Pick n Pay’s Mark Tudor couples talent with technology

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A career in consulting gave Pick n Pay’s CIO an undeniable customer-centric approach to work, a trait he has added to his admirable list of skills as an IT executive.

It’s been an interesting nine months since Mark Tudor became CIO at Pick n Pay, but he is no stranger to the retail industry. He began his career implementing SAP, initially consulting in the manufacturing sector, then in retail, which ultimately led him to Pick n Pay. Mark completed his BCom and then did his honours in information systems at the University of Cape Town, before obtaining his master’s in the same discipline.

“IS was a fairly new discipline in the mid-90s when I was at university. For me it was something that probably started from spending too much time playing 20-cent arcade games,” he says.

After completing his studies, Mark joined a graduate programme as an entry point into SAP consulting, which meant he spent the majority of his time implementing SAP solutions at local manufacturing companies, his pre-entry into retail.

“I started my consulting career implementing SAP in local manufacturing businesses like SANS Fibres before spending close to 10 years in the UK primarily, working for Axon Solutions, which at the time was a fast-growing SAP consulting and support business,” Mark explains.

“I did a brief stint in Scotland and the rest of the time in London working for Axon Solutions, which was eventually acquired by HCL Technologies. During this time I worked in a number of different industries that allowed me to understand the unique challenges that businesses have in leveraging technology to support their varying challenges. This formed the bulk of my professional experience before I got into retail,” he adds.

Mark’s ties to consulting remained when he returned to South Africa, working remotely for Axon before joining SAP locally in their Cape Town Office. He later joined Pick n Pay after gaining experience implementing SAP in the local retail industry. He worked primarily in the data and analytics space within the retailer but later moved into an enterprise architecture role. Mark then succeeded former Pick n Pay CIO Chris Shortt as the new CIO for the retailer near the start of the year.

“As a retailer, there are various elements of technology and systems that we need to provide in order to support the organisation,” he explains. “Some of those elements are under my direct control, but others are under the control of the business areas that both own and operate the solutions that drive their business.

“For example, our online business platform isn’t under my control. We have created a separate autonomous business unit that both manages and operates our online business and also develops and operates the platform that supports it. This has worked well for us, as opposed to trying to keep the technology component in my area and the business component in another.”

“Coming into the role of CIO, my main priority was to ensure that a solid foundation existed for IT to support the core retail business better in driving their strategy. This is always necessary before looking to explore improvement opportunities in the core application platforms,” he adds.

Keeping the customer happy

There are benefits to having begun a career in consulting as a technology professional. That experience creates an undeniable customer-centricity in the work that you do as an IT professional.

“From a consulting perspective, you are taught to keep your customer happy – and you need to do that in a way that is technically correct in terms of the solutions that you are implementing – but at the core, it teaches customer-centricity,” he explains.

“That pillar for me is important in terms of how you engage as a professional and is a good foundation to have. If you are not clear in terms of knowing who your customers are and how to keep them happy, you will fundamentally be on the back foot as an IT function.

“Whether it’s translating a very complex technology environment into a comprehensible presentation,” he says, “or looking at them as if they were generating a net promoter score that you need to be mindful of, consulting definitely creates the right mindset from an IT function perspective and being clear on what service delivery means – that is how it’s personally benefited me.”

Leaving the pigeonhole

The value that CIOs can deliver is less about the technology and more about applying technology to the business problems that are present – that’s how the role has evolved and what today’s IT leaders bring to the table.

“Historically, IT was placed in this pigeonhole of delivering exactly what the business asked of them,” he says. “However, what I’ve discovered over time, is that the business we serve doesn’t always ask the IT function to deliver the right things.

“Where we have seen significant transformational improvement in our business has been in instances where either the business itself has understood the technology that IT is implementing and guided the team appropriately, or the IT team has gained a great understanding of what the business challenges are and implemented what they know to be the right solutions,” Mark adds.

“While creating a community that is really focused on leveraging technology to the fullest, understanding the business problem that the implementation work (applying the technology) is trying to address is equally as important. As such, it’s not solely about IT becoming business literate, it’s also about improving the technical literacy of the leadership that is making those implementation decisions.

“However, over time, people have gained a better appreciation of technology and what it can deliver compared to the past. We now have far more citizen technology folk – experimenting with tools like ChatGPT themselves.”

For Mark, the secret sauce is in the partnership between an IT function and the business units they serve. IT teams need to get closer to understanding the business outcomes they need to be supporting, and business units need to get closer to better understanding better the technologies that they could be leveraging.

At home, he is both a technology provider and solution consumer, as home automation is one of his hobbies. During the pandemic, he escaped the lockdown by spending time playing around with home automation technology that is now finding its way into Pick n Pay stores in terms of energy management. But when outdoors, Mark is either mountain biking, hiking, or golfing.

Mixed emotions

IT can evoke different emotions, says Mark: one day, you can be excited about a project going live, while on another, an unresolved issue can be giving you sleepless nights.

“Keeping me up at night is the operational reality of running a diverse retailer across the continent, and the challenges that come with connectivity, service availability, and the security investments that we continually need to make and manage.”

What gets him up in the morning, on the other hand, are the day-to-day opportunities that can be leveraged through the promise that technology can deliver significant business improvements. This gives Mark and his team a great deal of job satisfaction and the hunger to come back for more.

Mark is a firm believer that the success of the business is largely dependent on its people. Within an IT function, he says, you can have the best tools in the world and have the biggest pieces of infrastructure available, but if you don’t have the right people operating them, and engaging with the business, then that all becomes irrelevant.

“Our business is all about the people. The technology will develop in the background, but if you don’t have the right people translating that and implementing the solutions, you will never get a positive outcome,” he adds.

According to Mark, techies are generally more comfortable working with technology as opposed to people, and the biggest conundrum for an IT leader is seeing the value of the people ahead of the technology. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be in if most of your career has been spent working with technology but now the focus is on the people.

“In my role, much of my focus is getting the right people in the right roles. We have a strong team that we have built over many years and I am confident they are the right team to meet the challenges of our PnP IT future.”

There is a specific way that Mark tries to couple talent and technology. He believes that in order to be respected and get the best out of the team, you need to be in the trenches doing the hard yards with them, experience whatever challenges they encounter, and overcome them as a collective.

“I never want to be perceived as a leader who is detached from his team,” he concludes.

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