agile approach by examining cumbersome processes and working to simplify them. From there, we are building improved and streamlined processes into the new system. Of course, any digital transformation initiative brings many organizational changes.

By working closely with our internal business partners and subject matter experts, we gain a sense of the current state and what the future state process will be. Working side-by-side with us - looking through wireframes, UI UX designs, going through demos, and giving us feedback all along the way - our partners have helped guide us through the digital journey and identify potential challenges.

One of the biggest challenges with a digital transformation journey is defining the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Typically, most of the capabilities from an old system need to move over to the new one. A question we often ask ourselves is "how can we nimbly, chip away at the changes while, at the same time, transition users off the platform efficiently and effectively?" Moving what runs the company and converting it into something else is like changing the tires of your car while driving down the highway at 70 mph.

Harder than expected or did you know what you were signing up for?

We knew the digital transformation was going to be hard. When you start to look at a 30-year-old system that was custom-built, you can expect to run into challenges.

We are currently facing what I believe to be the most challenging part. We are looking at our master data elements and the processes around those; uncovering all the different rules, nuances of different flags, and codes that are in there to support the myriad business models we have.

The real challenge is not knowing what you are up against until you get there. While we continue to face challenges, as anyone does in these types of transformations, we have incredible team members that are passionate about learning, and they have brought us to a point where we can see a light at the end of the tunnel.

I hear a lot of leaders talk about how they figured out the ‘why’ to transform. From KeHE's perspective, what was the driving thing that said, you know what, we really do need to transform here?

When we started this journey we were a small but rapidly growing company on our way to grow to several times that size. To accomplish that goal, we needed to figure out a way to grow and scale our business.

So, the impetus was all about scale. How can we scale without encouraging the proliferation of these clunky, manual processes? While we didn't necessarily put pencil to paper to calculate the value of all that, we knew that we weren't going to be able to scale with what we had.

As we've gone through the journey, we've looked back and said, "Okay. We just took this hour-long process and cut out 45 minutes. That process now takes 15 minutes and it's 90% more accurate than it was.” We are starting to see the fruits of our labor in that regard.

Answering the other part of your question, the catalyst for starting the initiative, were capabilities that we knew we needed to add into our portfolio that were not possible in the old platform. To build the new platform, we needed to start with a fresh architecture.

Listening and leaning into feedback from the detractors and change agents to help with the messaging is important. That is change management 101 and it is no different on a digital transformation journey.

Interesting. A lot of companies who undertake transformations, really ask the CIO to become that agent of change. Is that something that you've Ied here and what advice can you give other CIOs out there?

I would say that that's true. The way we approached the project is including the whole company in the transformation, rather than the IT department forcing it upon the business: a cross-functional partnership. We want employees to be bought in on what we are doing and why we are doing it. We have a constant communication plan to keep the enterprise aware, keep employees involved and engaged throughout the process.

We are also looking for our business partners to be, as we say, along for the ride, during this journey. The intent is to make it better for our employees, not worse. Because we are looking to improve, we encourage open dialogues about concerns and issues.
However, along the way you will run into detractors, people that prefer the legacy system because they are used to it. While you cannot please everybody, you can identify the detractors and change agents. Listening and leaning into feedback from the detractors and change agents to help with the messaging is important. That is change management 101 and it is no different on a digital transformation journey.

I think a lot of people maybe don't understand the impact that change management has on transformation. I think it's a really big piece that a lot of people just weren't expecting.

When we started this journey, we did not have a change management organization. That was a need that we identified early in the transformation. While we stubbed our toes a few times, I am pleased to say that we now have a strong change management capability. It is growing and making a big difference in how these new initiatives roll out.

It [COVID] taught us, along with the food and beverage community, that digital is a possibility and it can be better in many ways, especially in terms of efficiency and cost savings.

One thing that's been interesting hearing from other CIOs is how COVID has changed how they do business today. Has COVID pushed you in any direction where you thought you were never going at KeHE or maybe a direction that it certainly sped up?

The COVID-19 pandemic did not push us in any new directions, however, it did accelerate where we were already headed. We saw digital as an important way of connecting with our partners, both retailers and suppliers, several years ago.

The business of food is heavily rooted in relationships and community, as well as touch, feel, smell, and taste, because all of those things, of course, are important to food. For a long time, there was hesitation around selling food in a digital medium. When the pandemic hit, the food industry moved at light speed to feed America.

The pandemic did accelerate several different aspects of our business, including how our sales representatives work with our retailers and how we conduct our food trade shows, which moved to a virtual format. It taught us, along with the food and beverage community, that digital is a possibility and it can be better in many ways, especially in terms of efficiency and cost savings.

You mentioned KeHE’s large annual event, typically hosted at McCormick Place here in Chicago, that went digital instantly. Could you tell us a little bit more about that and what that new venture looked like?

KeHE's annual Holiday Show looked a lot different in 2020, it moved from a large-scale physical trade show to 100% virtual. That was a call that we made reluctantly, but we ultimately ensured the safety of our employees and the community of our partners. Fortunately for the last couple of years, we have been testing out various virtual technologies in anticipation that at some point in time, we would virtually participate in a physical show. With the pandemic hitting, it just accelerated the need to go virtual.

In just ten weeks, we took all those great ideas that we had built upon over the previous years and put them into a new solution to roll out our most successful show in the history of the company, the Holidays of Hope Show. It was incredible. Sales were easily doubled, practically tripling, our previous record. Plus, people enjoyed the experience of virtual ordering from the comfort of their own homes.

It is easy to say that the experience of the virtual show has changed our shows forever in many positive ways. Because of the tremendous success of our Holidays of Hope virtual show, we added two shows over the course of the year. Our latest physical show turned virtual, the KeHE Summer Show, also broke records proving the proof of concept.

Do you see an uptake in attendance on the virtual side or was the in-person more attended?

When you move to a virtual platform, you do not have the constraints of a physical environment. The number of hotel rooms you can reserve, the square footage of the McCormick Place, the number of booths you can have are all limitations when working with a physical show and the number of attendees. With a virtual format, it is much easier for us to increase the number of attending retailers and suppliers without having to expand the overall cost of the show. Our supplier and retailer partners were pleased, as well.

There will still be a need for physical shows in the post-COVID new normal world. However, there will also be a virtual aspect to it as well. It is an evolution, and we are excited to see it transform the show into a better experience through the power of technology.

So what do you think post-COVID looks like? Do you go back?

Within our industry, there is a need to come together, taste and experience food. We are firm believers in that. There will still be a need for physical shows in the post-COVID new normal world. However, there will also be a virtual aspect to it as well. It is an evolution, and we are excited to see it transform the show into a better experience through the power of technology.

That's fascinating. I've been putting on these CIO roundtables now for about six months and a lot of leaders that come to these, are really looking for advice and guidance on how to maintain and promote company culture when everyone is isolated. Have you felt a strain on your company culture or team satisfaction at all at KeHE?

Initially, there were certainly concerns about the strain on company culture brought by the pandemic, and there will continue to be concerns about that. With that in mind, within a week or two of when employees went home to shelter-in-place, we implemented a weekly company-wide call. It is 30 minutes led by one of the C-level or VP-level executives, sharing details on what is going on within the company. These meetings spanned from topics on how the company is doing all the way to digging into a specific part of the business.

In the first eight weeks that we did this, we saw a dramatic uptake in the engagement of the company. It was interesting to think that it took a pandemic to realize exactly how we needed to reach our employees. We have continued this, turning it into a monthly town hall with the whole organization. It has kept employees abreast of what is going on in the world of KeHE.

The other thing that we did, was lean into Zoom as a tool for collaboration and relationship building. We had already moved towards Zoom as our communications platform, but of course, people were hesitant to turn on their video. Because we are a very relationship-oriented company, we like those face-to-face meetings, as so many do.

From our CEO all the way down, we encouraged video communication to maintain that relationship. Seeing a person's face is a very important part of doing business along with building and maintaining relationships, which is a big part of our culture.

It is hard to replace water cooler talks and all that especially when you are on Zoom all day, but we have the occasional water-cooler type conversations, game night, or a happy hour to try and fill that void.

Besides town hall meetings and an emphasis on Zoom calls using video, have you guys put anything specific in place to create a sense of culture while you've been apart?

We have a very strong culture at KeHE. We SERVE to Make Lives Better®; is a part of who we are and a part of who we recruit. We had a strong culture going in, but we have also incorporated a couple of virtual initiatives to continue to strengthen that.

We have launched a podcast called Fruit of Your Labor, which highlights some of the cultural aspects of KeHE and it is available for download to all employees. Beyond that, every team has been urged to get together and celebrate their successes and triumphs, in the best way possible for them.

Even before the pandemic, securing IT talent was a serious challenge. I know a lot of companies used to focus on filling seats and getting talent into the office. But with this new work from home environment and the ability to hire anywhere, how are you handling recruitment and your staff’s location?

I would say we were always “flexible”. Flexible, in the past, meant you were probably in the office four days a week, and then you had one day of flex. And every once in a while, maybe you have two days of flex.

When the pandemic hit, our definition of a flexible working environment shifted. Non-essential employees went full remote and have been for the duration. Working from home has leveled the playing field for us, in many regards. We have teams of people in Buenos Aires, Grand Rapids, Jacksonville, and the Chicago suburbs. Now with everybody on Zoom, the meetings are much more effective for most teams. It wasn't more than a couple of weeks into the pandemic where employees said, "Hey, this is working so much better. Do we ever need to go back?"

Our culture, overall, as an organization has always been one where we want to see people face-to-face. As we have gone through this year, we recognize the future is different. We do not see the company returning to the more traditional "butts in seats" model.

There will be exceptions to that, but KeHE is adjusting the space that we have; reconfiguring it for more onsite rather than offsite meetings. The idea is you will bring people in; you will have a meeting and then go back to your home office.

This flexibility also opens borders for us with regards to how we recruit talent for sure. We still source talent from within the United States, but it is certainly changed how we recruit. We used to restrict our search to the Chicago and Jacksonville areas, however, we now have folks that are based in New York, Portland, and other parts of the country.

Have you seen any effects when it comes to attracting talent to come to KeHE from different regions?

We have not so far, however, most people hired during the pandemic are within the regions that we originally targeted. There have been a couple of exceptions to that, but it will be interesting as we look forward to some of the HR-related concerns surfacing around a more remote workforce. Pay grade adjustments, travel expenses, and equipment all come to mind. These are tough topics that HR is still working through.

Inside the CIO community, the one thing that I'm really trying to help drive is, what makes other CIOs tick and what's that thing that keeps you going. So I'm always interested in what information you seek, that's not readily available or discussed?

I am always looking to make things better, that is a part of my DNA. My mantra is we need to keep the lights on, but we also need to make them brighter. I am always looking for data points that can tell me where the light's either dim or are dimming. For example, that could be anything from examining how long it takes to complete a process all the way to evaluating the health of a system.

Over the last couple of years, we have done a deep dive into the world of data. We are trying to instrument almost every piece of our applications and architecture so that we can understand the use of various functions. As we go through the change journey, we are looking to confirm the success of the digital transformation by determining that legacy system use has decreased and the use of the new one increased. We are always looking for data points that can tell us, factually, that we are healthy and that we are making the lights a little brighter each day.

We have also embraced the idea of running small experiments to test new concepts and innovative ideas. We believe some of these experiments will lead to strategic opportunities for the company, and ultimately fuel additional growth.

If I'm just keeping the lights on, I'm not doing my job.

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