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The roots of AVEVE date back to 1901, when the business began as a buying and selling company – AVV – for agricultural cooperatives. Today, AVEVE has developed into a group of companies in the agriculture and horticulture sector, engaged in activities such as receiving and processing cereals, trading in fertilizers, crop protection solutions, etc., as well as activities relating to the production and distribution of cattle fodder. Among the general public, AVEVE is mainly known for its 250 retail stores, where the firm applies its expertise for consumers. AVEVE has also developed activities in France, Germany and the Netherlands. The group has 1,800 employees and records a turnover of €1.3 billion.
Since 2010, a sweeping IT transformation process has been underway at AVEVE. “The group took its first steps in the field of IT as early as the 1960s,” says Verstraelen. “Over the years – among other things following successive acquisitions – a very heterogeneous environment developed, with numerous different platforms.” This fragmentation no longer offered the ideal response to the current market, where complexity and volatility are two major factors. “Old structures are disappearing and globalization is upsetting existing balances. Digitization has the potential to alter the business model. That is why we decided to adapt the organizational structure. This is a fundamental issue for a group that has grown over the past decades as an entity made up of independent SMEs.”
AVEVE sees IT as the function that offers direct support for the achievement of the corporate strategy objectives. “The entire transformation is built around four main IT programs which together account for a good 40 projects. That’s a huge challenge, particularly in combination with the daily operational tasks. Good cooperation with strategic IT partners is very important in this context.” Verstraelen sees IT, by and large, as an enabler here. “At the same time, we use IT to stand out,” he explains. “The production of customized cattle fodder, with short lead times and continuous recalculation of the composition, is only possible thanks to the use of technology.”
IT also makes the group stand out in terms of consumer service, in particular with the development of an omnichannel approach. “IT provides insight into who our customers are, what enables us to position our range better, depending on the specific requirements of these customers.” By analyzing big data, IT can help detect new opportunities. At the same time, however, IT has to ensure stability and calm. “Credibility and trust are essential,” says Verstraelen. “These two aspects make the IT department a trusted business advisor for the organization. Only on this basis can you bring change and innovation into the company with IT.”
When the central IT department was set up in 2011, AVEVE thought carefully about the competencies that the company wanted to have in-house. “The emphasis here is on the guiding and architectural facets of IT, and less on the operational aspect. For instance, we have outsourced our datacenters to an external partner. IT, we feel, is set to become increasingly important in the coming years. Every project is an IT project,” says Verstraelen. “Every budget is an IT budget.”
New developments – such as the cloud, mobile, big data and the Internet of Things – lower the threshold to interweave technology more and more with all aspects of business management. This also impacts on the demand for specific IT profiles. “Because we, as a department, are moving more towards the core of the organization, today we have less need of standard IT profiles. We are looking, in particular, for project managers and architects, so we can recruit more broadly. The mindset, motivation and basic background knowledge of the candidate are particularly important here. The rest will follow from internal growth and active coaching,” says Erwin Verstraelen.
“As CIO, you are on a constant voyage of discovery. You know where and why you leave, but are never sure precisely where the journey will take you. The company, the market, the general context… all these factors change during the trip. That’s why it is important that you cooperate with all the staff involved. So, as CIO, it is better to be more a coach than a manager. It’s up to the staff to create the necessary added value depending on the mission and the objectives.”
“Don’t direct too much, particularly not at the micro level. The CIO is the sounding board. Build a team that understands the division of roles and you can work wonders. The team has a clear assignment, but fleshes out the solution itself. Staff get an appetite for freedom and the burden of responsibility. Most of the CIO’s time needs to go on the organization of the work, not on IT itself. Operational exercises are not part of the CIO’s job responsibilities. Concentrate on strategy and vision.”
“The CIO is not omniscient. He, too, has question marks against his name. But with a positive mindset you can achieve a lot. Don’t look at things as ‘a problem’, but rather as ‘a challenge’ or ‘an opportunity’. If things go wrong, you have to stay calm. First and foremost, the CIO has to radiate composure. Keep the long-term aims in view.”
technology “IT is evolving rapidly. What seems like science fiction today may perhaps be something that no one even notices tomorrow. But never lose sight of the human factor. People need time to assimilate new technology. For that matter, it’s not technology that defines our future. We do that ourselves.”
“My motto: in life you have problems, challenges and opportunities. They are all three the same thing. Only the mindset is different.”
Studied applied economics at Antwerp University. He began his career as an organization consultant at KBC. Later on he worked as an architect at EMD and as a management consultant on strategy and transformation at IBM. In 2011, he took up the position of CIO at AVEVE. Erwin heads a team of about 80 people there. He has been president of CIOforum since 2015.