Max & Erma's IT chief Hamill: 'I love chaos,' meeting needs


Name: Mary Hamill

Title: vice president, human resources and information technology, Max & Erma's, Columbus, Ohio

Birth date: July 19, 1964

Education: bachelor of arts, mathematics, Ohio State University

Career: joined Max & Erma's in 1986 while attending college, moving to full-time status in 1996 as director of training; later added director of human resources title and in 2005 assumed IT role and was named vice president

Manages: 13 employees, including seven in IT functions

POS system: Positouch, version 5.29 in most units

Back-office application: eRestaurant Services Back Office and Enterprise Suite

Enterprise applications: J.D. Edwards for financials, ADP for payroll processing

Family: married, with four children ages 10, 12, 14 and 16

Pastimes: skateboarding, watching basketball

The dizzying pace of technological change doesn't bother Mary Hamill. In truth, she says, it's what she loves best about technology, whether enjoying it as a consumer or investigating new applications in her position as head of human resources and information technology operations at 100-unit, Columbus, Ohio-based Max & Erma's.

"In technology, there's always something bigger, better and different on tap," says Hamill, a 20-year veteran of the casual dining chain. "It's chaos, and I love chaos."

Nation's Restaurant News recently spoke to Hamill for her take on various aspects of foodservice information technology, or IT, and about the IT challenges she has faced, her project management style and her strategic bent.

NRN: What do you think is the greatest recent technology innovation for restaurants, and why?

HAMILL: That's a hard question, but it's probably wireless technology for taking orders and completing credit and debit card transactions at the table. With hand-held devices, servers aren't running back and forth and can spend extra time doing a more effective job of suggestive selling to guests. Processing transactions right in front of customers, with the cards never leaving their sight, also makes it easier to comply with Visa and Master Card's Payment Card Industry, or PCI, Data Security Standard. [That] requires merchants to take steps aimed at protecting cardholder data. While Max & Erma's does not have such technology in place now, we will definitely be looking at it down the road.

NRN: Which technologies in recent years were the most under-hyped, while ultimately proving valuable, and which were the most over-hyped?

HAMILL: High-speed Internet connectivity is definitely on the list of the under-hyped. While it's so valuable in speeding up transactions at the point of sale, we don't hear much about it. I think this is because there's the assumption that most establishments have it, even though they don't. On the flip side, radio frequency identification, or RFID, is getting a lot of press, but the industry is light years away from seeing it reach mainstream status. The investment far outweighs the return, and we're at the very, very beginning stage of applications development.

NRN: How can IT executives help end-users within their organization – whether at the store or corporate level – transition to a new technology?

HAMILL: IT departments don't necessarily tailor applications in an order that makes sense for operators; they'll emphasize one feature of a solution, even though it isn't the most important in operators' eyes, and de-emphasize another most operators consider critical. To avoid this and to foster acceptance, people from the operations side must be involved in projects from the start.

NRN: Any examples?

HAMILL: We got operations and our culinary staff involved in our current rollout of the food management module of eRestaurant Services' Back Office and Enterprise Suite. Not only has buy-in been better, the product itself is better because its design reflects the wants of those who will be using it.

NRN: What was your most difficult IT project and how did you see it through to fruition?

HAMILL: Implementing our loyalty card program, which now interfaces with our point-of-sale program, was tough. What was supposed to have been a two-month rollout turned into a 10-month rollout, because the two solutions did not 'play nice' with each other. We handled the situation by working with the vendor on getting the right interface to satisfy our business needs. While it was tempting to just deploy something that wasn't perfect, we took the time to keep plugging away and to experiment until we got things right.

To help make future installations smoother, we have put together a group of test stores where we will evaluate and, if needed, refine any technology before taking it chain-wide.

NRN: What overall challenges have you faced in your position, and how have you grappled with them?

HAMILL: The biggest challenge is too much to do, with not enough people to do it. My IT staff wants to explore a variety of technologies, but for the moment we need to focus on priority projects, such as PCI compliance and our food-management solution. Determining how to address the PCI compliance issue with technology has been difficult, because operations doesn't necessarily see a return on the solutions.

NRN: What are some of the best strategies IT executives can use to sell reluctant decision-makers in a restaurant operation on the use of technology?

HAMILL: The most important strategy is to determine the business needs of the organization, and then tie that back into how a particular technology can help to fulfill those requirements. It's a bit too early to offer a concrete example, but when I became vice president of IT here, my team and I sat down with representatives of each department and asked them what their business needs were, then laid out IT strategies that closely align with those needs. No approach works 100 percent of the time, and this one is no exception, but it's very effective.

NRN: Anything else?

HAMILL: It's also important to implement IT discipline in terms of project management. There need to be outlines of what's to be done, documentation of what's occurring and clear, established deadlines for completing various steps. This keeps the momentum going. It's something we did not have when I first moved to the technology side at Max & Erma's, and it has made a world of difference.

NRN: What type of foodservice IT solutions would you like to see developed in the not-too-distant future?

HAMILL: I'd love to see virtual reality training applications on the market. Role playing is a great training tool, and simulation has tremendous educational power. Virtual reality would be a terrific way to deliver role playing-based training, although I'm not quite sure how the development of a solution would work. But the possibilities are fun to think about.

-- Julie Ritzer Ross