Getting in Shipping Shape

How clothier Laura Canada’s VP of IT and distribution logistics, Martin Thibodeau, is rolling up his sleeves and fine-tuning the company’s technology vision, bringing it data-driven results and improving its distribution system

Instead of inspiring scorn, as it usually does, the monthly electric bill actually served as a significant career inspiration for Martin Thibodeau when he was just 16 years old. Intrigued by the computer-made punch card that served as his father’s statement, Thibodeau pursued a career as a programmer in the 1980s, and this eventually led to his current position as vice president of IT and distribution logistics at the private omni-channel retailer Laura Canada. He joined in 2012, and now he’s helping evolve the Québec-based clothier—and its more than 175 stores—well beyond its 1930 roots. Here, he outlines the tech solutions he and his team have introduced and how they support the company’s service-based approach for its CRM base of more than two million people.

I remember listening to Herman Cain years ago quoting the poet Sam Walter Foss: “Seek not for fresher founts afar, just drop you bucket where you are.” Cain’s speech about a drifting ship and desperate crew inspired me. Working in an industry where gross margins are thin for years led me to become focused on finding solutions within the company’s capabilities and not so much the “taste of the day” ones the technology industry wants to impose.

When I joined Laura Canada, the company had already invested in an ERP solution, which I felt was the right fit from a functionality standpoint, but—to stay polite—it was not so well implemented. So we have been focusing on concluding the implementation from a business-process and training standpoint. I could have recommended we start from scratch, but instead we are dropping our buckets where we stand. It’s the same thing with our distribution-logistics facilities and partners. We are currently redesigning our distribution-centre layout to enable us to ship more units in boxes—rather than on hangers—to all of our stores across the country, enabling us to save a lot of bottom-line dollars. Moving 5.5 millions units across a country as vast as Canada is expensive, so we need to continue to find ways to get things on the sales floor cheaper and faster.

Back in 2012, we started with a 90-day plan. I spent the first 60 days meeting not only executives of each vertical but also the user community and the entire IT team. I then spent the last 30 days thinking about how to best approach each opportunity. The proposed plan was then presented to management and the IT Steering Committee for prioritization. This has always been the toughest part, getting everybody who feels their business needs are more of a priority than others to agree on what’s next. But it gets done, and it helps if you have credibility.

Martin Thibodeau likes to have fun at work. “It’s not a party,” he says, “but I don’t like when people take themselves too seriously. It’s bad enough we have to work for a living; we might as well have fun doing it.” Among his many hobbies outside the office, Thibodeau plays hockey, goes hunting, golfs, and takes part in martial arts. “I am actually a third Dan Karate black belt,” he says. “It helps me keep my cool, I think.”

When I joined the company, getting the sales figures on a timely basis was a challenge, and store associates’ scheduling was a little liberal. The numbers were often inaccurate and outdated. I knew of the StoreForce solution from having implemented it for two other major retailers operating in Canada [and knew it] would address these issues. We were killing two birds with one stone. They offer a store-associates scheduling tool that is driven from sales and store-traffic patterns that is totally mobile. Getting the Fisher family to buy into it was easy. I brought the president of StoreForce in for a demo, and right there and then, Mr. Fisher decided on a pilot.

Now, you can imagine the cultural difference for a store manager in accepting a computer’s suggested schedule versus a handwritten one. We piloted the solution in our stores in the Ottawa region for two months. We worked out the kinks and included more Québec-based stores into the pilot. All in all, it took close to one year to deploy both a store-associates-scheduling and sales-dashboard tool to the entire chain. As a result, our store-operations and executive teams have access to key performance indicators of our choice every 30 minutes. We are running it from desktops, tablets, and even smartphones.

I’m not sure I’m a problem solver, but I do know I have a lot of common sense. I could cite many examples during my career where simple solutions have been proven to be winning ones. The world runs fast, hence the need to find adaptable or flexible solutions—plus the retail ecosystem is very competitive. Canadians have more and more choices to spend their discretionary money on, so we need to be frugal and find ways to reduce our costs and overhead.