Out of her shell: Women in IT Awards’ CIO of the year

Shell is one of the world’s largest retailers, bigger than McDonald’s and Starbucks, and Maggie Van’T Hoff is responsible for providing IT globally across more than 43,000 Shell retail sites (petrol stations).

She is focused on delivering and driving value from IT to enable Shell’s retail business to achieve ambitious growth plans.

She leads approximately 350 staff and is accountable for the retail side of Shell, which includes loyalty, marketing, cards, mobile, site systems and operations for a diverse network that pervades 70 countries.

Her responsibilities also include driving transformational change and supporting a move to new technologies through innovation to maintain a competitive advantage for Shell Retail.

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This is achieved by instigating a move to the cloud using data analytics and working with an ecosystem of diverse service providers. The business’s growth and transformation is underpinned by a mobile-first strategy.

Mobile transformation

This mobile-first initiative, combined with a fresh approach to using data-driven analytics, began around four years ago. The required transformation was a recognition of consumers changing behaviour, says Van’T Hoff.

To implement an effective mobile policy, a number of programmes had to be put in place. First, and perhaps most importantly and challenging, the foundations of integrating new technologies onto an old legacy IT system that connected the retail sites had to work efficiently and safely – especially when considering data privacy with payment card industry standards.

Van’T Hoff is in charge of keeping Shell’s retail assets safe through a programme of compliance and data privacy. She has strengthened the usage of cyber defence for the business, employing risk management experts and a cyber-aware policy that is intent on educating employees through campaigns, phishing tests and risk mitigation strategies.

Implementing new technology into a legacy environment at Shell is quite complex, says Van’T Hoff. ‘We have this historical landscape of systems that need to be connected, like your SAP or your point-of-sale or, in a fuels industry, your forecourt controller. And that has to be interfaced with the new technology. It takes all of us working together as one team, while making sure you have the right service delivery capabilities to make it happen.’

Foundations for innovation

To maintain these high standards, Van’T Hoff emphasises that Shell relentlessly seeks to improve operations. ‘We looked at ways of being more flexible in the foundation that we put in place,’ she says. ‘The pinnacle of everything in retail is the point-of-sale. It connects to everything. It connects the pumps to the back-end systems, and so we looked at ways to make that more agile. One of the things we introduced was a pilot with Revel in San Francisco – a tablet-
based point-of-sale using cloud technology instead of a traditional clunky PC-based point-of-sale. We are now in the process of implementing that across our markets.’

This approach is fundamental to remaining competitive. Retail must have a swift and easy payment application and a strong mobile connection. Everything is moving to mobile, and by 2020 in the EU 50% of people will be paying via mobile at fuel stations.

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But in this industry you can’t stand still, and constant innovation is required to transform, in this case, the fuel retailing business.

In pursuit of finding better ways to reach Shell’s customers, Van’T Hoff and her team are finding different ways of implementing the mobile-first strategy.

‘We’ve rolled out, specifically in the UK, a fill-up-and-go mobile payment platform connected to a mobile motorist app that allows any of our loyalty customers to get easy access, quick service and loyalty rewards with Shell. All of this is based on a data analytics platform that we put in place years ago, to delight customers with offers that matter to them.’

Customised loyalty and rewards offers will be vital in continuing to attract the consumer. Indeed, as Van’T Hoff puts it, ‘Coming into petrol stations is not everyone’s idea of a joy, and we know that so we’re looking for new ways to make it convenient.’

Continued innovation is critical, and as a result presenting a quick and easy mobile payment service is not enough. As technology advances, Van’T Hoff envisages drivers – or indeed connected vehicles themselves – ordering ahead.

Analytics may begin to predict driving patterns and the Internet of Things could be used to enable a more convenient visit to retail sites by helping to excite different customers about the different offers available.

‘Without innovation we won’t continue to grow our competitive advantage or market share,’ says Van’T Hoff. ‘That’s all based on a business direction of focus on the customer.’

The aim is to utilise technology to help customers have exceptional experience with Shell, and the results are telling. Van’T Hoff tells Information Age that the innovations she has overseen ‘have significantly supported increased market share and business results for our retail business – we had our best-ever year in 2016.

Together with the executive VP of Retail, we have shown where investments in IT have helped increase our business results.’

This success has earned Van’T Hoff a nickname: ‘the champion of value delivery’.

Gender and flexibility

Delivering results, demanding innovation, prioritising security and overcoming technology integration challenges were significant factors in Van’T Hoff being named CIO of the Year at this year’s Women in IT Awards.

However, her commitment to raising awareness of the gender imbalance in the IT industry, as well as her advocation of flexible working, was the clincher for the judging panel.

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She is president of the Balance at Shell gender network, which promotes diversity within the business. In 2016, the network changed its name from Shell Women’s Network because ‘we realised we weren’t being inclusive’, says Van’T Hoff.

‘We had a realisation that if we’re just speaking to ourselves, we are not going to make a difference. Therefore, inside the network I have a target to have 30% men included in our events and leadership teams.’

Unconscious bias is a mode of thinking that pervades the technology and IT industry, and to address this Van’T Hoff runs unconscious bias sessions. ‘Last year we ran 15 sessions,’ she says. ‘This year in January we’ve already run eight sessions, so we’re doing a lot to educate line managers that an ingrained attitude of not being inclusive might hinder better business results.’

With better education, line managers are better equipped to help those who are trying to make career choices. It is only through knowledge that change can occur.

‘The business is taking this really seriously, and in the downstream arm of Shell, where Retail sits, we are clear from the very top about our determination to improve gender balance throughout all levels of the organisation. We also measure our inclusivity to monitor how we drive different behaviours in trying to achieve those results.’

Addressing and closing the gender gap within the industry is not the only crusade Van’T Hoff has embarked on. She is a firm believer in flexible working and works four days a week herself.

This, while running the IT for all of Shell’s retail sites, is impressive. She actively encourages mentees and other staff to follow their passions by encouraging a work-and-home life  that works for them.

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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