Bidfood UK IT director Abigail Brierley talks to Priyanka Jethwa about how technology can transform wholesale, as well as the rewards and excitement that a career in wholesale IT can offer the brightest minds.
Better Wholesaling: Tell us about Bidfood, your role there and also about where you previously worked.
Abigail Brierley: Bidfood UK – which until recently was known as Bidvest – is a leading wholesale food distributor, providing complete catering solutions to more than 45,000 customers in foodservice. Bidfood employs more than 4,700 people across more than 30 sites.
I am the IT director at Bidfood UK and a member of the executive board. I report directly to Andrew Selley, our CEO. I have been at Bidfood for nine years and I have been in my current role since January 2012. I’m responsible for the IT infrastructure, the day-to-day operations of IT, and the ongoing development and implementation of new solutions, including ecommerce solutions.
Before joining Bidfood, I was at Cadbury Schweppes for 26 years. During this time, I had various roles, including leading the IT application support team for EMEA. So I’ve always been in the food and beverage sector, working in IT. As you can imagine, I have seen a lot of change in IT in 35 years!
BW: How does Bidfood lead the field when it comes to technology?
AB: Our mission at Bidfood is to deliver service excellence and to make life easier for our customers to help them grow. Technology plays an important part in the operation of our business and in how we interact and trade with our customers and suppliers. The ‘behind the scenes’ technologies we use to operate our business help us to ensure that we provide efficient and effective service to our customers. These technologies support how we operate our business, and help us to ensure we have the right product in the right place at the right time, and to process orders and deliveries in a timely manner.
Our ecommerce solutions enable customers to place orders with us electronically and suppliers to update product information directly on our systems. They also provide us with a platform to deliver added value and functionality to assist our customers. All of this enables our customers to spend more time serving great food.
BW: How would you assess the health of the wholesale sector when it comes to technology?
AB: Over the past few years, the wholesale sector has seen more of a shift towards electronic trading, so we have to consider the ongoing development of our outwardly facing systems. We still have a significant number of customers who prefer to place their orders by telephone directly to our telesales teams, so it’s important that we continue to offer various omnichannel options.
However, we are seeing more customers who are looking for the ability to integrate their own systems directly with us or wishing to place orders via our online shop or mobile app. Also, it is essential that we provide full and accurate information about our products, specifically product attribute data, nutritional data and food allergens.
BW: How does wholesale compare to other sectors in terms of embracing technology?
AB: We are open to embracing new technologies, but we need to ensure that the technology we implement has real business benefit and return on investment, both in how we operate and how we deliver great service to customers. We need to ensure that technology isn’t just adding a layer of complexity or adding unnecessary costs.
At Bidfood, we have worked hard to simplify and significantly improve the technology in our business over the past two years. This has included a refresh of our IT infrastructure and a move to modern server architectures, which, in turn, has reduced our IT operating costs.
We have also reduced the number of different systems we use by consolidating onto a few core solutions. This has removed considerable levels of complexity and we no longer have to develop interfaces to enable system integration of multiple systems. This means that we can be much more agile in our response to new business requirements, and can quickly deliver system enhancements and new functionality.
BW: How is Bidfood using technology to increase growth and sales?
AB: Being forward-thinking and reflecting core customer needs in our services is a major part of our proposition. We are doing this in two ways. Firstly, by using technology to improve our business operations, which will ensure that we operate efficiently and effectively and deliver great service to our customers. Secondly, by using ecommerce solutions to provide an easy-to-use online ordering facility. The online solution also provides our customers with information about our products, including product attributes, and nutritional and allergen information. We also offer additional features such as menu suggestions and recipe ideas.
We believe that having a great food offering and providing great service to our customers is the key to success, and will, in turn, help them to grow their margins. We therefore need to ensure that they are at the heart of our technology development and that it is wholly focused on supporting this goal.
BW: What role will apps play in the wholesale industry in the next few years?
AB: Apps are increasingly playing an important role in business, as more people require access to systems and information while on the move. We need to consider mobile apps that will provide our business with access to information relating to both products and customers, as well as mobile apps for our customers and suppliers that make it easier to trade with us and provide additional added-value services through the supply chain. The advantage of mobile apps is that they are quick to develop, very intuitive, and relatively easy to deliver.
BW: What are the common mistakes wholesale businesses make when it comes to technology?
AB: Many businesses struggle to keep it simple. They tend to overcomplicate their technology and try to deliver too much change at the same time.
We have found that delivering system enhancements in phases and consolidating the number of systems we use has removed a layer of complexity. This has enabled us to be more agile and to ensure we deliver IT projects on-time and to budget.
BW: What one technology will revolutionise wholesale in the next few years?
AB: Voice recognition. This is gaining momentum in other sectors, and could certainly add value in the foodservice and wholesale sector. At Bidfood, we are undertaking some research and development with one of our IT partners in this area to explore how voice recognition could be used to place orders directly into our core systems and to give customers easy access to product information.
BW: How do we ensure the wholesale sector attracts the brightest technology minds?
AB: While foodservice is a really inspiring industry to work in, not least because it plays such a crucial role in society and in our daily lives, we need to be promoting the sector and the opportunities available within it. We need to make the variety of roles on offer more visible – I am not sure that the importance of technology and the different solutions we use is truly understood. In wholesale IT, you need to understand all areas of the business and all processes, along with how technology can be used to support the business operations and performance, as well as how it can be used to deliver additional value and services to customers. This means there is a huge level of variety and we are involved with every area of the business.
The array of different technology roles in wholesale provides an opportunity to really make a difference, and to deliver business change and improvements. It makes a career in IT in our sector extremely satisfying and rewarding.
View the video below to hear more of Abigail’s thoughts.
Abigail Brierley will be on stage at the Better Wholesaling Summit on 13 July. To buy tickets for the event, which takes place in central Birmingham, visit: www.betterwholesaling.com/summit/