By Peter High. Published on Forbes
7-Eleven is a big retailer. It operates 65,000 stores in 18 countries, has 55 million customers in stores on a daily basis, and conducts 20 billion transactions annually. Like most retailers, it is in need of transformation. Enter Gurmeet Singh. With a Ph.D. in Engineering from Rice, and stints with leading companies like FedEx, Intuit, and Capital One, Singh joined 7-Eleven in August of 2016 as chief digital officer. He would add the chief information officer title in November of 2017.
Singh joined the company with a mandate from 7-Eleven CEO Joseph DePinto to make the company a digital leader. Singh embarked on a multi-year journey to become a digitally-enabled organization, including a “full stack transformation” approach which encompasses consumer-facing technology, back-end technology, infrastructure, and the organizational stack. He also expanded the company’s loyalty program from its initial focus on beverages to a full-fledged loyalty offering that is available on mobile, web, digital loyalty card, and even through chatbots.
Singh notes that “the closest store to a customer today is in the palm of [his or her] hand,” and he wanted to go beyond pushing customers from mobile into stores, and allowing customers to interact with 7-Eleven on their terms, through the interface of their choice. To foster this, Singh’s team helps the rest of the organization understand the art of the possible through constant experimentation with new technology. He describes his path to innovation in great detail herein.
Peter High: You are the Chief Digital and Chief Information Officer of 7-Eleven. Could you describe your role?
Gurmeet Singh: I started at 7-Eleven as the Chief Digital Officer, with my primary responsibility being driving digital transformation. This company founded convenience at a global scale, with 65,000 stores in 18 countries, 55 million customers visiting the stores every day, and 20 billion transactions on an annual basis. You take that, and you overlay the consumer trends and the new technology trends like big data and digital payments, and you have the perfect formula for redefining convenience.
Technology is a key element of a digital transformation and it is also key to becoming a digitally-enabled company. Initially, we started off with what most companies have been doing and what most consulting companies have been citing as a strategic approach, which is building a two-tier architectural model. A two-tier architectural model means you have digital technology capabilities that are being developed at a higher speed, and then decoupled from that, you have your legacy enterprise systems which have longer release cycles at slower speeds. Additionally, enterprise and legacy work was being managed in long cycle processes as projects, not as products.
Old models in any company are always changing, and they should be changing. They are a function of maturity of the company, the need of the hour, and the market factor. As we evaluated the speed of our transformation, we felt that we were not getting to the speed we needed. To get there, we needed what I call a full stack transformation. When I say full stack transformation, I am talking all the way from the consumer-facing technology to back-end technologies, all the way to infrastructure and cloud. It even goes beyond that to encompass the organizational stack.
To bring more efficiency and effectiveness to our decisions, our prioritization, while driving the productization of IT, we decided to combine the CDO role and the CIO role. This allows us to drive vertical product slices while working on horizontal capabilities. If you are doing one after the other, you are taking too much time to get the business transformed. If you do not do a vertical slice, you do not know what customer problem you are trying to solve. Combining the functions gets us there faster. It is harder, but you end up driving more synergies. We drive higher team engagement. You speed up your transformation journey, and you end up creating a stronger pool of talent as one team. What we did was then combine digital and IT, which we call DIGIT, which is very much digital.
High: You are clearly thinking multiple years out. The changes require hard work to be done in the near term to make the organization nimbler for the long term. How difficult was the process of selling this internally? Was it difficult in having your peers among the executive leadership understand the rationale behind all the hard work to be done in the near term for a better outcome for the long term?