In 2016, my biggest challenge as finance manager was getting relevant information out to the business so people could make decisions off the back of it. At Travis Perkins, we’re very data rich. We’ve got 650 branches that do what they want really. So we use data on a day-to-day basis to show each one of them what they’re doing right for their business.

Change is at the forefront of everyone’s minds at Travis Perkins. We have programmes in place that help everyone understand why we are changing and what the benefits of the changes are. It might be a new way of reporting or a new till system or a new way of dealing with customers.

How important is data to the future of our organisation? Massively, immensely important. How much access to our data do we have as a business? It’s probably still only 50% of the data we actually need. Having access and having the right data in the right systems at the right time is going to make or break Travis Perkins over the next year.

Price point analysis – so the level of discounting that branch managers are giving to our customers – is particularly key for us. Unlike other retailers, at Travis Perkins we don’t really have a fixed price point for our customers. You can go into a branch, pick up a product and pay a completely different price to me. So one of the challenges we face is getting more control over that.

The other thing we don’t touch on a lot at the moment is understanding our customers – things like the size of their wallet, which customers we should be targeting, who is more profitable. We probably have more information than lots of other retailers, because we know not only what customers spend with us but also what they spend elsewhere. Because most of our customers are limited companies, we can access their accounts to understand what they spend in the market. That means we can unlock the potential within.

The starting point is getting access to the right data in the right format.

Hemal Morjaria

We’re also really interested in using data to understand the market. That could be anything from seeing how many towns are in the local proximity of a branch to how our competitors are performing in a local region. We could even be looking at the weather to predict, for example, how snow affects branch performance. Wouldn’t it be great if we could understand that in a bit more detail?

You need a system that can bring all the feeds together to then make the data actionable. That means cleansing the data and then producing an output that says, “These are the three or four big things that you need to look at that are important”. There’s also a challenge in helping the business to understand what it can gain from that. So you might have to sell it by saying, “It will generate X many pounds’ of benefit or additional profit by having better visualisation of data and a better understanding of the information we’ve got”. That’s a challenge all businesses face: upfront investment in a data strategy.

Seeing a proven record that the system has achieved its ambition or goal is the number one step before we invest in a new technology at Travis Perkins. There are so many systems out there that can do such similar things, but when you get into the detail you find some just can’t do what you need them to do. Then, we look at the cost, the price, the actual investment in pounds, including upfront setup fees. Finally, you have to consider the interface and the ease of use. Our regional directors and managers aren’t iPhone users and haven’t got whizzy tablets; they’ve just got laptops that they use every day, so being able to integrate with them is a long-term ambition. And whatever system we look at needs to be future-ready for when those users do become more tech-savvy with iPhones, tablets and apps.

For other finance leaders looking to make a data-driven transformation, here’s my advice. The starting point is getting access to the right data in the right format. Then you need people who understand the data so the organisation can start utilising it. And then it’s about the end user and ensuring they’ll be able to use the system. There might be a spectrum of users, from people who really can understand the data to someone who just wants a visual in the simplest form so they can make decisions.

You need a technology provider that really understands customer requirements. I’ve seen so many systems get implemented where it works for one individual, but when it gets to branch managers or regional managers they can’t make use of it. Maybe it’s not in a ‘language’ they understand or have seen before, so it’s a bit of a waste.

One of the biggest things we’ve done is give the branch managers the data they need to action in a list. We’re now able to have 650 specific, individual branch conversations every morning at 8am, whereas before there was a lot of generic chit-chat. We say, “If you look at this email and action these 10 things, it will make your business a better business than it was yesterday” – really simple, digestible data that makes a difference. The comment we hear a lot is that branch and regional managers get too many emails. So there is a challenge in making sure that they email is read and actioned, that the data is actually utilised. It’s about closing the loop and ensuring that the information gets used.

If you want to ensure that data and technology work for you, you have to take accountability for it. Within Travis Perkins over the last two years we’ve introduced various pieces of technology. What has been the most successful new launch in the business? I reckon everybody would agree it’s our reporting system. That’s down to taking ownership of it. Where other systems have failed has been the project lead not taking full accountability or ownership of it. The thing to do is to commit from start to finish; you need to really sort of fall in love with that system. You’ve got to work closely with the technology supplier. As soon as your system shows a weakness, it sort of loses credibility. If there are issues, you need to get them solved in advance rather than blaming the system.

How do we bring a data-driven approach to decision making at Travis Perkins? By keeping it simple. That means understanding the end user’s requirements and background. Does the reporting or data set align with their goals, rewards and bonus scheme? Does it conflict with other information they’ve received? I’ve seen so many times where an organisation thinks something is brilliant, but when they send it out to the business it actually conflicts with another KPI or other messaging.

We’re constantly changing and evolving our data reporting system to make it more relevant. It doesn’t work to just come up with a problem and then pass it on to the system provider and say, “Come up with a solution”. We’re the ones who understand the business because we live and breathe it, so we need to understand the software and its capabilities in order to come up with a solution that addresses our real needs and problems.

Increased access to data has definitely given us additional profit. Being able to sell things at the right price has generated something like £18 or £19 million in profit. Through other initiatives and reporting, that’s generated another £8 or £9 million in profit. It’s all really good stuff.

For my department, the 2017 objective is learning from what we’ve already achieved. We’re really working closer with the business to ensure the information we give people is viable, robust and accurate, and that they’re able to use it.