The first step was a doozy. After being named CIO of Lucky Brand at the end of June 2014, Jason Richard was asked to build an IT organization from the ground up and replace every single IT component in just fifteen months. The rapid pace was necessitated by a corporate transition: parent company Fifth & Pacific had sold Lucky Brand to private equity firm Leonard Green & Partners in December 2013, and the new ownership demanded swift improvement.
“Although I’d never done something like this in retail in such a short period of time, I was inspired by the challenge,” Richard says. “Rather than inheriting an outdated collection of systems, I was given the opportunity to create an efficient, state-of-the-art information technology platform. Culturally, we’re always seeking the best path forward, and we really wanted to use this as an opportunity to make a massive leap forward, beyond the competition. We named the program Leapfrog, and this became a guiding philosophy for every decision we would make.”
Richard, who had previously served as senior vice president of IT at Williams-Sonoma, was an experienced retail IT manager, but this was unchartered territory for him. “Lucky was essentially acting as a startup,” he says, albeit a startup with $500 million in annual sales. “This challenged us to build a new team, apps, and infrastructure.”
“Rather than inheriting an outdated collection of systems, I was given the opportunity to create an efficient, state-of-the-art information technology platform.”
Before Richard came on board, Lucky had a strategic plan in place, hashed out under the leadership of a consulting firm. “While [it was] a good start, I was tasked with leveraging those assumptions and converting them to tactical plans,” he says. He created a road map to get IT systems up and running and began recruiting a youthful, entrepreneurial-minded team to execute his vision.
Richard broke the project down into four phases. First, a supply-chain management system was to be built by November 2014—just five months out. Phase two, to be completed April 2015, was the construction of back-end corporate applications and systems: accounting, finance, and human resources.
Phase three was the creation of infrastructure support systems: desktop PC, data networks, phone systems, data center, access management, and storage and print capability.
Phase four, completed in August 2015, consisted of the retail and e-commerce systems, which included the core retail systems running the company, plus the physical network and point-of-sale conversions in each of the company’s 250 store locations.
Leapfrog’s guiding philosophy was to lease, not own, most of the company’s infrastructure. The company did not want to invest the capital or time to build a data center or its own infrastructure; instead it opted for a cloud-based strategy that would free the company from stranded costs and make it more technologically nimble.
“Most CIOs who have big data centers and a physical IT presence are desperately trying to get away from that,” Richard says. Having a third party host and operate major systems would also relieve some of the pressure to staff up quickly, as outside firms would be responsible for much of the operational and maintenance duties. “We decided to spend our efforts on a relationship-focused, cloud-based system instead of hardware management.”
A possible downside to this strategy was a reliance on outsiders to perform essential, mission-critical tasks—in other words, less control. Richard had to depend on third parties to build new IT capability on an unprecedented fast-track schedule. Vendors were challenged as much as Lucky’s fledgling IT staff as the project progressed.
“We were moving so quickly, we were challenged to forecast our infrastructure needs in advance,” Richard recalls. Once he and his team figured out what they needed in terms of server capacity and processing demands, they needed vendors to act fast—very fast. “This caused us to demand a great deal from our partnering vendors, who learned to be much more nimble than they are probably used to.”
Putting such restrictive parameters on his vendors had its benefits. “Partnering with our vendors, while at times arduous, has been an extremely educational and collaborative process,” Richard explains. “Due to the pace and scope of the project on hand, we continuously challenged one another to quickly and diligently achieve the results needed within an aggressive time frame.”
When recruiting staff, Richard was straightforward about the challenges. In order to pull off this ambitious project, he was going to need entrepreneurial-minded people who could give their all. Team members could expect long hours and a good deal of stress, but they would have the aid of industry-leading, cloud-based tools. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that could catapult their careers.
Richard found youthful, eager IT professionals from some midsize retailers and chain-restaurant companies who could excel in areas where retail experience was a must. Retail experience wasn’t as necessary for building corporate-finance and HR systems, so those folks were somewhat easier to find. Out of the thirty-plus staff, about a dozen had retail or restaurant experience.
By October 2015, Richard’s plan was nearing completion, thanks to the commitment of his new staff. The new systems have been welcomed with rave reviews; everybody in the company has access to information that they need, where previously key data was stored in arcane legacy systems in hard-to-access formats.
IT staffers are especially thrilled to work with the latest technology. “Our millennials, especially, love it,” Richard says. “They don’t want to work with old green screens.”
The new platforms will readily enable the development of new capabilities for Lucky Brand. For example, a planned in-store omnichannel system that shoppers can use to shop for products beyond the boundaries of the physical store.
The Leapfrog logo that adorns the Lucky Brand IT team’s T-shirts, water bottles, and mouse pads is now an especially appropriate mascot, a symbol for overcoming seemingly daunting obstacles to land on a new standard for retail information technology.