Jeff Wilts wasn’t at Canadian Tire at the start of the retailer’s master data management effort early in 2012. But the associate vice president of information management for the Toronto-based chain is now part of the team reinforcing the value of MDM, plotting the next enterprise-wide capabilities and maintaining lines of communication to guide the program into its next phases.

Canadian Tire, ubiquitous across the provinces, specializes in automotive sales and services, but with the addition of an active Web sales portal also operates like U.S. “big box” retailers in their sales of everything from kitchen and bath fixtures to sporting equipment. To get a handle on its more than 12 million retail customers, split across two data repositories, Canadian Tire started with data cleansing and customer information completeness rules similar to its retail banking division, which provided a “good handle” on its loyalty program customers and those in its COSTAR automotive software system. With that technical background, the MDM effort was woven into the company’s mission toward customer-centered retailing, making reliable data something that “permeates thinking.”

“There’s a well-defined vision of what customer-centered retailing is. It’s not like they’re trying to do 25 or 30 different things. They’re really trying to do a bunch of things around one common vision,” says Wilts.

(Editor’s note: Wilts and Canadian Tire Customer Information Manager Ed Unrau will delve into the retail company’s master data management and governance practices next week at Information-Management’s MDM & Data Governance Summit – Canada 2013. For an agenda and information on our other MDM conferences later this year in San Francisco and New York City, click here.)

That process started about 18 months ago, running primarily on IBM InfoSphere (and Big Blue’s WCC before that). Wilts came on board near the end of last year. Without giving detailed accounts of ROI, he says the MDM initiative helps business parse interaction types, and customers who, for example, are racking up loyalty program points or prefer to use their MasterCard. Marketing has its clearest view ever of the impacts of promotions. On the call center side, those different views of customers are aligned as one.  

There have been technical challenges, like straightening out ETL functionality, deduplication efforts and trudging through system downtime, though those were factored into the project plan as possibilities and weren’t “big surprises,” Wilts says. The harder challenges were where the business and technical components meet, like in settling on rules for matching. That brings in business politics and realizations that some data rules should be more liberal than others. Not always stress-free conversations, all sides can find common ground on good customer data because of that defined role of  MDM and data quality. Wilts says keeping that higher goal includes a mix of consistent messaging and seeking value propositions wherever they may turn up.

“Basically, you have to sell the senior executives that MDM is important, and it has to be positioned as an enhancement to other things: It’s going to improve your data quality, it’s going to give you more complete insights into customers, and, in the long-run, it’s going to give you lower long-term costs,” says Wilts, who came to Canadian Tire from an information management position at Canadian food outlet Loblaws. “You have to always take that long-road view with MDM. It’s not something that’s going to give you, necessarily, a really fast return on investment and it’s not intended to. But we are in it for the long haul, in improving our capabilities, so with that you have to stay in front of the executives and keeping on that same message.”

Mixed with the data results themselves, those overarching themes provide a springboard for the next phase of Canadian Tire’s MDM plan. Wilts says they’re looking at increasing alignment with e-commerce capabilities. They also heard back from business on the extreme interest for real-time views of customer transactions. With the backdrop of the data processes, Canadian Tire is looking into formalized capabilities for communication between analysts on data sets and analytics.

Wilts and Unrau are in contact with project managers and the business side almost daily. Every Monday, there’s a status report share between stakeholders, and additional benchmarking meetings are held every few weeks. While they don’t have a “fancy collaboration tool” to handle everything, Wilts says team members are fine going “old school” on Excel, whiteboard and in “lots and lots of emails.”

“We’re communicating and interacting on an ongoing basis,” he says. “You can’t do this either as an IT or a business initiative, you need both.”

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