Imperial’s Cobus Rossouw: how digital and data are raising the game

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The executive VP of digital and IT at Imperial Logistics says you don’t need to be an IT leader to be a CIO.

Executive VP of digital and IT at Imperial Logistics Cobus Rossouw studied industrial engineering at the University of Pretoria, where he graduated cum laude. At the time, supply chain management was a new business science, and he became interested in the integration across functions and businesses. He realised that he required a deeper understanding of logistics and economics, so he completed his BCom (Hons) soon after to “get a broader sense of the financial side of things”.

“I’m a planner,” says Cobus, and jokes that his first “real” job was planning the Chappies factory in Swaziland (now Eswatini). Over time, Cobus became a logistician, and he still considers inventory and forecasts in everything he does. So, he’s not a CIO in the traditional sense.

“I’ve always been involved in technology, but I wouldn’t describe myself as an IT leader,” explains Cobus. “I’m more focused on business and supply chain management. But now that I’m in a CIO role, I’m a newcomer.”

Widening the agenda and allowing others to be experts
Cobus observes that those in executive technology roles are now coming from non-tech backgrounds like finance and business, and having a business-orientated perspective of IT is hugely beneficial.

“I can understand where a supply-chain background can be beneficial, as well as the importance of being pragmatic,” says Cobus. “My biggest shortcoming is that I don’t have the technical backbone – but if you surround yourself with the right people and you allow them to be the experts, then you can overcome that shortcoming.”

For Cobus, the enterprise agenda has widened, and there’s a strong focus on embracing the cloud, harnessing digital skills, and accelerating digital disruption as a strategic priority.

“Traditionally, Imperial has been seen as a wheels and walls company. Logistics still needs trucks and warehouses, but technology solutions enable businesses to operate in an increasingly digital world, whether that’s through e-commerce or monetising data.”

Proving the sceptics wrong with data
According to Cobus, Imperial has a strong digital transformation mandate, with digital and IT being a core enabler to Imperial’s strategy. The company has also placed significant emphasis on extracting practical value from vast amounts of data.

“We’ve ingested eight billion records from 50 different systems, and we are extracting multiple insights across the entire organisation,” says Cobus. “That’s really exciting; I shouldn’t get that excited if I’m not a techie!”

The data sources include truck telematics, fuel data, ERP records, and sales transactions across multiple geographies. “There’s truck and fuel data, like engine activity and fuel tank levels, on the one side, and retail activity on the other. And in-between are payroll and contracts data,” adds Cobus. “It’s a huge data lake, and the magic of data science is if you bring different data points together, you develop a new insight.”

While Imperial has gained several early-stage data insights, it has been a challenging journey, met with a fair dose of scepticism. According to Cobus, there are many sceptics in the world of data, but, once his team could show what practical insights could be extracted, there was a turning point.

“For instance, if you think about trucks in South Africa, they typically have a home base, but as they travel, they don’t necessarily have enough fuel to get to another home base, so they fill up on road,” explains Cobus.

“At a home base, a company like Imperial gets a wholesale discount, so the fuel is much cheaper. Using the fuel data, we built a ‘scavenger algorithm,’ which looks at where the driver filled up on road, and what he could’ve done instead. The machine-learning algorithm looks at all the options and predicts what should happen next time. When we first published the results, we were met with scepticism, but we have increased the percentage home base by 10 points, and the price difference is substantial.”

Every place has its magic
Cobus’s biggest passion is travel, and multiple opportunities have afforded him the privilege to discover the world. He and his wife have curtailed their passion during Covid-19, but this has meant they have explored more of South Africa.

“We have a fantastic country and continent,” says Cobus. “My wife and I were fortunate to travel fairly early on in our professional lives, and that’s how we’ve learnt about life and people.”

Cobus admits there are a few places he never wants to visit again, but there are so many with so much to give – especially when it comes to countries that are not popular travel destinations. “Few people visit Moscow instead of St Petersburg, and few realise that Croatia has a fascinating history involving kingdoms and empires. If you stretch yourself a bit, if you’re brave enough, you can figure out why the people are the way they are, and you’ll see that every place has its magic.”

So far, Cobus and his wife have been to 66 countries together. They had a “big, hairy, audacious” goal of getting to 50 before they both turned 50, and they beat that goal by some margin. They continued counting, but, says Cobus, if you count, you don’t go back. The next trip on the cards is seeing the rest of the Balkan peninsula.

“Travel also forces you to read and learn. It’s a great privilege – and I’m not counting anymore.”

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