CIO interview: Yiannis Levantis aims at total quality for Unipart IT

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Brian McKenna

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  • Brian McKenna,
    Business Applications Editor

Published: 09 Jun 2022 17:30

Turning a company’s IT function into an exceptional business in its own right must be the dream of many a CIO. Yiannis Levantis, group CIO at UK logistics company Unipart envisions doing precisely that, drawing on his experience of a long career in corporate IT, which includes periods at Unilever and Rolls-Royce.

Levantis is not easily daunted. He grew up in a household in Greece at which business leaders and politicians sat at the dining table, among them Antonis Samaras, who was prime minister of the country from 2012 to 2015, and the leader of the New Democracy party.

“Was that of any use for me?” he muses. “I think it was. Over the years, and especially as a child, I came across multimillionaires at dinner, owning football teams, hotel chains and newspapers. And I think that meant I didn’t have the mindset that, ‘Oh, things are too big and too overwhelming. And how would I get there? How would I do that?’. I always thought, ‘Well, unless it’s a sprint over 100 metres, at which I would be absolutely rubbish, if it’s doable, it’s doable by anyone. And, therefore, by me’.”

As the CIO of Unipart, whose origins are in the car industry, Levantis has led the choice of the Rise with SAP cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) and related technologies service as it seeks to enhance the systems integration side of its own business. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the cloud provider it has chosen for the Rise service.

The international logistics, consulting and manufacturing organisation, which has been an SAP customer for 21 years, announced in March 2022 that it is adopting Rise, which is built on the supplier’s high-speed, columnar database, Hana, and which puts managed cloud infrastructure and managed services into one contract.

Oxford-based Unipart emerged from British Leyland in the mid-1970s, specialising in the manufacture of parts for the automotive industry. It emerged as a standalone company in 1987, as a logistics services business, and is now looking to strengthen its capability as an SAP systems integrator.

The company has a heritage summed up in the phrase the Unipart Way, consciously modelled on the Toyota Way philosophy of continuous improvement and respect for people, and so putting a big emphasis on quality, lean manufacturing, the elimination of waste, and the like.

Levantis is seeking to develop Unipart’s business in this respect, with IT more to the fore than it has been hitherto under the rubric of logistics.

He came to the company in March 2021, immediately from Britvic, where he had been IT strategy and delivery director. But his two big formative experiences were at Unilever, which he joined from university in 1999, and at Rolls-Royce, where he was global IT director.

“I had a clear ambition to get to the top of the [IT] function. Not for reasons of ego or vanity, but because I had observed a lot of things that were done either badly or not very well, and I could see that they could be done much better”

Yiannis Levantis, Unipart

Levantis has two degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Manchester, and to that added a Masters in financial management and control from Aston Business School.

He says he is very grateful to Unilever for giving him a grounding in business technology, starting as a management trainee in supply chain IT. “I started getting my bearings, they put me in broader roles, to understand the broader business and the broader technology. They were extremely kind to me – they put me at the table of a very senior leadership team and they treated me as an equal. I didn’t know anything about anything.

“And quite early on in my career there, one of my managers at the time said to me, ‘Let’s do a real job now. Would you like to go into an SAP project?’ And I said, ‘What is SAP?’.”

He soon found out – and he says it has given him “a common backbone” to his career. “That’s extensive business, global business transformation across multifunctional business transformation, with SAP at its heart. That’s the common denominator throughout my career, up until and including GSK”.

Levantis was global IT director for commercial ERP at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) for three-and-a-half years, after which he joined Rolls-Royce, spending just over five years there, from 2011 to 2016.

Chrysalis moment at Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce was a “pivotal moment” for Levantis, for a couple of reasons. “One is, I broke out of my SAP box that had served me extremely well up until then. And I had a clear ambition to get to the top of the function. Not so much for reasons of ego or vanity, but because, through the years, I had observed a lot of things that were done either badly or not very well, and I could see that they could be done much, much better – without a spectacularly innovative approach,” he says.

“It is more about clarity, discipline, honesty, strong values, consistency, the basics – and the basics are not usually there. The IT industry beset by confusion and suboptimal practices.”

Why does he believe this to be the case?

“Money. There’s a lot of money to be made in consulting. And we’re not talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds. We’re talking hundreds of millions and billions. That’s big money. That reflects directly to individuals. There are a lot of people in sales and in leadership positions in these organisations [consultancies and systems integrators] for whom landing the sale makes a huge difference to their pocket, their households, their kids. This is a very personal thing – it is not an arbitrary or ethereal thing,” says Levantis.

“The other reason is IT being represented [in user organisations] by the guys who spoke Klingon, locked up in a dark room, knocking away at their keyboards. There came a time, probably around the late 1990s, early 2000s, when the IT guys said, ‘We need more friends. We cannot be so lonely. We need to be more normal’.”

Hence IT professionals bulked up on their social skills and got more involved in the business, “not just saying, ‘I don’t care what you do for a living – just tell me what you want me to build for you and I’ll build it”.

Don’t turn your back on tech

Levantis argues that, as IT professionals have cast aside their headphones and hoodies to learn more about the business of the companies and organisations that pay their salaries, some might have gone too far, and allowed their technology knowledge to rust to the extent that they are at a disadvantage when negotiating with smart and sophisticated suppliers, with their deeply expert technical staff and their lawyers.

“From the very top, all the way through the IT organisation, technology needs to be your passion, irrespective of what you have to do for a living. If it’s not, then you’d better look for something else”
Yiannis Levantis, Unipart

“Many have forgotten or turned a blind eye to the extremely important need to be a technology expert,” he says. “You cannot be expert at everything, but pick your areas – be expert at something and be knowledgeable about something else. You cannot just assume that technology doesn’t matter, that it will take care of itself.

“I think from the very top, all the way through the IT organisation, technology needs to be your passion, irrespective of what you have to do for a living. If it’s not, then you’d better look for something else. We ended up with a lot of amateurs who were great at general management, people management and leadership behaviours,” he adds.

Levantis says the current technology scene is too complex for that generalist approach to be sustainable. “You have cloud computing, you have a lot of mobility, and therefore a proliferation of data creation and the ability to get value out of it. Machine learning is booming,” he says. “You cannot be a deep expert on every aspect, that’s impossible. But nevertheless, you do have to have a range of genuine expertise. And you have to maintain this expertise, no matter how far you progress in your career.”

However, Levantis counsels IT professionals against then neglecting the non-technical, and not just in the realm of people skills. “If you are going to have a senior role in technology, you’d better understand contract law,” he says. “You don’t have to have a degree in it. Sit down with your lawyer friends. Sit down with your procurement guys. Understand commercial negotiations that make a real difference.”

Experience means scars on one’s back

And there is, says Levantis, no substitute for experience. He gives the example of strategy consulting firms. “You look at the calibre that a McKinsey attracts. They have fantastic strategic thinkers that glue nicely together into really exceptional think tanks. They’re a fantastic organisation,” he says.

“But there is a difference between intellect and training and presentation skills and people skills. But for practical execution, you can only be great if you can take your shirt off and have a lot of scars on your back. There is no polished way of getting that practitioner experience. There is no pretty way of getting there. There is only the hard way of going through tough projects over the years. Taking the pain of all the mistakes, the errors, the miscommunications, the overspends, the delays, being in the spotlight of that, managing through that, learning through that.”

Levantis says the biggest learning point of his career has been “making sense of people, bringing them together, because everybody has an angle, everybody has a way of thinking, everybody has a background”.

He gives an example of dealing diplomatically with an Italian manager when at Unilever. “Unilever was a good school for me. I was going through a lot of country implementations for SAP. They once sent me over to an Italian factory that was run by a guy who was allegedly not so easy to work with,” he says.

“Now, I’m Greek. We have a glass of red wine at lunch, we talk about anything but work, and then we get back to it. I had to say, ‘This is how we’re going to do this, it is not optional. But let’s understand how it impacts you, and let’s make the change relevant and appropriate. You tell me what you need and what’s precious to you. I’ll tell you what I need, what’s precious for me. Let’s make sure we focus on getting to an outcome that is viable for both of us’.

“Then we could finish earlier and go for another glass of wine in the evening. But that was a very special kind of approach. The guy was a flamboyant Italian and a very nice gentleman. He was easy to reason with, but you had to reason with him in his way. You had to align to his culture and his way of thinking and his approach. You could not approach him like a German or a Swiss or a Japanese or a Dutch guy.”

Janus role for IT at Unipart

At Unipart, which has sites in Nuneaton and India, as well as Oxford, Levantis leads an IT function of around 200 people. It and he have a dual role, internal and external.

In terms of the internal IT function, he wants to get it to a place where very little time, if any, is spent on firefighting. “And so, we can focus our combined intelligence in always being better. On things like how we make better smarter use of cloud capabilities. How we can automate deployment of systems, so rather than taking three days, it takes three minutes – these are very viable solutions. These are not kind of dreamy ambitions, they’re very, very viable,” he says.

“The second part is establishing a genuinely exceptional IT transformation and implementation partner business, based on what I’ve already found. I’m not starting from scratch,” he adds. “There is a lot of goodness in place already. But really bring it to a place where it’s exceptional, when judged in the context of a wider market, and grow that business. Not necessarily explode it, but grow it appropriately, so we never lose focus on top-quality engagement with customers, top-quality customer experience throughout the implementation of the services, top-quality service and outcome.”

And, at the end of the day, have a nice glass of red wine for a job well done.

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