If you’ve spent any time driving along the southern Atlantic coast, chances are you’ve been in a WilcoHess. The brand operates more than 380 stores and over 50 restaurants throughout the region. As CIO and vice president of information systems for WilcoHess, LLC, it’s Nick Spann’s job to keep everything connected, secure, and adaptable to change. Spann sat down with Profile to talk about the dynamic practice of information management.
On the one hand, the CIO is now a pretty standard fixture in the C-suite, but on the other, you’re dealing in a more elusive and dynamic commodity—information and technology. I know your first interest was business, so how did you get drawn to IT?
Nick Spann: It’s kind of strange how I came to technology. First, I went to school for business, and I really enjoyed that. But once I got out of school and went to work for a furniture company on the business side, I noticed there were people making twice the money on the upholstery side, which definitely caught my attention. I went back to school and did that for a while, but got in a motorcycle accident that changed my life. I was down in the dumps about it, dealing with change. I was looking in a newspaper one day and saw an advertisement for a technology program, which I enrolled in and later completed with a 4.0 average.
So you got the education and the degree, but how did you make the step into IT?
Spann: I started with an internship and doing contract work—refurbishing laptops, installing systems—that sort of thing. I found a real love for it, and soon went to work for a tax-services company on the IT side, [ending up] as a regional manager, overseeing the software and hardware needs for over 40 offices. After some time there, I had an interview with WilcoHess for a support desk job, but was not selected. Then, after six months or so, I got a call from WilcoHess; they wanted someone to develop and oversee bringing their hardware support in-house. It seemed like a good opportunity, and once there, I eventually moved to the network-engineering side, while managing hardware, working for the then-CIO. The opportunity then presented itself, so I put my name in the hat, and, after working as the director for a couple of years, I was promoted to CIO.
This was in the space between 2000 and 2010. That’s a lot of movement in a fairly short window of time, and it might—in some ways—reflect the nature of information and technology as a constantly evolving field.
Spann: I’ve always been a great student, and that’s what attracted me to technology: you always need to continue to learn. I’ve never wanted to get stuck doing anything where I wasn’t learning. Today, I need to learn from my peers, team, and competitors to soak up their years of experience. Technology changes so fast, especially in the retail arena. When I came on board, we had 150 sites and 1 office, and now we have 389 sites and 60 restaurants with 4 offices. In-house, the pressure of change and different concepts is constant. For example, in 2005, when PCI security labeled Wilco as a Tier 1 merchant, everything changed. I remember another engineer and I sitting in an office drinking coffee at 3 a.m. writing policies to document Wilco’s infrastructure and procedures. This changed operations as we knew it. Security remains a major concern.
Inside WilcoHess’s Document Scanning Implementation Project
Three times a week, each WilcoHess store was shipping all documentation, from invoices to reports to coupons, to the corporate office. The process called for a tremendous amount of printing, and the cost of consumables and equipment wear, let alone the accumulated shipping cost for close to 400 locations, was significant.
Nick Spann tasked his team with finding a piece of equipment with a small enough footprint and enough durability to scan thousands of pages a year for implementation at each store. Their pick: the Fujitsu-6130 scanner. The team also had to determine how best to integrate the scanning process within WilcoHess’s back-office software suite so that managers could continue their normal routine while attaching paperwork to the appropriate reports.
With a smart team, Spann was able to implement a scanning system in May 2012 with impressive results. Now, only those WilcoHess locations with documents that can’t be scanned send a small shipment of documents once every two weeks. The amounted savings in six months totaled in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the document-scanning project will pay for itself in 18 months.
WilcoHess is an old company, starting with six Williams Oil Company stations back in 1963. It didn’t partner with Hess until 2001, but even by then, there was a lot of deep-seated history and procedure within the organization. With all of the changes in technology, especially over the past decade, what portion of your job is dedicated to helping this somewhat veterate organization stay open to change?
Spann: One of my responsibilities within WilcoHess has become that of a change agent. How do I help people understand the necessity for technological change—or understand that security will continue to be a threat—and the need to operate better than before? Change used to not be so prevalent; now, technology is changing what we’re doing all the time. In 2012, our team completed 56 projects. A lot of my position is visualizing not only future technology enhancements but how I’m going to convey this to everyone to develop a consensus for the business need and what it will take, as a team, to make it happen.
There’s your job description on paper, and then your job description in action.
Spann: Yes, big difference. You need to know your organization outside of technology, understand different people in their different groups. I work with people that cover a wide generation gap, which is a challenge within itself. This needs to be taken into account for how I plan to form that consensus.
I imagine this kind of ethic of communication might be easier to practice at some companies than at others. Is the environment at WilcoHess conducive to this kind of adaptability?
Spann: I believe it is, even though challenging at times due to human nature. I [can] think back to a particular example of it: WilcoHess had just made a new acquisition and was taking over 50 SERVCO sites in two weeks, in 2004. I had just started months prior, and in order to make this happen, five teams had to load up trucks with equipment, arrive at a location at 5 a.m., and, by 5 p.m., we’d have the store completely converted to a WilcoHess. Then we drove to the next area to do it all again. There was one store we were working on, and I was under the counter, tearing out equipment. I noticed a guy sweeping the parking lot wearing penny loafers, a button-down shirt, and a tie. I asked my team leader who the guy with the broom was. He stated, “That’s our CEO.” I asked why he was sweeping the parking lot, and [the team leader] said, “Everyone here does what it takes to get the job done.” When I saw that, I had a new level of passion for the company, for the leadership, for doing whatever it takes. As Albert Einstein said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it’s the only means.”
But you’re not totally utilitarian either.
Spann: Well, technology is definitely changing how we do business with our customers. I remember, around three years ago, sitting down with our senior VP/CFO and our VP of marketing and discussing social media. We took it to our CEO, who showed minimal interest at the time, so we had to go back, rethink, and sell this change. Eventually, that change came. We refaced our website, which I felt was just as important as remodeling a location. Marketing brought someone on to manage the site design, social media, and to coordinate implementation of our mobile app, which provides our customers with interaction and useful information. We’ve implemented mobile couponing and new partnerships with more to come. We must be agile to facilitate change to remain relevant.