Interview: Karl de Bruijn, European IT director, Specsavers

By Nicola Brittain
09 Feb 2011 View Comments
Karl de Bruijn is European IT director at Specsavers

Opticians Specsavers has navigated its way through the global downturn like a customer with 20/20 vision. Rather than consolidating during what has been for many businesses a difficult time, Specsavers saw an opportunity to expand into new markets and seized it.

The privately owned company’s reach now extends beyond its stronghold in the UK and Nordic region and into Australia and New Zealand. It currently operates nearly 1,500 outlets and a production facility in Hungary, and employs almost 26,000 staff.

Further reading

Karl de Bruijn, director of IT for the European region, joined the company 18 months ago, just as it was expanding into the southern hemisphere. Before arriving at Specsavers, de Bruijn worked mainly in the financial services sector, with stints at Merrill Lynch, Nationwide Building Society and Legal & General, performing a variety of delivery and IT director roles.

He says that working in financial services made him rather “process orientated” but that Specsavers requires more flexibility.

“Being privately owned, the company has retained an innovative, dynamic approach to IT, meaning I need to be open to new ways of doing things, but of course our IT has to be tightly organised to deliver programmes efficiently on a global scale, and my banking experience has helped me do that,” he says.

Google Apps
In an effort to improve communications and collaboration across its rapidly expanding organisation, Specsavers is turning to Google Apps. The first phase of the deployment saw the platform rolled out to 500 staff, with a further 2,000 expected to be using it by the end of March 2011.

“Now that our business is really international we had to have a suitable collaboration tool,” says de Bruijn.

Google Apps is replacing Scalix, an email solution based on Linux, and was chosen in preference to the hosted version of Microsoft Exchange.

De Bruijn says that moving into a Microsoft environment would have forced the company to choose between different products in the collaboration technology toolset, while the Google Apps package offers an entire solution, including customisable email addresses, mobile email, calendar and IM access, spam filtering, online collaboration tools, web creation tools and video.

The company was advised by cloud specialist Ancoris on the cloud solutions available, as well as possible migration paths and cloud architectures. However, de Bruijn says that it is still early days with regard to cloud migration, and that the company has no specific plans to develop a private cloud as yet.

“Google Apps has given us cloud capability without having made a significant investment. We will now deploy some members of our internal IT team to start researching ‘the art of the possible’ in the cloud. They will create a prototype environment,” he says.

When asked which of the company’s processes would best suit a cloud environment in the future, he says that alongside communications, the company’s retail stores would benefit from shared cloud services. “Going forward, we expect to be able to cut our in-country IT support and replace these local bases with services provided from a central location,” he says.

Oracle ERP
Specsavers operates most of its stores under a system called the Joint or Shared Venture Partnership, which is similar to the franchise business model. Under this arrangement, each of its 1,500 stores across the world is run as an individual business with its own financial year end. The group’s accounting procedures are therefore very complex, and its rapid expansion has not helped the situation. In an effort to ease this headache, Specsavers is deploying a new ERP system from Oracle that will link to a warehouse management solution from RedPrairie.

The Oracle system will replace an open-source ERP solution from Compiere that was deployed in 2007. De Bruijn explains that although the company retains a commitment to open-source technology, the Compiere system was not able to scale in the way that was required.

“There are in excess of 1,400 individual companies within our global finance system, and Compiere is untested to this level. Another reason we chose Oracle was because we needed a system that could manage global, country and supply chain finance requirements. We also needed extensive capability in master data management and real-time integration of data into the system,” he says.

De Bruijn says that last year was a good time to go shopping for an ERP system because the market was flat and there were not many companies looking to buy big systems. Specsavers therefore found itself in a strong negotiating position.

Before picking Compiere’s replacement, Specsavers spent eight months building target operating models in collaboration with IBM, which then performed a functional assessment of possible solutions. Oracle and RedPrairie were subsequently deemed to be the best fit for the company.

“We were looking for a solution that we could easily integrate into our architecture,” says de Bruijn.

Boxing clever
Two other key pieces of technology that the company plans to have rolled out globally by the end of 2011 are Specsavers-in-a-Box and Lab-in-a-Box. Both are bespoke and have been built internally using open-source technology including Apache Tomcat, Java and solutions from Pentaho and Red Hat.

Specsavers-in-a-Box is a retail solution that makes in-store eye test and sales processes uniform across the business. It also means that the company offers the same range of frames and lenses from each outlet and automates a reminder for the customer’s next eye test.

his software is supported by Lab-in-a-Box, which automates the life cycle of spectacle manufacture including surfacing or glazing of lenses for frames. Lab-in-a-Box integrates directly with Specsavers’ lens manufacturing machinery.

IT department structure
Specsavers employs about 200 full-time IT staff, with de Bruijn directly overseeing a “demand management function” of about 50 people who focus on the retail end of the business. The rest of the IT department comprises staff who focus primarily on the manufacturing side and are responsible for application development and build.

The company has also recently signed a £5m, three-year deal with Software Quality Systems (SQS) to provide offshore testing of Specsavers’ business applications, including Specsavers-in-a-Box and Lab-in-a-Box.

De Bruijn recently restructured his team. Instead of each member of staff working in a change function under a direct project manager, the new structure sees staff members working in three functional towers – retail, supply and corporate systems – with the latter covering everything from Google Apps and customer centres to finance and legal IT management.

So with a newly organised IT department and an infrastructure optimised for further expansion, this family-owned company’s long-term goal of becoming one of the world’s leading opticians is now well within sight.

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