When I graduated in 1985 the UK had just about shaken off the early 80s recession, and so job opportunities were relatively plentiful! I ended the milk round with the choice of continuing a career in Engineering, or joining Marks and Spencer in their IT graduate scheme. The brand and the novelty of something new won me over, and I chose M&S.
It’s hard to appreciate now given how central technology has become to Retail, but back in the 80s we really only worked on back office problems. There the scale of manual processing still offered great IT automation opportunities. I spent four fabulous years with M&S working on sales forecasting, warehousing and accounting projects. In those days and inquiring mind and a week spent reading the manual were all you needed to be the expert in the team.
Having passed up the opportunity to do the EEM course while at Oxford, I now spotted that the gap in my broader commercial knowledge would become an issue over time. So in 1989 I left M&S to do an MBA specializing in Marketing, while working freelance to finance my studies.
On becoming the proud holder of an MBA and now clearly extensive business knowledge, I decided to switch in to management consulting. I spent the next 3 years working in Arthur Andersen Business Consulting on a succession of interesting problems, which saw me doing marketing studies, advising NHS hospitals on becoming Trusts and the privatization of HMSO.
The arrival of my twin daughters in 1993 brought home to me of the importance of more certainty in my working location, and so I moved back into the world of IT, first with Redland Aggregates, and then Boots the Chemists in Nottingham. I spent a decade at Boots as IT really came into the mainstream of Retail with the launch of EPOS, Loyalty schemes, and Online shopping. A great benefit for me of Boots was its sheer scale of operations, so I was able to work not only in the main Retail arm but also Supply Chain and Manufacturing in my time there. I spent my last 3 years as Group IT Director, stepping out at the point of the KKR private equity purchase of the company.
I joined Sainsbury’s in 2009 as IT Director, and in the last four years we have grown our investment in new IT by over 20% p.a. and even that is only just enough to keep up with the explosion of Digital opportunities in Retail. It’s frightening to think that the smartphone in our customers’ pockets is more powerful than the mainframe computers that I started my career working on. In 2011 I had the pleasure to be awarded the British Computer Society’s UK CIO of the Year award.
It strikes me that when I went up to Oxford, your studies felt more of an extension of your sixth form academic career rather than a forward-looking career choice. However, I wouldn’t change any part of it; it has been a fabulous ride for the last 28 years. The problem solving skills and academic rigour that come with an Oxford Engineering degree set you up for whatever you might choose to do next, and so I’d encourage you to be open to new opportunities. Indeed, as proof positive that with an Oxford Engineering degree you can turn your hand to anything, in 2012 another Oxford Engineer, Sarah Warby, joined me on the Sainsbury’s Board, as our Marketing Director.