Innovating Through Change at Belk Department Stores

Victor Ventura is always searching for the next best thing in IT, and he’s not afraid to upend his approach to attain it

Throughout a career spanning two decades, one thing has remained constant for Victor Ventura: his appetite for change.

Through stints at AT&T, Tyco, and Pfizer, and in his new role as SVP and CIO of department-store chain Belk, Ventura has led change at each stop on his IT journey, redefining the role of the CIO in the process.

“In each role, I’ve taken on broader and broader responsibilities,” Ventura says. “My leadership roles have really challenged me and elicited a passion at each company, helping them to make large changes in technology and transformation in business.”

Without question, you’re going to have ups and downs. When you get so committed and in the throes of trying to lead technology change, you can become over-personally involved and lose sight of the bigger ticket.”

The willingness to embrace new opportunities started early in Ventura’s life. As a student at Pace University in 1978, he was initially studying accounting, but he was greatly intrigued by the emerging computer industry and switched his major to adhere more to the technology side.

“I rolled that into a career with AT&T, and it was there that I had my first taste of being a programmer and had various roles and learned different aspects of technology and business,” he says. “I spent twenty-one years with them. As I gravitated to larger roles, I found I had a love for driving change and working with people.”

As he cut his teeth in the business at AT&T, Ventura learned one of the most important lessons when trying to drive change: stay grounded.

“Without question, you’re going to have ups and downs. When you get so committed and in the throes of trying to lead technology change, you can become over-personally involved and lose sight of the bigger ticket,” he says. “Stay the course, be persistent, and rely on the input of others, and be part of the drive you are trying to achieve. In the end, most of your biggest challenges are not the technology itself but the people, issues, and relationships that make or break the success of the change that you’re trying to drive from a leadership perspective.”

Putting Tablets to Work for Retail

Retailers are placing tablets in their stores in a multitude of ways to enhance physical shopping experiences. Some recent trends include:

Tablets in fitting rooms: Fashion retailer Zara and upscale department stores like Nieman Marcus and Bloomingdales are testing systems that customers can access to aid their shopping experience in the store.

Purchasing with tablets: Apple spearheaded the trend of allowing customers to check out merchandise anywhere on the salesfloor, but more retailers are testing this method, using applications like Square or PayPal Here, to mitigate long lines for shoppers.

In-store marketing and product display: Many retailers use tablets to show additional merchandise that can’t fit onto the salesfloor, or give shoppers ideas for how to use items for sale.

Next, Ventura spent five years with Tyco, joining the company in 2008, at a time when it was going through a period of renewed growth.

“One of most exciting things was to explore opportunities for Tyco to change the way it was delivering some of its foundational technology services across businesses, and we started to explore the creation of more shared services,” he says. “It allowed us to become more able to be responsive to new and changing business needs with the ability to go after customer opportunity that required exchange of data across the company.”

He also left his mark in six years at Pfizer, joining the IT team there soon after it had grown into the largest pharmaceutical company in the world.

“Although it had become large, it had not integrated itself from a process or technology perspective and had not leveraged new scale,” Ventura says. “I was offered the opportunity to lead IT transformation as part of a new company initiative. I was responsible for creating work that could bring about greater efficiencies and pull some of the spend out of more foundational service areas to free dollars up for growth technology initiatives.”

By the time Ventura was persuaded to join Belk in August 2014, what interested him most was the chance to transform the sixteen-state department-store chain into something bigger, as well as improving and maturing critical processes and partner service capabilities.

He started by reducing the IT department staff from 250 to a more manageable fifty, and set plans in motion for a stronger digital delivery system.

“The beauty of Belk is that it’s steeped in tradition. It’s a family business that has been in business for 120-plus years, and there is a lot of pride in the communities it serves and the way it looks to evolve,” Ventura says. “One area where it clearly needed to continue evolving was in creating omnichannel experiences for customers, and we’re now in the process of doing that. There’s been a significant investment made to revitalize and refresh the tech experience at the store.”

In only his first fifteen months on the job, Ventura has spearheaded efforts to refresh all the hardware and software in the store environment, rolled out all new servers across all stores, and is in the process of replacing routers, switches, and firewalls at all levels.

“Next year we have a proposed plan to refresh point-of-sale equipment and move into a more digital and modernized experience,” he says. “We have big plans to create a new experience for customers on the store side, and accomplishing that is a big part of what I am involved with so far.”

One of Ventura’s first major initiatives concerned overhauling the customer experience with a seamless e-commerce platform shared between the company’s 299 retail locations.

“We’ve been using pilot stores, testing out different technologies and leveraging the new foundation to change the customer experience,” he says. “Things like giving them an opportunity to look at a wider range of products that might be available than at any given store, providing associates at stores with iPads or devices to give them a selection of products they can offer customers beyond what is existing in front of them in inventory, and not be limited by the brick-and-mortar footprint.”