Source: Interviewer Axel Winter, CTO, Central Retail
Moderator: Waleeporn Sayasit, General Manager-Corporate Communications, TCC Technology
(Waleeporn): First of all, would you please tell us about your past experience and present role at Central Group?
(Axel): Actually, it’s quite a bit also in Thailand right now as Chief Technology Officer at Central Retail. Not only Central Retail Outlet on Thailand but we also operate Central in Vietnam and in Europe, so it’s quite a bit. Then we also have a joint venture with JD.com, and we have investment in Grab, and so on so forth, so it’s quite dynamic.
Before I came to Central Group, actually in Thailand when internet started, it’s actually before the start of web browsers, may be around 93-94 I helped, with many other Thailand Colleagues and tech startups in Thailand, to help set up the internet. We helped some of today’s internet service providers. We helped IBM, CNN, Deutsche bank, and also a few local companies to start with internet service, internet email, and also even e-commerce. Then web browsers came, and we helped people transitioning the first kind of web set up in a sense. Also, in Thailand, we work in Myanmar, Lao, Indonesia so it’s quite a bit as a startup. And then I got excited about travelling around and doing more technology initiatives, also in big organizations, then I moved to Accenture in 97, as consulting here in Thailand. Then started both helping Thai organizations on the e-commerce/ e-business strategies. Kasikorn was one of them and Siam Cement Group, among others. Then travel for 8 years.
I was with Accenture and traveled around the world, Thailand, Singapore, Hongkong in Singapore HP CampaQ Japan Sony and so on. In 2004, I came back to Thailand again. I went to Europe and had some projects there then, end of 2004, I started at GE Capital as CTO for Asia. At that time GE Capital was one of the biggest consumer finance company in the world, also the biggest credit card issuer If you know financial services well, we had almost half a billion, accounts worldwide. And I started as a CTO for Asia for Thai business. I helped Thai business to grow as CTO in Thailand then later became the Group Architect at GE Capital Group. It’s funny story in the sense that I worked in Bangkok but my team was in New York and London. Every quarter I kept travelling around to see the different GE businesses.
When I was the Group Architect, now that streaming is very popular, I helped the Hulu.com team with their technology architecture. Then later I started to work for Deliott, and later CISCO Systems, as the CTO in the regional consulting again. I like adventure. Travelling around before Accenture my last job was Global Chief Architect at Standard Charter Bank Singapore.
(Waleeporn): Base on your experience, you travel a lot all over the world. You have experience in the Telecom, Consulting, and also Banking Business also right and retail also. How do you see the Challenges & Opportunity in Retail Business?
(Axel): That’s a very good question as you see in every industry. Digitalization and also startup activities are changing fundamentally how industry are working. What you can also see is that crossroad among industries; you could say it started a long time ago think about retail businesses; they started convenient stores, supermarket, food stations, and now you see restaurants, coffee shops, everything. Every industry all started looking at the convergence.
Particularly if you at B2C segment; the B2C segment converges around the retail consumer banking, consumer finance, telecommunication or type of data tech services. The companies which are retail, selling something and financial services players, to provide payment and short-term loan to allow you to buy products, data technology services, social networking.
All of these types of things come much closer together. You can see the effect, especially if you look at Google and Facebook, where they invested to create better tools, better API, better integration, with shopping companies, e.g. Google shopping is a good example. Facebook has a similar analytics platform, where you can push advertisement, but also you can understand what customers are doing. Facebook is investing its own market place & technology integration with banking, that Standard Charter have started.
It’s actually there to support e -commerce, payment, and consumer finance.
In Europe you pay through Klarna bank, which does the same. I think it has about two third of all e-commerce transactions in UK. It’s only there to service e-commerce players. It doesn’t have its own stand-alone branch network or anything.
So, you can say that this is industry, that is true in Thailand, not just for retail specifically. If you take a subset of retail of course it has to work online. You have to think about the meaning of marketplace, which is between store and online platform, how can we create a market place.
Some people like to go to a store; equally many & increasing are to address shop needs. This is a handshake between on and off line, between store and online platforms becomes extremely important. And that was visible 3-4 years ago, you can remember retail outlets started to become very weak. Some entered into bankruptcy protection. Clearly the situation in Asia is different. The life style, shopping centers like Central World are the fantastic place to eat, to watch movies, some exhibition, so the situation is different. And again of course people’s behavior, or changes caused by COVID, and as a retail organization we need to be a part of changes. Within Central retail, we build IT Tech org, and we have development capability to create these tools here in Bangkok, TH, Vietnam, Hungary and etc.
(Waleeporn): You have to create lots of tools relating to online use, and how to link online and offline and link all the ecosystem from retail, financial, and data technology-right?
: Do you find it’s difficult to justify the large-scale digital transformation initiatives? Do you have techniques or key indicators that you can share to the audiences?
(Axel): It’s a difficult thing because what happens is that successful organization starts to slow down in the way the fundamentals change. So, the issue is not that if you are an unsuccessful organization that you need to transform to become successful, but it’s usually the organization or company which are usually successful that do. Look at Thai Bank, Retail, Telecom, any companies –what’s happened is that one way of doing things is not somehow jumping in experiment mode to try new things. I thought that good examples of organization who keeps changing are Accenture and Cisco, two organizations.
Let alone what they do in organizations, takes a view of 10-20 years. Both of them have continuously & rapidly changed, actually leading the change in industry. Cisco has advanced product portfolio by using significant capital to acquire startups and integrate them second to none. In my experience in Cisco systems, in organization, look at trends globally. They’re already there, then they invest in startups to address this trend, and then they can turn around this new integrated product. Almost on the day of closing the acquisition, already the sales teams and everyone are going out and selling this new product.
They’re second to none in my opinion. Extremely impressive operation from that perspective.
Accenture is the same. If you look again when I joined Accenture, it has about 30,000 and now a very huge organization. Again, if we look at the history of delivering services of course they have consulting & implementation services and so on, and now they invest heavily in digital experience, user experience, customer experience and capability as you can see.
Accenture acquires a long list of companies, and you can see that also a meaning to us is that the next wave may not be purely digital, but to create second to none customer experience, to create a customer touch point within organizations and across organization’s boundaries. Again, retail and banking are good example of how this can flow in so if you want to check out why I cannot have investment in some money? Who will say that’s not a good idea right?
So you can see that this is an important part; organizations always forget the success so they have to step up and revisit how customers experience, how the process works, what’s the level of capability and start to enhancing the capability to address kinds of new ecosystems.
Accenture has done this quite successfully. A lot of organizations can be driven, organization change by clear shifts in customers, not only consumers but B2B business behavior, and of course COVID again. COVID is kind of the big stress test for our time for digitalization and efficiency, in the sense right that whoever wasn’t digitized and entered into COVID, they would have situations that people can’t go to the branch, cannot go to the store, business cannot be operated, what do you do? No one to sign papers. You cannot also if you look at the internal, HR, finance and so on, the bulk of papers for some companies to sign. They cannot work anymore, right? Hence Technology is becoming significant.
(Waleeporn): So, K. Axel – what you mean for the justification point is if the company would like to have good customer experience, to have good process –right? And also have good staff capability, then they would have to invest in digital right? And COVID is the event that is testing the capability of the company- if they feel reluctant to invest in technology, they may face some kind of difficulties during the situation like COVID
(Axel): Yes, that’s exactly the point. I think you can actually go through your daily life as a consumer. For example, Starbucks is very good in connecting online and offline.
They have immediate review with COVID by enhancing on line app channel. They make sure you can order via grab, lineman. They have driven through, and send updates to people via application how they can order. The app gives you input on that. Some business where you can see they can react very fast. Transformation in that way you actually want to have the ability by the ecosystem you create, so people can know what needs to be done, and then your business partner and so on you can have capability to turn this thing around, in a week, not even a month or year. This is the shift, right? So, the true goal is that.
Transformation in my view is that you increase your capability to automate and ability to drive lean and mean, not lean and agile. Very rapid change, continuous change, because who could have known in general that there is going to be COVID right? No one knows. So, if you believe in the old model of delivery like I have a project plan, I have a requirement, I deliver and in 2 years I am ready. If this is the mindset you have in organization, that cannot work in this world. It is impossible for this method to work What we need to do is to create again capability of people, create business infrastructure meaning that standardize, optimize processes, & standardize, optimize technology, which is adaptable, both process & tech sides. Then we are able to turn around this change within weeks. This is the goal of our time.
And we have COVID now, climate change across the globe, political implication, trade war is coming, all of these things can only be addressed by fast pace of change This is the challenge.
(Waleeporn): What’s the key lessons that you learned so far?
(Axel): Yes, happy to share.
We started this journey three years ago and when COVID arrives, not specific to COVID, but also to pick this example, of course platform-people-capability, to manage the uptake in digital commerce, online commerce, ecommerce quite a bit and also adjust for example. Increase pick up location- also there are many request promotions and so on which we have to adjust when the store is closed. So for me, it’s kind of clear that the journey we took is good; I think the lesson learnt is both good and bad right?
I think we already struck a bit, we have problems, we also focus on good things we learned, so I say that having the good disciplinary quite diverse team. I mean we have foreigners, we have many Thai folks, Male and Females, extremely diverse teams, and the ethic is very high so I am very happy. It’s not like at 6PM they like to go home. How can we do this and that?
They have good ideas, lots of energy; how can we do this tonight? And I think I am very proud of that. I think another thing which reinforces my belief is the last three and half years, and also the last couple months, procrastination in the business, not being able to make a decision is the true enemy. right? So Everybody who believes that they are good where they are, that’s may be true today, but if we don’t play it forward if they don’t continue to evolve, it does not help.
I am good now in the COVID period. Be it in term of scalability, Be it in term of customer insight, Business insight, Supply Chain. The duty now is to say hey, what happens now how can we make this even better. Not to rest on the laurels, but keep making decisions, keep driving forward, keep changing the organization, not to by accepting circumstance. OK, if we are successful, we don’t have to change. It sounds like normal but I can tell you that this is not what many organization s do. Many organizations feel good about “win” and then not think about the change. For me, I think I try my best to lead, Try to be the best to share my experience with the team and also business and say what could I have done differently, where could I excel more, and I think due to this I have good and healthy ways around what lessons were learned.
(Waleeporn): How do you lead/ motivate your people to transform the organization?
(Axel): I am very honest about my mistakes and the things that I might have done well. I like my team to share, but if I feel I made mistake I will come and say sorry. About a year into a stressful period, I share with my team “sorry guys, it was very stressful time for me, for whatever reason.” I’m definitely going to change, and everyone is very happy, right. It’s obvious that I’ve had a stressful time, and then when I shared it, we have a kind of online chat for any topic as I share kind of my own evaluation about myself, that Axel should slow down. This is what my team is like.
Some people also give very constructive feedback. I send surveys out and say “hey, what to do more, and to do less,” then you would say everybody gives you the top mark –no, that’s not true right? People are very considerate. They said I think you do very well. This might be good for you to revisit and think about how you deal with that topic, right? And I was very confident in people working with me, and I would say it’s probably true for many organizations. First of all, they have good intent, and they have good heart, but also, they are very considerate. Even down to the most junior person. They really think through and have good points. I would stress to every leader and every manager to listen to the people, they are working with. Again, I found that specifically the people you entrust to who work, let’s say below you in the pyramid.
Although it’s not really like that nowadays. It’s a team collaboration. Take their feedback seriously & go out ask and listen. The best you get from people who are organizationally related to. Because they know they work with you every day, while for your boss it tends to be important to focus on KPI right? They said you have 1-2-3-4 then you achieve KPI right?
But people below you think if you could ease up on this on that, or focus on them having a much better viewpoint, as they have to stay with you every day, on opinion how we are as a leader. So, it’s a very good thing, I really encourage everyone to reach out, and have 360 review in their own and peers in other departments, and so that everybody can share their thoughts. Some of us may think something may not be true, then don’t take them on. But you clearly focus on feedback and where they are true –you just adopt it.
I found that these items that admit your mistake -you listen, you learn, you grow with your team around it. Open for feedback and also sometimes there are tough discussion, tough argument, but in general this is your mindset then I think it creates a very healthy environment
(Waleeporn): K Axel I really like this mindset. Actually, it’s very difficult for leaders to listen to the team, right? You are very open; I agree with you that this is very good approach, and it’s very difficult for leaders to admit the mistakes.
: How can you apply digital technology to help create the best experience for your customers or serve your business partners & ecosystem?
(Axel): Well, this is a big topic obviously. I could talk about this for days. I think the mistake people make is that people tend to not strategize about it, but tend to look at it from the reactionary point of view. And I think if you start the journey of, let’s say, creating a new app, or new customers, it’s the same as for consumer or business. You need to understand where are customers coming from? What is their interest? You can have a focus group, or maybe start with your own opinion at first, and also you have to story to tell, which might not be the same as others.
But ultimately you do need to serve customers, and you can’t run away from it right? When you ask Steve Jobs before he would say –don’t ask customers -they don’t know what they want, right –we need to tell them what they want, and particularly what is good and bad yet.
If you look at the online side many companies try to optimize and continuously improve customer experience. This is for me the key when talking about digital products; you may need product design, how the product will be, how should it be. And at the same time after we start with minimum features and be very strategic about it, we need to make sure we start adding features by understanding how the product is being used, what the customers’ feedback is. And we can see what people click on, and may be confused by; you may stay longer in a certain step in the flow, then you take info you have and update the product.
It’s funny I have a friend of mine –he is CIO of a Thai public company. He said, well the platform that I used is really good, but one thing when I approve the workflow, I trust my team, but I need to approve but the app will not auto log in. I get an email on the laptop, it works because the browser, but not lead until the end, and he said that he wishes it would.
That’s good feedback we then align with strategy. Customers think it’s good so we add this feature and adjust it in a short time This type is keeping focus on strategy. Right? Mistakes in most corporations have two issues:
they talk about strategy a lot and they change their mind. They cannot execute -so they just keep strategy at the top discussion level but cannot execute. When they do start executing, they still question whether the execution is the right thing. So, it’s like a straight line -they go here and there. If you keep doing that you definitely don’t arrive and you cannot be successful.
And that leads to a significant investment in the corporation. So, if you look at some big banks, they invest two billion a year, initial investment, and this is part of reason, as they are over strategized. They keep changing opinions of what they need to execute. People don’t believe it but I can tell you that coming from banking you can also overspend. So, the question is are you making the smart investment, and this is the question that’s very complex, ways to measure whether your investment is smart.
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