Mars’ global pet business sprints toward digitisation

Published on the 31/07/2020 | Written by Heather Wright

Agile has delivered for pet food manufacturer…

When Covid-19 first started to make its presence felt globally, Miao Song and her team at Mars Petcare were better placed than many to cope.

The company is more than two years into a digital transformation programme which includes a strong focus on Agile. That base work was key to providing resilience and enabling Mars Petcare to accelerate its digital capabilities throughout the pandemic.

While Mars might be best known in New Zealand for its confectionary lines, the Petcare business is actually the largest segment for the company, with around $21 billion in revenue globally and more than 50 brands including Whiskas and Pedigree.

The last few months have seen it introduce a raft of new digital initiatives from launching a mobile app enabling socially distanced staff at a Chinese factory to communicate and share information – enabling the plant to become one of the first in China to reopen – to delivering new online stores in two-week time frames, launching a pet telehealth service and increasing data analytics and customer insights work to better forecast customer demand in a rapidly changing market.

“Covid doesn’t change our strategy but it has helped us to accelerate our digital transformation.”

“The current crisis really changes and forces organisations to rethink their digital strategy,” says Song, Mars Petcare global CIO and global vice president.

Song, who will be speaking at the hybrid live and virtual CIO Summit in August, says: “Digital is not something running in isolation from the business.

Considering the current situation, it is key to running the business and it has to be accelerated. And I foresee that while the situation is very challenging, it is a big opportunity for organisations to really leap frog an organisation’s capabilities, in a truly agile fashion.”

The gains Mars Petcare has made in recent months come on the back of a strong foundation of digital transformation.

The digital strategy has been focused around three strategic pillars: Modernising the core technology, a business transformation programme and building new digital capabilities.

Running in tandem with that is a second ‘lens’ developing a digital engine within Mars, with a user-centric, design-thinking approach and leveraging technology such as AI, machine learning and automation.

“We have been really changing the way of thinking across the organisation – not just within IT, but across the whole business organisation – to think and do things differently,” Song says.

“Because we are in this very fast-moving customer business, our strategy is 100x and our fundamental way of working is truly agile.

“We run sprints, we run minimum viable products in our digital transformation space from customer engagement and digital marketing all the way to supply chain optimisation,” she says.

“Covid doesn’t change our strategy but it has helped us to accelerate our digital transformation,” Song says.

The changing customer dynamic has been a key focus. With customer demand shifting dramatically around the globe as countries grappled with varying states of the pandemic, quickly responding and making digital technologies work for the changing needs was crucial.

As countries went into lockdown, and customers were forced home, Mars Petcare was able to quickly roll out its own digital stores across the Netherlands, Germany, France, Mexico and China, serving product direct to customers.

It’s a mark of just how agile the company has become, with the stores launched in two weeks.

“We launched Agile not because it’s fancy, but because our end customers needed us to.

“Customer behaviour and consumer needs are changing so fast, the only way to embrace the accelerated change is to transform into an agile organisation.”

Quite simply, the traditional way of operating took too long to deliver the projects: By the time they were delivered, the customer need and operating environment had already changed.

“In order to keep up with pace of the fastest growing market and the fast-growing consumer need, we had to adopt new way of working. In changing to agile development, and doing sprints delivering minimal viable products, we were able to build and deliver solutions in weeks and that really helps the organisation capture the value of digital technology.

“They can see the results very quickly, but it also helps us drive innovation because the approach helps us in new ways of thinking. This type of approach helps us move forward very quickly.”

But while Mars Petcare might be running ‘everything Agile’, Song stresses that having a very solid IT strategy and road map is also critical.

“That is the essence of agile because if you don’t have a roadmap or strategy then you run agile teams that don’t really align with longer term business objectives.

“What we do is really align our key projects with business objects, long term or short term. That is the foundation. Then we run multiple agile teams. Even the traditional projects such as ERP, logistics, warehouse management, we run as agile.”

So what are Song’s key strategies for driving modernisation and digitisation?

Change the way your team works “We’ve really changed the way of working from a traditional very IT functions and knowledge driven team, into a team where people have business domain knowledge as well as the technology knowledge.” Song says all her IT staff have to be both business leaders, and functional leaders.

Go Agile Agile truly is at the heart of Mars Petcare’s operations nowadays, with a deliberate move to change the way of working from traditional back office style IT into a truly agile or digital product based organisation.

Focus on talent Mars Petcare has a programme to train its IT team in new modern skillsets and modern ways of thinking. “Everyone has to learn data analytics, machine learning, AI… the modern technologies.” The company has also hired external talent to help build its centres of excellence, including in social listening, data science and digital demand.

“The new normal will see huge acceleration in digital interaction and building customer relations online,” Song says. “Many of us will change our way of working, working from home, which changes the way we operate in the end to end value chain, all the way from understanding the consumer to improving efficiency in the supply chain.

“Digital is key to all that,” she says.

Miao Song, Global CIO at Mars Petcare will present a keynote at the 2020 NZ CIO Summit at the Spark Arena in Auckland on 25-26 August 2020.

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