CNME Editor Mark Forker secured an exclusive interview with Joe Abi Akl, Acting Chief Corporate Development Officer at Majid Al Futtaim, in a bid to better understand the digital transformation it has underwent, how the implementation of Big Data & Analytics has empowered the company to make better informed decisions, and its strategy for the future.
Majid Al Futtaim is one of the most recognisable brands in the United Arab Emirates, and innovation has been in its DNA since its inception. However, the powerful company like so many other enterprises and organisations has embarked upon its own digital transformation journey as part of an effort to integrate new technologies designed to enhance the services and products it provides for its customers.
In a brilliant interview, the executive articulates how the holding company is delivering exceptional customer experiences and outlines how the primary responsibility of his job remit is to support the business in terms of identifying and incubating capabilities that are required to ensure they deliver on their growth strategy objectives.
He explains the different teams he oversees in more detail and explains their primary functions and aims.
Abi Akl says, “The business development team is more about strategic partnerships and looking at the outside world to bring in new innovations and capabilities to serve the group. The other teams we have are focused on in-house capability building across analytics and technology. We initially started this as a center of excellence, but it has now evolved into shared services for the group.
“We’re also looking at digital, not only from a strategy, partnership and capability perspective, but we’re looking at what digital skills we should bring in collectively for the group, and we’re calling this a ‘digital kitchen’. The corporate development team in summary is responsible for the strategic direction of the group and the incubation of capabilities and new verticals for Majid Al Futtaim.”
In 2016, the company began its digital transformation journey. At the time, the business model consisted of 12 different businesses that were operating, according to Abi Akl, in an autonomous manner. There was no real desire to disrupt the status quo as the companies were growing exponentially and nobody wanted to stifle the businesses. However, to take the company to the next level, a different approach was required.
Abi Akl says, “Firstly, we set about defining our long-term strategic direction of being a regionally focused lifestyle conglomerate with a stellar international reputation. As a holding company, our role changed from being a passive investor to more of a strategic architect – which means we were working to define the strategic direction of the group, whilst also working with the businesses in terms of supporting their development and growth.”
Abi Akl added that to able to deliver on this, the company really needed to bring the group together, taking the different businesses and fusing them into one lifestyle proposition.
As aforementioned, Majid Al Futtaim began its digital transformation journey in 2015 and he acknowledged that with a workforce of 44,000 employees it was only natural that they would face some obstacles when undergoing such a large-scale transformation. However, the group identified that customer experience and talent would form the key components of its overall strategy.
Abi Akl said, “We have identified customer experience and talent as two key pillars of our strategy. We’ve been doing a lot in terms of defining what customer experience means to us – from setting the guidelines and the principles on how to deliver it and working with the businesses to put this into action. Obviously, launching a groupwide loyalty program is in line with that strategy of having one lifestyle proposition with all brands and assets included, and we recently did this with the introduction of our rewards programme, SHARE.”
Majid Al Futtaim has embraced disruptive new technologies like Big Data and predictive analytics in a bid to ensure it delivers on its customer experience aspirations.
Abi Akl added, “To truly deliver signature customer experiences, we realised that we needed to understand our customers better because as a traditional offline player we were at a disadvantage compared to online players such as Amazon. Companies like Amazon were born online, they’re digital natives and they know their customers immediately because of what technology brings them. At the outset, we didn’t have that same advantage on the offline side, so we had to bridge that gap.”
On talent, Majid Al Futtaim has established a Leadership Institute designed to develop the next generation of leaders for the company. The Majid Al Futtaim Leadership Institute has incubated two schools, one of which is for analytics and technology and the other for ‘great moments’ which is based around delivering better customer experiences.
Abi Akl continued, “You have to help your employees transform from a leadership perspective, with soft skills as well as hard skills in technology, analytics and other emerging trends. Secondly, if you want to start transforming an organisation you can’t only rely on attracting people from outside the region to come here. The talent pool in the region when it comes to digital and analytics is shallow, so you want to attract the right people but in parallel, if you want to transform the organisation you can’t rely on the 500 people you’re bringing in. If your existing people don’t change, your transformation will ultimately fail.”
Majid Al Futtaim is sitting on oceans of data and has cleverly used analytics to harvest all that data to help better understand its customers and drive value.
Abi Akl added, “We started collecting data from multiple touchpoints, including Wi-Fi, loyalty programmes, offline assets, and online platforms within our ecosystem. Today, we have a depth of data in our group that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Data that used to sit in each business is no longer held by each business separately, it’s shared for the betterment of the group. It’s the same way we look at financial capital, or human capital, we have data as a third pillar in that ecosystem. Data should be owned by the group and should be benefiting the whole set of businesses.”
It is human nature to resist change and companies that are reluctant to embrace change run the risk of becoming obsolete. Abi Akl said that like all digital transformation journeys there can be some initial resistance – but stressed that there was a lot of support for the agenda across the group and a realisation that it was the right step to take. He said delivering successful use-cases was one way to eradicate any resistance or skepticism.
Abi Akl said, “We built a common database and we started testing it in order to start proving value to people, so any resistance you may have faced initially when embarking upon this type of transformation is immediately eliminated. What we did was take a few use-cases with the businesses and showed them that the data we’re collecting from Carrefour, for instance, can give you three times the value if you use it properly.
“We then merged the data with VOX Cinemas data and when we went back to the businesses and showed them that instead of 3X you can now get 30X, this changed the conversation. Ultimately, the data is now so enriched that it is much more useful for the business to optimise their processes, improve marketing and to create new sets of products and services that you couldn’t have created before because you didn’t really know what the customers wanted.”
After Majid Al Futtaim had illustrated its success, the next move was to scale the process across the entire group, and the creation of an analytics group within every business was a critical step in terms of accelerating the speed at which the company scaled its operations.
Abi Akl said, “Once we started getting traction, we decided to move on to the next phase of the project which was to figure out how can we scale this across the group to make sure that data is embedded in every single decision. To be able to do this you can’t rely on a central team to do it across 12 businesses, you need to embed analytics in the group, so we created a federated model in which we had a center of excellence that is working very closely with the dedicated analytics team at every business. These analytics teams are at the central level and are in each function in each country and are one of the fundamental reasons Majid Al Futtaim is achieving its vision of creating great moments for everyone, everyday”