When Cheryl Millington joined Travis Perkins as chief digital officer, most of her colleagues thought she was there to fix the website.
“I had to explain that I hadn’t come only to fix the website but to introduce a digital strategy across the group’s 20 businesses, one that helps customers, suppliers and everyone working internally to make our services as efficient as possible.”
You can forgive Millington’s colleagues for being confused: the post of CDO is still new in corporate UK. Only a handful of companies have created the role but demand for digital experts is growing like Topsy as the pace of technology is moving faster than most boards can cope with.
It was also a first for Millington and “TP”— as she calls the UK’s biggest supplier of building materials, which she joined last November.
“When I first spoke to [chief executive] John Carter, he was looking for a chief information officer but we soon realised the job was a mix of everything digital. Having a CDO makes a statement of intent to suppliers, customers and internally.”
Her job does include fixing the website but it also involves pulling together all the digital channels across TP’s 2,200 outlets, including the Wickes stores and Toolstation branches covering more than 19 product brands, and working with 28,000 employees around the country.
The timing of Millington’s arrival was also poignant to say the least: Travis Perkins had just been demoted from the FTSE 100 Index after a profit warning following poor trading created by uncertainty surrounding the Brexit vote.
But current trading is positive, she says: “All business have peaks and troughs but the outlook is positive. There is a great appetite for change here. TP has been around for 200 years, and does not want to rely on the success of the past.”
She also admits, however, that the firm has a lot of catching up to do. “Every area of life has been transformed with the use of mobile phones, from booking holidays to shopping. Our sector is still very paper-based, traditional and old -fashioned in so many ways.”
She said that it was essential that the company looks ahead to see how it can “improve the customer experience”.
Being TP’s first CDO has advantages for the Durham physics graduate. “It means I can define the job in its broadest sense, taking a paper-based system into the digital age. To some extent, I know I will have done my job when it doesn’t exist anymore.”
Until then, she has to be mindful of the past too. The building trade is relatively old-fashioned and most of its suppliers and customers – the builders and tradesmen – are men of a certain age. “Many of them like to go into the branches early in the morning, chat over a cup of coffee with the staff about the products they are buying.”
“Others, the younger builders, are more digitally savvy, happy to check their mobile phones or tablets on their knees to go online and check out our products while on site. We have to look after all sides: TP has built a reputation for expertise and knowledge and we have to keep that reputation. That means supporting suppliers as well, as customers leverage their services with new technology.”
To bring new innovative thinking into TP, Millington came up with BreakThru. It’s an accelerator programme working in collaboration with L Marks, the innovation startup specialists, to find 100 startups which might be suitable to grow through partnership with TP, as well as potential investment.
TP has defined five categories to explore innovations ranging from safety sensors and click-and-collect services, to chatbots for automated call services. Millington and others from her team will now identify which startups offer the group the best new ideas, work with them and provide mentoring, and if appropriate, invest in them.
“We work from the basis that you either self-disrupt or are disrupted. It’s important for us to find interesting companies and invest in them— not to make money for TP but to share knowledge and future-proof business operations.”
Millington has worked with young startups before, both at Waitrose where she was IT director, and before that as chief information officer at Asda.
After university, she joined Price Waterhouse – which later became PricewaterhouseCoopers – as a management consultant, moving on to the electricity and gas retailer, npower, and then HBOS in Halifax.
At TP, Millington is one of only three women on the executive committee. There are two on the main board. Being in male-dominated surroundings is something she is used to: at school in Barrow-on-Furness she was one of a handful studying double maths, physics and chemistry and one of seven at Durham reading physics.
“I guess I was a girlish swot,” she says, with a big laugh. “You do what you are good at, don’t you? I loved maths and it came easy to me. Education was important at home. My parents were incredibly enlightened, wanted my brother and I to have the best education, one that they never had.”
Her father began work at 15 as a draughtsman in the Barrow shipyards while her mother worked on the switchboards and as a dinner lady and then full-time mother.
“I don’t know why so few girls study the sciences. It’s a difficult question to answer but involves the expectations of teachers and parents and girls too. It’s to do with unconscious bias too and that’s something we are working on here at TP. “
A quarter of TP’s IT department are female and she is looking at ways of bringing in more women, but more pertinently, of keeping them on through their careers into their forties.
“Women tend to do well in their early careers, but then drop off later when they have children,” she says.
Her own family life reflects the difficulties of both parents juggling big jobs and finding good childcare – and assumptions about gender roles.
“My husband, Richard, gave up his banking job ten years ago to look after our two boys. It was a choice we made that was best for the family. But it shocked his parents, and friends.”
“Luckily, people have moved on from then and most are much more open and flexible about how we work today,” Millington says. “Success looks different to everyone, regardless of their gender.”