EXCUSIVE INTERVIEW
Roger Parks


asktrict BACKGROUND The Agribusiness and Food Industry has grown to be a multi-billion dollar business that strives to feed the world. It is an industry that involves farmers, ranchers, food producers, seed supply, agrichemicals, farm machinery, wholesale and distribution, processing, marketing, and retail sales. The industry is increasingly facing supply and demand challenges as a result of the globalization of the food chain, rising costs of inputs, consolidation, population growth, water issues, environmental and health activism, and reduction of farmable land.Roger Parks is CIO of the J.R. Simplot Company, a privately held global agribusiness company and one of the largest family-owned companies in the United States. Simplot is an agribusiness conglomerate that supplies french fries to fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King, as well as guacamole to Taco Bell, worldwide. In addition, it is a top-ten beef supplier in the U.S. and works in the seed, feed, and fertilizer industries.
We spoke with Parks about the role of GIS (Geographic Information System) in Agribusiness. After an hour with him, we recognized him as a visionary CIO with the courage to innovate in what has become a conservative enterprise information technology environment. He was recently named one of the top 100 Innovative CIOs by CIO magazine.


LBx What is your background?

PARKS I have been in the IT (Information Technology) industry my entire professional career, starting as a programmer with Southwestern Bell Telephone Company in Houston, Texas, while in college. After leaving Southwestern Bell, I spent the next 20 years in the retail industry and the last 10 years in food manufacturing and agribusiness. My training is in computer science, and I have worked in every discipline within the IT industry, including programming, computer operations, sales, consulting, and have been CIO for four large companies. Having always maintained that IT is about the business, I brought that experience to solving business problems in my current CIO role. In my career I have always focused on delivering technology-based solutions that enable delivery of our company’s stated business goals and objectives.

LBx How did you stumble upon GIS?

PARKS  As the private industry representative appointed by the Governor of Idaho to Idaho’s Information Technology Resource Management Council (ITRMC), I was exposed to the capabilities of GIS and identified what I felt were multiple applications where GIS could be leveraged to deliver significant value and differentiation in the Agribusiness industry. Based on this knowledge, I brought GIS and my vision for Simplot to leverage GIS globally into our company about three years ago.

LBx Why do you think GIS is an innovative business technology? How did you see GIS applying to Simplot and the challenges in the Agribusiness/Food business?

PARKS Agribusiness is a volume business, so we have to manage costs and yield. GIS is all about where the business is today and where business is going in the future. With its ability to analyze data, create better decisions, and drive precision agriculture, it also enables advanced planning predictability modeling systems. For example, the ability to use remote sensors and integrate that data with GIS helps us determine attributes about the soil to make more informed decisions about nutrients and moisture content, which decreases costs and results in higher yields. Water is a serious commodity in the agribusi- ness industry, and utilizing GIS technology and remote sensors working together, farmers and land managers are able to more efficiently irrigate crops, and to obtain information on water rights, usage, and drainage.

LBx You mentioned that the agribusiness industry has been slow to adopt GIS. How did you convince management to adopt your vision?

PARKS Over the years, the GIS industry has been focused on government and land management; there hasn’t been a big push or real marketing of the capabilities of GIS to agribusiness executives. It took several months to get sponsorship and support for the project in our company. I met one-on-one with each of our company presidents and presented an overview of what the capabilities of GIS are and the types of information we could generate from a GIS system. This was a bit of an education process, and we loaded sample data into a prototype for senior executives to convey the project to these executives.

Initially they thought it was another IT project, not a business application. When we showed them examples of cadastral maps with Simplot data, including information on our farms and land assets, they immediately saw the application to business information on leases, land boundaries, precision information around taxes and more. In one case, this simple prototype demonstrated that we were overpaying taxes on some land assets.

RogerParks

LBx Your GIS project is built on an ESRI platform. Many IT professionals and business people who are not familiar with ESRI, and GIS for that matter, perceive it to be difficult to integrate and expensive. Can you comment on the implementation and the costs?

PARKS Let me address cost first. This initial project, including our foundational infrastructure investment, was less than $1m dollars, probably one of the lower cost technology solutions relative to the cost/benefit ratio. A company with many assets cannot afford not to do this. GIS is all about viability and sustainability; the technology cost is inexpensive relative to economic benefits.

The budget came from a combination of IT and Corporate Business Growth. We believe the first phase of our GIS project will pay for itself in terms of the economic benefits. In sharing the demo of the application with our executives and providing the estimated costs, we found that the senior executives felt the value was greater than the investment.

We accomplished most of the implementation on our own. ESRI worked with us on our project roadmap, specifications and requirements. We run on Microsoft SQL Server 2008. The biggest challenge in the enterprise integration was the data
model; it’s about integrating the data elements, not necessarily the applications.

LBx  What is the first phase?

PARKS We went live in September with our first phase. This phase of the project is focused on land, water and asset recovery. The benefits are cost reduction, overall visibility into land assets, ability to better manage costs with land assets, and ability for the first time to view all of the attributes of land assets from a central repository—this is a big deal! We own over 2,400 parcels across the U.S., with information scattered across laptops, maps, in employee’s heads and on paper; now we will have all that information in a single repository.

LBx  You appear to be a different kind of CIO; what is your approach to business?

PARKS You have to lead the way for new value building and always choose to be a leader. As a leader, you can become an influencer and become the architect. I like healthy competition. If you are afraid of competition you should not be a leader. You cannot make good business decisions from fear. Leaders are calculated risk takers. That’s the way I run IT and run my business.

I enjoy building new and competitive business models. The current North American business model is old news. You have to be globally focused. The CIO’s role in business is continuing to expand, since the CIO is one of the few senior executives in a company who crosses the entire enterprise. Under the CIO’s leadership, the IT organization is responsible for providing systems, support and thought leadership to all business functions in the enterprise. The CIO of today is viewed as the Chief Information Officer, Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Integration Officer.

GIS is the ultimate collaboration tool, because you have to rely on third party data, which often comes from your competitors. I am not afraid of collaboration; in fact I am an active member of the Oracle agribusiness community, and a thought leader in the agribusiness industry.

We need to create virtual organizations that are comprised of members ranging from our supplier community to our customers and create the next industry business model. The world of business and commerce is changing, primarily driven by technology. In this emerging new business model, competition is healthy. We should embrace our competitors to build value and should mine for opportunities to create efficiencies in the supply chain.

Regarding IT, I always look at it from the business value proposition. I believe IT should be business focused to:

Create new revenue streams;

Drive cost out of doing business;

Improve business processes;

Connect our customers with our business;

Improve employee productivity;

Improve cash flow;

Create competitive advantage.

LBx  What would you say is your secret to success in implementing a GIS project?

PARKS  The project took 13 months: 4 months of requirements and 9 months of implementation.

  1. It is high risk to sell 5-year IT projects to management. We scoped a small project where we could show action, keep management engaged and show progress.
  2. We had a professional project manager.Don’t underestimate this. A Tier 1 internal PMO (project management officer) who can navigate the organization and keep everything on track is critical. GIS opens management up to all sorts of new ideas and possibilities. The business people were getting very creative, and there is plenty of opportunity for scope creep that would have derailed the project. The PMO controlled costs and delivery.
  3.  We saw this as the first project of multiple projects, and realized that implementing the right infrastructure was critical to facilitating the next layers.
  4.  We view GIS as another application feeding the data warehouse. If you take the approach that it is another business application, then it is not a big deal.

LBx What do you think of today’s SaaS IT environment?

PARKS SaaS has grown because some business leaders believe SaaS is a lower cost computing solution, and I believe poor IT decisions such as outsourcing have damaged the credibility of IT in the organization. Business executives must view IT as a strategic enabler and critical business function within the enterprise.

LBx  You are considered an industry visionary; where are the other visionaries today?

PARKS Few people are visionaries—it is not something that is taught. Visionaries and innovators are generally marginalized. There is an ecosystem that is designed to perpetuate conventional thinking, from boards down through the organization. There needs to be sweeping change in businesses that enable innovative thinkers. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison are visionaries. Family businesses that are privately run have an advantage because they are not held hostage by the pressures of quarterly returns; they have the luxury of taking the long view and investing in innovation that will pay off over time. There is a difference between businesses that just sustain themselves and businesses that create competitive advantage.

LBx What’s next on your path to location intelligence?

PARKS Location Intelligence will provide us the ability to use geographic and location-related data with other business data. This information will provide insight and improve our ability to make better decisions, enhance our business processes, and align our company with our customers. We will be able to improve our company performance in many areas, such as customer relations, product distribution, supply chain efficiencies, improved transportation and logistics management.