Kim didn’t follow the usual CIO career path – and it’s paid off
Ballito-based, Kim Sim, CIO at Mr Price, quips that the Durbanite motto has become: ‘Is that today's challenge?’. She grew up in Johannesburg, and, like many 18-year-olds when they finish school, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She knew that doing a degree for the sake of it would be a waste of money, so, she decided to take a gap year – but it didn’t involve a Contiki tour.
“It wasn't one of those nice, trekking-around-the-world gap years,” she laughs. “I wanted to find a job, learn from it to understand what I do and don't like, and then move on to the next one.”
A hard-graft gap year leads to a latent passion
Kim admits that for a matriculant these days, taking this approach would be difficult. But in the late ‘90s, it was possible; jobs were found in local newspapers, after all. Kim did everything from selling vacuum cleaners to working in a photo lab (again, it was the ‘90s). By the end of her hard-graft gap year, she’d gained valuable experience in the working world. It was at this point that she’d enter the world of retail. She wouldn’t realise it at the time, but it was where she was supposed to be all along.
As a young girl, Kim would join her dad on store visits, and he would pay her R50 to bind board packs for men in suits from Wooltru (a company that housed the likes of Woolworths and Massmart but unbundled in the early 2000s). “I ended up temping for my father, years later,” says Kim. “He’d always been in retail, and the company he worked for had a vacancy in one of their departments,” she explains. “It was only after I started that I realised my passion was retail – when I reflect on it now, I was bred to be a retailer!”
A major merger brings a big problem
After her first official retail stint, Kim studied a BCom in retail management through UNISA. In true Kim-style, she didn’t take a few years off to complete it, instead, she studied while she worked. Kim cut her retail teeth at Dion, but when Massmart bought Game, Dion was merged with it, and the head office moved to Durban. Like most of the senior executives, Kim’s father decided to relocate to Durban, while lower-level staff found new positions in the Group’s stable.
“During the merger, I was one of three people who kept Dion running on their old ERP, a SAP-based system in Jo’burg. It was disruptive to the business, but the three of us replenished stock and managed price changes with suppliers. Then I moved to Durban because the Group’s MD realised there was a problem,” says Kim.
The problem was this: the senior staff in the new head office didn't know how to work on the SAP platform – the organisation now had people who could make decisions, but they couldn't execute them. Kim was naturally roped in, as she’d been operating the SAP system in Johannesburg successfully, and she knew what needed to be done. Kim was asked to train them on how to use SAP so that Dion could continue trading, and she ended up working for the outsource organisation that provided the technical support.
A pros and cons list reveals: “You’re the guy!”
During this time, the Makro CEO had to make a big, expensive decision. He needed impartial advice on which ERP to go with. He had worked with Kim’s father over the years, so he flew down to Durban to discuss it. “The CEO just wanted to chat to someone who wasn't trying to sell him something, because it was a huge investment,” adds Kim. “My father said, ‘I look at retail reports so I can't tell you much about the ERP system, but… my daughter knows a bit about it.”
Kim got home that evening after work, and she was informed she was meeting with the CEO of Makro the next day. “As any good 19-year-old would do, I made a list of pros and cons about SAP for a retailer,” she laughs. “I met with him the next day and took him through my views.”
Shortly after their chat, Makro contacted Kim and asked her if she wanted to move back to Jo'burg… to be the project manager for their SAP implementation. “I told them I'd never done project management, but they said, ‘Nope, you're the guy!’” Kim laughs.
Crashing from a high, and a forced sabbatical
Up in Jo’burg, Kim enjoyed the learning curve of project management. Once the project was wrapped up, however, she was in limbo. Projects come with “high highs”, she says, so she became restless once the high subsided. An opportunity to work in the UK popped up and she grabbed it. Makro declined her resignation, and she was told they'd give her a sabbatical instead. “I didn't know what that was; they said it just means ‘get this thing out your system and you can come back’. They figured I might pick strawberries in Ireland or something!”
With her provident fund and medical aid on pause, Kim headed to the UK. She did interesting things, like working for the Home Office and creating solutions to reduce mobile phone crime. She didn’t end up picking any strawberries, however. Just before her two-year sabbatical and visa were up, Makro phoned. They told her they’d bought Builders and Tile Warehouse, and they wanted her to help implement SAP.
“My heart was in retail and in South Africa, so I returned. The day after I landed, I got stuck in on the new project,” says Kim.
Knowing what it takes to get it over the line
Since then, Kim has worked extensively on SAP implementations, project management, solutions architecture, consulting, and business development. She also did a stint in banking, but, she says, working in banking is like being on the Titanic. “Your ability to influence direction and speed of implementation is limited,“ she explains. “I'm more of a speedboat-type of girl: I don’t want to stick around for 25 years to see that I’ve made a difference.”
In 2012, Kim joined Dis-Chem as an IT and projects executive. She spent eight years at the retail pharmacy organisation, and in 2018 she was made CIO. Kim loved the people and the brand, and she particularly enjoyed using technology to solve issues that affect everyone – like accessible healthcare. “The combination of retail and medical is a fascinating space that’s underpinned by massive opportunity for growth. Plus, I could tap into sexy stuff, like machine learning,” she adds.
In 2019, Kim took on her current role of CIO at the Mr Price Group. Here, she’s spearheaded the replacement of their legacy ERP system to an Oracle-based one. It’s recently gone live and is still a work in progress, but it’s something that Kim is proud to be a part of.
“When I was hired, Mr Price needed someone who had successfully implemented ERPs before, but I’d only been involved with SAP which is predominantly FMCG-focused. I’d never implemented an ERP on Oracle in the fashion space, but they needed someone to help drive a team to get the ERP over the line.”
“Put in the effort, and the rewards will come”
For Kim, the CIO's role in 2022 is very different to 10 years ago. Instead of a support role, IT needs to lead an organisation – because most organisations are now technology-based. But she doesn’t believe that an IT qualification is the only route to becoming a CIO.
“I honestly believe that understanding the business is critical for CIOs,” says Kim. “This enables you to evaluate solutions against what the business really needs – and you’ll know what it’s going to take to get it there.”
“But the most important thing I’ve learnt is that we all need to find our passion,” she concludes. “And if you put in the effort, the rewards will come.”