Q&A – Whitbread

The name Whitbread may still evoke an image of a pint of beer, but the company has not actually been in the brewing industry since the year 2000, when it sold its alcohol-related interests to drinks giant InBev.

Whitbread is now the UK’s largest hotel and restaurant company, operating the ubiquitous Premier Inn chain as well as numerous restaurant brands including Beefeater and Brewers Fayre. It also runs the Costa Coffee line of coffee shops.

The transition from brewer to hotelier and restaurateur has not been seamless, however, and the company spent some years without a defined focus or explicit strategy.

Here Ben Wishart, Whitbread’s change and information director, tells Information Age how implementing a clearly defined IT agenda has helped the company to develop a common purpose, and has in so doing boosted performance: In its 2007-08 financial year, Whitbread grew pre-tax profits by 26.3% to £210 million on revenues up 11.3% to £1.18 billion, and it is on track to top that growth in its forthcoming latest annual results.

Information Age: Can you outline the changes that Whitbread has undergone since you joined?

Ben Wishart (BW): Whitbread used to be a brewery, but it got out of the brewing business in 2000. It built a portfolio of hotels and restaurants, and businesses covering a range of different customer experiences, from sport and leisure to business trips. But the portfolio didn’t feel focused.

At the time, the City view was that we were a rather unfocused, rather sleepy business. So we set out with the challenge of creating a highly focused, aggressively trading company.

When I joined, we had several more business units than we do today. We owned the franchises to run Marriott Hotels and TGI Fridays in the UK, we owned David Lloyd Leisure and about 230 stand-alone pub-restaurants that we have since divested. We acquired the Premier Lodge company in 2004, and merged it with Travel Inn and rebranded them as Premier Inn 18 months ago.

The most recent change has been the creation of a single division for hotels and restaurants. All of our pub-restaurants, with only a few exceptions, have a Premier Inn right next door, with both run by one general manager. [Previously] there were two management boards which didn’t make sense. That change happened a year ago, and has been hugely advantageous. That was the final piece in the jigsaw in creating a highly focused business.

IA: How has IT helped to underpin these changes?

BW: The IT story has two strands to it. One side of our purpose here in the IT function is to grow the business. There have been a whole series of projects focused on improving the customer experience.

We have been driving an agenda that moves forward our web presence, for example. Since I have been here, we’ve pushed up the percentage of our bookings that are taken online from the high twenties to the high fifties. We’ve got five pilot [hotel] sites running with check-in kiosks, which massively improve the speed of each check-in.

Then the other side is our focus on making Whitbread more efficient. We have a programme of work called ‘Simply Better’. It started as a project called ‘Simpler Systems’ but that was too IT focused – it’s really about business process.

The ‘Simply Better’ programme includes projects such as replatforming our desktop environment, moving to VoIP telephony, outsourcing some of our finance and HR transaction processing, but its main aim is to simplify the lives of the people who run our outlets. It aims to free up unnecessary, non-value-adding time, so they’ve got more time to coach and develop their staff, have less stress, and have fewer repetitive processes to complete – to make their lives ‘Simply Better’!

Four years ago, there were at least two or three ways of doing most of the things that we do. A restaurant manager would have one way of ordering their food and beverages, another way to order a repair visit, another way of ordering tables and chairs. And they had an over-complicated and time-consuming set of HR processes to deal with. When we’re completed, there should be just one way of doing everything.

IA: What has been the leadership challenge in realising these goals?

BW: When I joined the company, the IT function was well led, there were some great people in the leadership roles, but it was highly fragmented. For every business unit, there was an IT function, and there was no group IT function. One of the tasks I was given by CEO Alan Parker when I joined was to create a coherent IT function, whether it was a shared services, devolved or whatever.

We needed to make sure things were consistent, so that we weren’t buying the same products at three different prices, and so we could develop our skills by learning from each other’s successes and issues. To do that, we had to create a sense of common purpose. That is why we developed an IT agenda.

That agenda constitutes a simple statement of purpose – the purpose of the IT function is to grow sales and to make the people who work in Whitbread more productive – plus five key imperatives, which are tailored to our people, our guests and our investors respectively. Those are the three central pillars of the balanced scorecard we use to manage the company.

The imperatives are as follows: From the people perspective, we want to make Whitbread a great place to work. From a guest perspective, we are highly focused on creating simple-to-use business processes and delivering fantastic customer service. From the investor perspective, we focus on getting our operational costs down, and investing wisely in competitive advantage.

IA: How do you motivate people to implement these imperatives day-to-day?

BW: Alongside our five imperatives, there are nine or ten statements that are more focused on what people actually do. For example, there is a statement about getting the average number of [internal] helpdesk calls down. Our helpdesk receives around 2,500 calls a week.

We can deliver a better service if we get that number down to 2,000 or 1,500. That would also mean that the people making the calls wouldn’t be on the phone to us, they would be out serving guests. So each of these statements are on a much more pragmatic orientation.

And for each of these statements, there is a key performance indicator. So we measure the number of calls per outlet, we measure customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction on a monthly basis. We measure like-for-like costs, and the progress of projects and benefit delivery.

We bring people together into cross-level and cross-functional groups, and get them to talk about the agenda and what it means for their job. Then they document their understanding in their objective setting, personal development and performance management process.

IA: What impact has this approach had?

BW: It has made it apparent what was missing from our project management skillset. Some of it was methodology, but we also found that a lot of it was about ensuring project managers felt that they had permission to go out and lead people’s thinking, and to make sure they had the required confidence. We’ve done some slightly unusual leadership training. We took all our project managers to drama school for a day, and got them reading Shakespeare.

As a result [of the changes], we have seen these people grow in their stature and their willingness to challenge their managers in the IT function as well as out in the operations. The agenda is also the core of our conversations with our suppliers and our stakeholders. We’ve had supplier problems in the past, and we used the agenda to give them an understanding of our objectives. That’s given them an opportunity to talk to us about things that are relevant. It has been an incredibly useful tool.

IA: How have you measured those improvements?

BW: The best measure is what people who aren’t in the IT function say about us. The feedback on individuals’ performance, on the function’s performance as a whole, and particularly on project success, has improved year-on-year.

We have a strong internal audit function at Whitbread. When I arrived, our audits were typically ‘Unsatisfactory’ or ‘Needs improvement’ scores, now they are routinely ‘Satisfactory’ or ‘Good’. That means our project managers are doing a better job at designing and implementing solutions.

Another measure is the satisfaction of the IT staff themselves. The company has an annual employee satisfaction, and the scores for the IT department have improved consistently.

And of course, improved business performance helps too.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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