Sven Friedli, CIO of Bell Food Group, talks AI, Machine Learning, Video Analytics, and how to make tech serve the business’ needs.
At its heart, every digital transformation - no matter what sorts of flashy technology you employ - needs to serve the interests of the business. Sven Friedli, Chief Information Officer at Bell Food Group, can’t stress enough the fact that “People, not systems, make the difference. If you don't have clever people who understand how your technology works, you're not going to benefit from it. If you don't have people working hard to understand what the business needs, not just which technologies are the coolest, you'll never end up with a good result.”
Friedli joined Bell Food Group in October of 2020, taking on the significant task of driving digital adoption and transformation across the multinational meat and convenience food production company. One of the major challenges inherent to the role, he explains, is that Bell Food Group’s scale (last year, the group sold over half a billion kilos of food, including more than 300mn kilos of meat, poultry and seafood and nearly 200mn kilos of convenience products) is matched only by the diversity of its business units. It's quite a challenging prospect, given all our different locations and sites, all operating with different technologies. The Group grew quite fast over the past 10 years, so there are a lot of newly-added companies that Bell Food owns, each with their own IT environment,” he explains. “My job is to ensure that all these systems stay up and running, find clever harmonisations that fulfil our business needs in the future and today, and drive a step-by-step digital transformation of the company as a whole.”
Founded in 1869 by Samuel Bell, the once-small Swiss meat processing firm has grown into a truly pan-regional player, with operations in 15 countries throughout Europe, from Spain to Romania. “We offer products ranging from meat and poultry to charcuterie and seafood. We are also in the convenience sector, so we produce everything from salads and sandwiches to ready-made pasta, soups, and so on,” says Friedli. “We have about 12,000 employees working across our 63 locations, as well as a huge network of suppliers and sales partners in both the food industry and the IT sector who help us fulfil the needs of our customers.”
Efficiency, Stability and Transparency
The potential benefits that Friedli hopes the adoption of cutting edge technologies like video analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and cloud-based business intelligence (BI) solutions can deliver are - he stresses - firmly contingent on an IT department that truly understands and works to serve the needs of Bell Food Group’s business functions. In order to get individual business units to support and embrace new technologies, Friedli is a keen advocate of the personal touch.
“Since I started, I've been meeting a lot of different people and visiting a lot of different sites. You'd better believe that I have filled out an incredible number of forms to get back and forth to where I've been needed over the past seven months,” he laughs. However, he readily admits that two COVID-19 tests a week and a life lived almost perpetually on the road are essential if he is to effectively drive Bell Food Group towards its digital transformation goals.
“It's important to show our individual business units what the new technologies we are exploring can do for them in terms of efficiency, stability, and transparency,” he explains. “In the food industry, digitalisation makes it much easier to show our customers exactly where our product came from, which kind of farmer is contributing the ingredients to it, what kind of quality product it is, and so on. Using a mixture of business intelligence (BI) solutions, data warehousing, and other technological innovations, we're able to bring information about our business together and, on the one side, leverage it to improve production and, on the other side, give more transparency to our customers.” These business-driven solutions are the result of Friedli and his team’s tireless efforts to reposition Bell Food Group’s IT function into an organisation wholly focused on understanding and meeting those needs.
“In the past, our organisation was a bit more technology-focused, but I've changed that structure to be completely business-oriented. The different tech units - ERP solutions, networking, and so on - are always supporting the business. Now, we put the business units at the centre of the organisation,” says Friedli. Taking ERP as an example, he notes that “lots of different ERP solutions can fulfil your needs. Lots of cloud solutions can help you reduce costs and drive standardisation,” but he can’t stress enough the importance that, “no matter what you decide to go with, you really understand the business needs that your technology is meeting.”
Spanning 65,000 square metres, staffed by 120 full-time employees, and capable of producing 5,000 metric tonnes of raw ham (including the highly-sought after Jamon Ibérico variety, from a very specific and ancient breed of Iberian pig), Bell Spain’s factory southwest of Madrid is one of the key production facilities for the company’s raw ham revenues in Europe.
“It's a very delicious and expensive product, being produced at scale,” says Friedli. “We're talking up to a million hams hanging in our warehouses in Fuensalida as they dry and cure.” With different breeds of pig being turned into different grades of ham, which are then cured and hung for different amounts of time, depending on their quality and intended certification, the execution of thousand-year-old traditional methods in an industrial environment at scale can be a challenging one.
“In the past, the company didn't really have an accurate, comprehensive view of their production process,” Friedli explains. “For example, when they used to do inventory, it used to take them weeks and weeks to count all their hams. Now, we've introduced an end-to-end supply chain solution that tracks the whole process, from buying the pigs to selling the ham. All the information and data is now in one system throughout the whole process, so their inventory is a one-click process, checking revenues is a one-click process.”
The project has been a massive success, helping Bell Spain to solve pain points in their production process through technology - an achievement that Friedli emphasises was only possible due to the fact that “lots of time was taken by the IT team, by consultants, down at Bell Spain to understand what kind of problems the business was facing and how they could be solved with technology.”
He reflects: “We took the time to understand the steps involved in production, what kinds of reports the company needed to better understand that process, and how best to generate useful data from the different steps of the production cycle.”
Video Analytics for a Better Chicken Nugget
Now, at Bell Food Group’s ham production sites as well as in other factories throughout Europe, video analytics - backed by powerful AI and ML tools - are helping further improve the production process. “With video analytics, we can capture every important step of the production process and determine in real time whether each individual ham-slice meets the right quality standards," Friedli explains. “We do the same thing at our factories that process chickens. Based on things like size, color and structure, our video analytics can determine whether which part of a bird ends up as chicken sausage nuggets or stays, uh, chicken-shaped as part of better quality products.”
At this point, Sven and I both agreed that we were reaching levels of hunger that weren’t conducive to a quality interview, and steered our discussion towards the future.
Partnering for Success
“I'm still learning lots about my new partners. Some I knew in the past; some I'm still getting to know,” Friedli reflects. He adds that, because mutual understanding of key goals, needs and capabilities is so essential to a strong partner relationship, “it's important to have a few but strong partners.” He continues: “In difficult situations - and they're always difficult situations, believe me - you have to act in a way that works for both you and your partner. So, for me, it's important to be transparent, open and honest with your partners and ask for help when you need it.”
Since he admits he is still relatively new to Bell Food Group, Friedli explains that asking for help is a big part of his problem solving process. “I'm asking for help, asking my partners how their technologies, capabilities, and experience can help me drive better business outcomes for Bell Food Group.”
The Road Ahead
Digital transformation is, as anyone overseeing a digital transformation is quick to tell you, an involved and unending process. Friedli is proud of the progress made so far, but readily admits that some elements of the business have a ways to go. “In some areas, we're really advanced. We're using machine learning, predictive analytics and a whole load of other cutting edge technology for example to optimise our supply chain and production planning. In others, however, we still definitely have a lot more of our journey ahead of us,” he says.
As he settles into his role, meeting with different business units, learning the ropes, and finding the pain points that technology can soothe, Friedli explains that “First, I'm working to fully understand the business’ needs so that I can help use technology to meet those needs as best as possible.” Once those needs are fully understood, he continues, “My second major goal is to clearly define the digital transformation journey that the company is on - to really understand which technologies, whether that's automation, analytics, or something else to use. It's important to have a clear goal. There are so many technology trends happening all at once that it would be very easy to do lots of cool stuff, but if we don't focus, then we will never see the benefits of those technologies reach the business. Having a clear strategy is essential.”