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Whataburger's Bird: making IT simple not always an easy task

Whataburger's Bird: making IT simple not always an easy task


Name: Karen H. Bird


Title: chief information officer, Whataburger Restaurants LP, Corpus Christi, Texas

Birth date: Jan. 10, 1955

Place of birth/current residence: Coral Gables, Fla. /Corpus Christi

Education: bachelor of science, business administration, University of Phoenix, Braintree, Mass., and Dallas, Texas, campuses

Career highlights: joined Whataburger in August 2008 after two years as vice president of restaurant information solutions at Brinker International Inc.; served as director, restaurant technology services, Dunkin Brands Inc., from 2002 to 2006; held post of vice president, business systems, Advantica Restaurant Group, 1996 to 2002; worked in various information technology, or IT, positions at Burger King Corp., 1971 to 1996.

Manages: staff of 50 people, including five direct reports

Reports to: Dino Del Nano, vice president, information technology/supply and services

Family: husband, Don; grown son, James

Hobbies/activities: fishing, kayaking, golf and motorcycle riding

POS system: Par hardware, running proprietary software (legacy system); migrating to NCR hardware with software from Xpient Solutions LLC

Primary unit-level, back-office applications: custom reporting applications and Xpient IRIS

Enterprise accounting and human resources management tools: JD-Edwards Enterprise One, version 8.0

Wide area network: self-managed

Moving from a key supporting role to the top spot typically brings with it a spate of new responsibilities, as Karen Bird well knows after signing on last August as chief information officer at Whataburger Restaurants of Corpus Christi, Texas, following two years at Dallas-based Brinker International.

"In my new role, I'm responsible for ensuring that IT delivers technology strategy and day-to-day support for our restaurants, operations teams and our corporate departments," Bird says of being CIO at Whataburger, which has 542 company-owned restaurants and franchises another 171 to others. "At my prior company, I had similar responsibilities, but only for the restaurant side of the business."

Bird views her primary job as providing Whataburger with reliable, user-friendly technology that automates manual tasks as much as possible, thereby simplifying operations and allowing "the entire order, payment, and delivery process to work as smoothly and efficiently as possible — all the time." She adds, "Making it 'simple' for our operations teams ensures that they will be able to deliver the friendly service and made-to-order food" for which the chain is known.

The task may not be an easy one, she acknowledges, and will necessitate hiring information technology staff with diverse knowledge, expertise and support skills. Among the talent types on her shopping list: network and server engineers, telecommunications specialists, data and information management personnel and various POS system support teams.

What are some of the IT changes you've made at Whataburger since your arrival?

Over the past several months, we've focused on filling key director-level positions in Whataburger's IT organization and realigning the IT department to more efficiently support the company. Hiring IT staff in Corpus Christi has been challenging in the past, so we've used various consulting companies to provide temporary resources to fill a number of IT management positions.

We're in the process of replacing all of the older POS technology in our restaurants with Xpient POS software and NCR hardware. That's a major undertaking in project management, and our new IT staff has already helped us to achieve progress in this regard.

What prompted these changes, and what do you expect from them?

Every [operation] uses consulting resources in various ways in IT. However, we have had to rely more on consulting companies to provide staff augmentation due to our location and inability to draw restaurant technology experts to our area. Our planned relocation of corporate headquarters to San Antonio will locate us in an area of the country that is more centrally accessible and is in a growing technology sector. With the new IT department directors on board, we now have a group of people with an extensive business network in place. This will allow us to more easily find candidates for the remaining positions we must fill.

We're now well staffed for our POS project and will continue moving forward with it. Once the system is fully implemented in late 2009, we will have a restaurant technology platform in place that will enable us to electronically integrate additional systems and services [intended to] provide value for our company.

What are some of the next big IT projects you'd like to get started on?

Our POS rollout will continue through the third quarter of 2009. After a [planned] data center move and the relocation of our home office, we will, in late 2009, begin planning a needed upgrade of our JD Edwards [enterprise accounting and human resources management] system.

How much say do you have in the IT systems used by franchisees?

Currently our franchisees are responsible for the selection of systems used by their company.

What is the greatest challenge you currently face in your position, and how are you trying to meet it?

Whataburger's biggest technology challenge is ensuring that we have a stable, reliable and safe [from hurricane threat] infrastructure in place to support the business changes our company is going through. We hired a new director of infrastructure, who has the experience and expertise we need to manage and make changes to our technical environments. We've already made some improvements in the past two months.

Does your department have much hands-on responsibility for Web-based or mobile marketing initiatives?

Our entire executive team works closely on all company initiatives, and IT is a valued partner in this process. Our external facing website is created and managed by our marketing department, and we provide advice and support as needed.

Does your company outsource any IT functions?

The majority of maintenance and support for our enterprise and restaurant systems is outsourced to a vendor partner with on-site and off-shore resources. The off-shore team provides various development, support and system monitoring functions. In addition, all of our POS hardware maintenance is performed by contracted vendors.

Is outsourcing likely to increase going forward, or have you found the right mix of in-house-managed and outsourced functions?

Our current mix will change. We presently have a greater mix of outsourced functions than we would like and will spend this year and the next working on the right balance of in-house managed and outsourced resources.

What steps have you taken to reduce IT center or in-restaurant IT power usage or reduce the use of IT consumables?

We're currently looking at data center usage and [telephone company] charges to eliminate unnecessary spending. For example, we were using a facility to route a small percentage of frame circuits and FTP services through. The circuits have been re-routed, and the FTP server has been moved to our primary data center. The result was more than $200,000 in annual savings for the company.

What do you think is the most under-appreciated type of restaurant IT application?

The telecommunications infrastructure required for 100-percent data communications uptime is one of the most critical and least understood of all IT functions. With the introduction of high-speed, home DSL services, PDAs and text messaging, we are now an "always on" generation of users. Given the high availability that is expected from these types of personal/home services, our business users expect, as they should, the same level of services for our enterprise systems. [This is true] especially as we accept gift and credit cards for payment in our restaurants and the majority of our business information reporting is fully automated. Having the correct infrastructure and support capabilities in place to support these types of business functions is critical and is typically the most expensive line item in the IT budget.

What new applications would you like to see developed for use in restaurant organizations?

In order for hand-held mobile technology to be widely integrated into restaurant environments, the "wired" power requirement must be addressed. Having to find places to plug in all of the mobile devices and their additional batteries is a challenge for any restaurant, especially those with small manager offices. I believe the introduction and acceptance of mobile technology in the restaurant industry has been hindered by the power recharge issue and by the short battery life that these devices typically have. Restaurant operations staff need "always on" technology they can rely on. If mobile devices are running out of power in the middle of a critical function, like serving a customer, they won't be used.

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