Tar Heel’s Ireland: Partnership Sparks IT Innovation

Tar Heel’s Ireland: Partnership Sparks IT Innovation

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Name: Robert Ireland

Title: director of information technology, or IT, Tar Heel Capital, Boone, N.C.

Place of birth/current residence: Apple Valley, Minn./Blowing Rock, N.C.

Education: bachelor of arts, marketing, with minor in computer information systems, Augsburg College, Minneapolis

Career highlights: joined Tar Heel Capital in 2005 after four years as director of product development, Cytosol Opthalmics; from 1995 to 2002, worked as manager of intranet services for Corning Cable Systems (formerly Siecor Corp.)

Manages: two direct reports

Reports to: Tad Dolbier, president

Family: wife Lisa; son Christian, 18

Hobbies/activities: music, reading, spending time with the family, outdoor pursuits

POS system: Wand NextGen POS, NCR hardware

Primary unit-level, back office system: Wand Enterprise Manager

Enterprise accounting and human resources tools: Macola for accounting, UltiPro for human resources

Wide area network: New Edge Networks

Some franchised restaurant operators prefer to leave solutions development to vendors and franchisor big guns, but Robert Ireland isn’t among them.

For the past four years, Ireland has served as director of information technology, or IT, for Tar Heel Capital of Boone, N.C., whose 76 Wendy’s stores across North Carolina and South Carolina make the company among the largest franchisee groups in the Wendy’s system. During his tenure at Tar Heel, Ireland has been heavily involved in spearheading IT innovation as a member of the Wendy’s Franchise Technology Working Advisory Group. He also has served, and continues to serve, as a liaison between Wendy’s International and point-of-sale and digital menu board provider Wand Corp. of Eden Prairie, Wis., chairing the latter’s Wendy’s Franchise User Group.

Ireland also played a critical role in developing and beta-testing Wand Enterprise Manager, a technology that allows a franchisee or quick-service restaurant corporation to manage up to 1,000 individual stores across an established franchise. “Forming strong relationships” with solutions providers, rather than maintaining a passive technology development stance, “allows both vendors and franchises to better serve their customers, external and internal alike,” Ireland noted.

What IT projects has Tar Heel Capital recently undertaken?

We’re working on a NexGen POS solution project in a joint effort between Wendy's corporate operation and the franchise community. The key to this solution is [a feature called] conversational ordering [wherein] customers order any way they want without interruption from the cashier. The solution’s logic and graphical user interface component [enables] cashiers to easily respond to customers even if changes occur during the ordering process.

Another project, also a joint [effort involving] Wendy’s corporate and franchisees, centers on contactless payment using a hardware/software solution developed by [payment technology vendor] ViVOtech. Allowing customers to retain possession of their credit cards is important. It gives them more security and eliminates any threat of misuse by cashiers or crewmembers.

What prompted you to initiate these projects?

We’re a very customer-focused company. We want to give our customers the most enjoyable experience possible. If technology can be used to increase customer satisfaction, then we are interested in it.

What’s next on Tar Heel’s IT drawing board?

We’re starting to look at the self-service space. It’s kind of funny, but users who create their own orders and swipe their own credit cards feel that the service time is faster, even when it isn’t. When users control the purchasing process, any service expectations are eliminated or severely reduced.

How does being the IT leader for a multi-unit franchisee differ from heading up IT for a large franchisor or chain with a hundreds or thousands of company-operated stores?

Franchises [typically] lack the resources of corporate brand [stores], including “people” resources, capital resources and even technology resources. [Every] franchise technology “person” needs to wear a lot of hats. For example, we’re network administrators one minute and help-desk supervisors the next.

How do you handle some of these challenges?

We have to be creative when it comes to solution delivery so that we get a lot of bang for our investment buck. Finding the right IT team members helps. I'm very lucky to have a great IT team.

From your experience with Wand, how can/should IT executives work with vendors for the good of both sides?

Communication and partnership are key, [especially because] it’s very easy for a vendor to lose direction, which results in customer confusion. Wand was one of Tar Heel Capital's vendors when I came on board, and I have established a close partnership with the company. [As such], I speak with their executive team on a weekly basis, bringing [our] technology needs to the forefront and, ultimately, doing some joint problem solving [with them].

How are you applying lessons learned from working in the fiber optic and medical device fields to fulfilling your responsibilities at Tar Heel?

The necessary people skills, processes, and management do not change that much among the different industries. Whether you are serving internal customers or external customers, you need to control and meet the expectations. .

What have you done to reduce your company's usage of IT-related power and other consumables?

We do a lot of recycling, but to add to that, we’ve worked really hard to maximize the lifecycle of our technology investments. Rather than discard workstations, we tend to upgrade and reuse them. For example, an old back-office workstation can become an excellent training workstation.

Where can the most significant IT development opportunities in the industry be found?

There’s a huge opportunity in the self-service space. The whole concept of “on demand” has migrated from just TiVo to [encompass] our entire daily lives; a large portion of consumers in our demographic feel comfortable using technology to get what they want, when they want it. The self-service concept is [already taking hold] in the retail space, where kiosks and mobile technology – cell phones or otherwise – are becoming ordering devices. In a restaurant environment, customers could, for example, use their cell phones to store information about their favorite meal combo, and the next time they approached the counter or kiosk, the information could be [automatically] relayed to the POS terminal.

What other types of foodservice technologies would you like to see developed?

More enterprise-level applications or solutions would be great. The focus needs to be on web-centric solutions that allow executives, operations [personnel] and maybe customers to interact with [store-level] systems [for increased efficiency].