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Episode 31: Drew Smith (Ilitch Holdings) + Key Takeaways

This week’s episode of IIA’s Leading Analytics podcast comes full circle as IIA CEO Jack Phillips chats with long-time colleague Drew Smith, who was not only the first guest on the podcast when he ran data analytics for IKEA, but also led IIA’s Analytics Leadership Consortium (ALC) before recently joining Ilitch Holdings. Smith serves as VP of Global Data and Analytics for Ilitch, which owns Little Caesars, the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers and a number of other brands in the sports, food, and entertainment spaces. Smith shares many insights during this conversation:

  • Smith applies lessons he learned from analytics leaders he worked with in the ALC into his new role, including humility about what you don’t know, commitment to the organization, and active seeking of learning.
  • He recommends that analytics leaders focus on business and organizational context when meeting a stakeholder, honoring their knowledge and what they’ve done in the past but pushing them to consider new approaches.
  • He recommends that analytics professionals ask the question, “How do decisions get made here?” because fundamentally, the purpose of analytics is to make good decisions.

Key Takeaways

Describe your title and role. Where does your function report within the organization?

I'm the VP, Global Data and Analytics, Little Caesars Enterprises and Ilitch Holdings. We are a global company, well known in Mexico, and also located in South America, southeast Asia, and Europe. I report to the CIO, and we report into the CEO's office. My group is in what we call Enterprise Technology, because we service all of the enterprises in Ilitch Holdings.

Is there a right place for the analytics function to report?

Yes, for now. I don't think we ever settle on the perfect answer because the perfect answer doesn't exist. I'm good as long as I'm in part of the organization that is viewed as neutral, progressive, and is well-regarded. There are many arguments for analytics sitting in the CFO office; analytics makes money or save costs, so that could work. There are arguments for it to sit alone. Many people are super keen advocates of the CDAO office being its own entity, and that has validity as well. We are in IT. We get engagement initiatives based on how they contribute to business success, so this is fairly neutral for me.

What are some "ahas" you've had so far in this position?

The number one thing I've learned is to find the balance between acknowledging that everybody knows our business better than I do and knowing that I also bring something worthwhile. It's called analytics. It's about driving value in a new way, and I can't shortchange myself on that. The second thing I've learned is that business context matters immensely. You have to think actively about how you approach stakeholders, honoring what they've done in the past, but also pushing them a bit. The third thing is, even as an analytics leader at a VP or higher level, getting the integrity of your base data in the right state because everything flows from that.

Ilitch has a broad set of brands. What are the most impactful areas that you're going to invest in?

In the Little Caesars pizza business, I think about the small changes on a daily or hourly basis that have huge impact. For example, matching production to need or reducing waste, or automating processes and leveraging IoT. On the pizza side, it's about volume because that's where the money is.

On the sports entertainment side, it's leveraging the uniqueness of what we have. For example, we own a large part of Detroit around the sports stadiums. We own the parking. We own Hockeytown Cafe, and we own Little Caesars Arena. Most of these entities have digital applications. We might know that you hate the rain, so we might give you a better deal on a parking deck closer to the rink. This ability to personalize the multi-journey customer journey of a night out is huge. There's your journey to the parking deck. There's your journey to the Hockeytown Cafe. There's your journey into the arena and throughout the arena. These are things we can leverage.

We are also beginning to develop more strategies for automation. In our distribution group, we have an integrated system servicing all of our stores, but we haven't integrated it as well as we could. We can make life easier for the stores, make ordering more efficient, and improve sustainability by reducing waste and transport.

What advice would you give to aspiring analytics professionals?

  1. Competing on Analytics by Thomas H. Davenport. I give copies of this book to new staff members.
  2. Other thought leaders. There's a lot of great stuff out there around building data teams—John Thompson—and there's some great stuff from other thought leaders like Douglas Laney and Mark Demarest.
  3. Foundational knowledge. Though a bit dated, the Data Management Association (DAMA) book for data governance and data management is a good place to start.
  4. Interview question. When interviewing, ask several interviewers the same question: how do decisions get made here? Ultimately, the purpose of analytics is to improve decision making. If you understand how decisions get made, you will start off your analytics journey in any given company in a much better place.
  5. Learn data at its fundamentals. It can be boring, but understanding theoretical data principles pays off.

For more insights from Drew, listen to the full podcast.