When undergoing a massive digital transformation initiative, retailers expect employee churn and other unexpected obstacles. They do not, however, plan for a pandemic.
Adam Fox, Vera Bradley, Inc. chief information officer and an RIS News CIO of the Year, had plenty of challenges to face since the project launched, but Vera Bradley ultimately brought the project home on time and on budget, while simultaneously adding tech capabilities to deal with current events.
A CIO of the Year Award, bestowed upon the retail industry’s most influential technologists, is being given to Fox in honor of his 21 years at Vera Bradley and recent work spearheading the retailer’s digital transformation, as well as quickly implementing appointment-based selling during the disruption of the pandemic.
Eliminating legacy systems and switching to built-for-cloud solutions has enabled fast-paced change at Vera Bradley, reducing the burden on Fox’s talented IT team. The retailer started out as a wholesale business and built its initial technology platform around selling to wholesale customers. “Over the years we added e-commerce, retail and marketplaces, and amassed quite the list of software platforms and technical systems,” Fox explains. “We had growth plans that could be limited by the number of processes, systems and integrations involved in our customer and order flow. To clear the way for faster growth and multi-brand channel support, we needed to retool.”
Faced with project fatigue, Fox and a third party, which did a technical assessment, knew the company needed a big bang instead of system-by-system solutions. The retailer ultimately chose Microsoft Dynamics 365 for the business and kicked off Phase 1 of the project in June of 2019. The team went live with new enterprise resource planning (ERP), point of sale (POS), product information management (PIM) and a relaunched e-commerce website in August 2020.
“It was definitely a lot to take on,” he says, but the retailer would have undergone a four-year-long project otherwise.
As the transformation was steadily on it its way, the pandemic hit, and all of Vera Bradley’s 140-plus retail stores were temporarily closed. Despite the events that took place, Fox and his team continued on. The go-live was approximately three days for the entire Phase 1 launch.
Fox has rallied incredible dedication, drive and acceptance from all areas of the business to ensure that new technologies like these are easily adopted and utilized to maximum effect.
“Change can be very hard for people that have used the same systems day in, day out – sometimes for years – to do their jobs,” Fox notes. “I think user adoption at every store in our chain in the span of a single weekend was pretty impressive. We rolled out functionality that the business had desired for years, and our store associates were amazingly supportive in adopting and embracing this change, knowing that this would enable an even more amazing experience for our customers.”
Vera Bradley is now executing Phase 2 focused on bringing Pura Vida (a company the retailer acquired in 2019) into its new platforms and adding more capability into D365 to further reduce the number of systems and vendors that Fox and his team manage.
“Change management, business buy-in, the pandemic, social unrest, fires, floods and hurricanes all played some role in trying to distract us from the goal, but we have a strong and focused team that ultimately brought the project home on time,” says Fox.
He notes that a project of this scale cannot be a technology project; it must be a business project facilitated with technology change and process change. “Every department in our organization was involved in one way or another, and we would have never succeeded without that buy-in, ownership, and dedication.”
Changing Operations on the Fly
While the digital transformation initiative was underway, Fox and his team also moved quickly to implement a serious of capabilities in retail stores in response to changes in shopping behavior brought on by the pandemic. Working with Zebra, the company launched the ability to schedule private appointments with customers, line management tools, and more. Customers could schedule a time to shop safely and privately in the store of their choice, easing their anxieties.
“As we were able to reopen stores during the pandemic, not all customers felt comfortable shopping with other customers,” he explains. The appointment-based selling allowed customers to shop in a safe and private environment at their leisure. While unplanned, he says the team was able to roll this out in around a month, and the retailer saw a nice revenue stream from offering the desired service. “Customers still enjoy this added service today,” Fox added.
Additionally, the team launched remote productivity tools, which were also not a part of the original plan, but were a forced need due to the retailer pivoting to nearly 100% remote project work.
Vera Bradley’s recent transformations would have been impressive in any year, but it’s doubly remarkable to have its projects succeed under recent duress. Fox credits this outcome to the retailer not approaching its plans as IT project, but rather a project to enable the business to grow.
“It speaks to amazing teamwork that we actually went live on time, on budget, on scope, amidst the whole list of craziness that went on in 2020.”
Leading Amongst Unpredictability
Fox has served Vera Bradley for the past 21 years in roles of increasing responsibility, from IT helpdesk administrator to his current post as CIO. Over this time he has implemented technology solutions to support the company’s rapid growth from a privately-held wholesale business to a publicly-traded and internationally recognized omnichannel retailer. When asked how the CIO role has evolved over his career, Fox notes retail has always had a need for a high rate of change to stay competitive in business, but the rate continues to increase and last year dialed up the expected even further.
“The need for data and data accessibility is another big change,” he notes. “There are really no metrics that we shouldn’t be looking at in one way or another to find ways to improve. Data is king. We are enabling our enterprise to make quick, data-based and informed decisions that can further enhance the customer experience and help us achieve our long-term objectives.”
One way Fox encourages innovation is by driving projects that remove the complexity of the retail environment, such as the aforementioned digital transformation, noting that maintenance doesn’t provide value to the business. Case in point, Vera Bradley is approaching its goal of 80% delivery and 20% maintenance, which flips that number on its head from Fox’s earlier days with the company. “Keeping our maintenance costs lower and productivity higher by removing barriers to support innovation is very much what this project was about,” he says.
As Fox looks to the future, while he’s still a ways off from retirement, he says his goal is to leave behind a team that is confident, competent, and delivering personal and professional value.
“I’m a company person. I want to leave my team in the best position possible to carry the company forward.”
With this outlook, it’s not surprising that he can’t wait to get back together in person with Vera Bradley’s associates. “I miss the in-person interaction and would like to celebrate together with the team for everything that they have accomplished in the last year.”
“While I am humbled and very much appreciative of this award having my name on it, it took the work of our or associates and team members across the entire organization as well as focus from strong partners to make this transition successful," he concludes. "We aren’t done yet and we have refinement work to do but this achievement is something the entire team worked hard for and something that our customers, investors, and associates will benefit from long term.”