Let’s Get Digital

CFOs shepherd midsize companies through an era of transformation and upheaval.
Lauren MuskettFebruary 26, 2019
Let’s Get Digital

Digital transformation has no definitive playbook.

Indeed, it’s hard to even pin down a definition of the term. Going digital is a lot more than just taking advantage of information technology; it represents a change in activities, processes, competencies, and models, according to i-SCOOP. Those changes are designed to leverage the opportunities offered by a mix of evolving technologies and their accelerating impact across society.

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For many organizations, getting digital is about using technology to boost employee productivity. For others, it involves improving the customer experience, developing new digital revenue streams, or leveraging data to better manage business performance, according to 2018 research by IDG Communications. And there are plenty of other aims based on functional roles. While marketing talks about “re-targeting” with ads that follow shoppers from site to site online, product management uses data analytics to guide future development. A supply chain manager, on the other hand, uses newly available data and tools to perform scenario planning or to stress-test inventory levels.

Those examples fall short of conveying the depth at which digital strategies are changing businesses, however. To do that, we looked at four midsize companies in four distinct industries: manufacturing, health care, financial services, and retail.

Manufacturing: Pressed Into Change

When veteran operations executive Renaud Megard acquired 40-year-old NFI in 2015 and expanded its product line and manufacturing capacity with two more acquisitions, he and his management team knew that modernization was in order.

NFI uses digital, screen, and flexographic printing to produce custom, long-lasting barcode, serial number, and tamper-proof labels; asset tags; metal nameplates; and electrical membrane switches. Underlying the company’s digital strategy is the realization that in other markets, “companies that missed the turn from analog to digital didn’t survive,” says Alan Rose, NFI’s CFO.

At NFI, that pivot is the difference between using an analog press and one that’s digital — screen versus digital printing. The company recently bought its second nearly $1 million HP Indigo digital press that can print in one week what it takes an analog press one month to produce. Rose provided risk analysis on the investment and arranged financing.

“We also [now] have the ability to connect our presses with others around the world” and move work between the company’s two plants in Massachusetts, he says.

A major trigger for the manufacturing modernization was the recognition that a portion of NFI’s core legacy business was slowly eroding as products it produced labels for aged out. Rather than pursue more of that lower-margin work, the firm decided to target higher-margin opportunities leveraging its digital presses.

The analog-to-digital move impacts the company’s marketing and sales, as well. Integrated digital marketing—email, social media, an updated website, and online advertising—helps attract and convert prospects. Employing more digital tools and tactics also saves money. The $200,000 NFI once spent on direct mail—a tactic that it used to mail product samples to prospects — has been cut by 90%.

Old-school, person-to-person contact is still in the mix. The in-house sales team uses a customer relationship management tool to help convert leads to customers. The sales force is also about to get a boost allowing it to spend more time selling and less time taking orders. In the first quarter, NFI will introduce a web-based portal that lets customers reorder quickly, without talking to anyone.

“About 75% of our products are re-orders,” says Rose. “We want our sales representatives to be more than order-takers. The customer portal will relieve the sales staff of this workload in a way that we know will impact revenue.”

The entire organization is also expected to benefit from an enhanced enterprise resource planning (ERP) system this year. Upgrading NFI’s lead ERP, Infor LX, to the current version means moving it to the cloud. That will give staff access to data anywhere, on any device. A second ERP used by one of the acquired companies will eventually be phased out.

Each piece of the digital strategy has different key performance indicators managed by individual departments, Rose says. Marketing, for example, monitors how much it spends, the number of leads generated, and the close rate.

Rose participates in guiding digital strategy at weekly team meetings and provides financial risk analysis and other support. For example, when the CEO discussed adding robotics to production, Rose’s analysis revealed that the company didn’t yet have the necessary processes in place for it to be cost effective.

Health Care: Listening to Patients

When a family couldn’t get to its pediatrician’s office for a sick visit recently, Allied Physicians Group’s digital strategy came to the rescue.

With her husband at work and unable to help, a pregnant mother on bed rest with an IV in her arm couldn’t leave home when her two young children were sick.

After scheduling a telemedicine appointment, the mother and pediatrician collaborated on a diagnostic process during a video appointment. Using a smartphone app and its companion in-home diagnostic medical device purchased from the practice, the mother checked the children’s temperatures and let the doctor see into their ears remotely. The provider’s app received and displayed the diagnostic device’s output, so the pediatrician could assess the situation with significantly more accuracy than simply observing the patient from afar. Together, doctor and parent discovered that one of the children had a severe ear infection.

After receiving the pediatrician’s prescription for an antibiotic, the family’s pharmacy delivered the medicine to their doorstep quickly and efficiently. It all took less than an hour — and the family never changed out of their pajamas.

“It’s all about improving continuity and quality of care, the patient experience, and patient engagement,” says Allied CFO Valerie Mayer.

With more than 150 physicians in 32 practices in the New York metropolitan area, Allied Physicians Group’s digital strategy is built around a need to provide exceptional care while maintaining pace with how its target audience — parents of young children — like to communicate.

That means embracing technology, transparency, and data. “Health care is data,” says Mayer, who continually monitors digital initiatives to make sure expenses are controlled and that financial resources are invested in ways that help meet the group’s goals.

While the organization started digitizing patient records more than a decade ago, it began centralizing the data in the cloud only four years ago. This approach improves decision-making and quality of care, which in turn boosts patient satisfaction. Hosting patient information online also makes it possible for the group to offer the after-hours telemedicine service, since practitioners have access to all patient records no matter where they are. Allied Physician is currently working on expanding and enhancing its online patient experience with appointment scheduling and text messaging for appointment confirmations.

Provider-run committees make the organization’s management decisions with support from administrative leaders. The technology committee is typically responsible for digital strategy, working closely with IT and finance leaders to make sure new initiatives can be implemented cost-effectively. The committee researches the proposed project before preparing a brief that takes into account goals, stakeholder needs, and costs. Once approved and implemented, initiatives are monitored according to various key performance indicators (KPIs).

Technology initiatives, piloted within controlled environments, are benchmarked against organization-wide KPIs. Depending on the project, metrics can include visit and newborn counts, denials, cancellation rates, brand awareness, continuity and quality of care, revenue, and profit.

For example, the new virtual patient portal will be evaluated according to adoption, use, and parent feedback provided in focus groups managed by the patient engagement committee. Funding for initiatives typically comes from physician partners, since Allied is owned and operated by them.

“The ultimate metric is whether it improves our quality of care. That’s always our goal,” Mayer says.

Financial Services: Quick Benefits

When startup Spinnaker Insurance formed in 2015 with just a few people, it was clear that job descriptions couldn’t be narrow. Jesse Willmott, CFO, expanded his role to include information technology, since one of his top priorities was getting fundamental accounting systems, processes, and procedures in place and running efficiently.

Spinnaker, a national property and casualty insurer rated A- by A.M. Best with $63 million in assets, uses insurance program administrators and managing general agents to access niche markets. It focuses on homeowners, renters, and small commercial policyholders.

Because Spinnaker has limited staff resources, one of the firm’s digital strategies from the beginning has been investing in systems it can implement quickly and benefit from immediately. “We can’t stand something up and test it for a few months, then roll it out in phases,” says Willmott, who came to Spinnaker from PricewaterhouseCoopers

For the financial backbone, the company’s ERP system, Willmott explored options commonly used in the insurance industry. Willmott’s get-it-up-and-running-quickly digital strategy required an affordable, cloud-based system that was flexible enough to allow for adjustments as the company grew. He wanted to be hands on with it so he wouldn’t need to file a vendor job ticket every time he needed to make a change or generate a new kind of report.

When he realized that the systems other insurance companies were using didn’t meet Spinnaker’s needs, Willmott tapped his network outside the industry for advice. A former colleague with IT experience suggested taking a look at NetSuite. Willmott liked what he saw, but there was a hitch.

“While it offered what we needed, there didn’t seem to be an insurance company that had implemented it that I could talk to, which made me hesitate,” Willmott says. Still, since his company’s model was different enough from others in the industry, Spinnaker decided to take a chance on it.

“It ended up being a good decision. We have tremendous flexibility,” he says.

A second IT challenge, accessing and incorporating policy administration data from the company’s insurance program partners to help streamline operations and processes, was far less easy to execute. There wasn’t an off-the-shelf software product that could import and process data in different formats from multiple sources.

“We had to build something internally that could handle the data feeds and reporting we needed,” Willmott says, adding that the custom system continues to evolve.

Partnering with insurance industry innovators that are using technology to disrupt long-standing practices is also central to Spinnaker’s evolution. For example, one of Spinnaker’s partners provides internet of things devices to policyholders to help with early detection of water leaks in their homes.

Going forward, Spinnaker expects its digital strategy to support plans to scale the business through growth in partners, products, and people. Since adding even a few people would amount to a significant staff expansion, making sure the company is using all of the power in its systems is essential.

“When we’re leveraging our digital systems effectively, I’m better able to work on key operating decisions and business development so we continue to grow and succeed,” Willmott says.

Retail: Selling Stories

At online luxury home decor retailer Maison Numen, digital strategy is all about storytelling and community. The Florida-based e-commerce business with warehouses in Miami and Caracas carries exclusive home décor pieces sourced from 90 highly skilled artisans in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe.

“Because these craftsmen create with techniques that are part of their cultures, they all have a story to tell,” says Daniela D’Ascenzo, CFO of the young company. “We share those stories on our website and through social media.”

Each piece featured on, whether it’s a decorative spiral glass bowl made in Tuscany or an embroidered white sheep wool pillowcase from Turkey, includes the maker’s story in the product description. Shoppers discover, for example, that the pillowcases are created by a husband and wife team from diverse backgrounds who met in Barcelona and now create and live in Istanbul.

To build a sense of community linked to the unique merchandise, the site showcases videos from buying trips around the globe. Users experience the sights and sounds of a Moroccan market or watch Venezuelan ceramist Cecilia Guevara create avocado-shaped pots with her hands.

“Because one of our main goals is to offer objects with meaning, we want our customers to experience as much of the story behind the products as possible,” D’Ascenzo says.

To make sure that the site, its goods, and the artisan stories do well on search engine results, the company’s digital strategy includes investing personnel time in search engine optimization. Using content to attract upscale shoppers to the carefully curated collection of merchandise extends beyond the site to social media, as well. Sharing lifestyle and craftsmen imagery on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook is a key part of the company’s marketing outreach.

Facebook helps build a sense of community and drive traffic to the site through ads plus links and images on the company’s page. But the social media team is putting much of its effort into visual networks Pinterest and Instagram.

On Pinterest, a platform that attracts people interested in lifestyle topics that include home decorating, Maison Numen has 159,500 monthly viewers. The brand’s “boards” built around themes ranging from “European breeze” to “wood obsession” feature images that resemble magazine decorating layouts.

While the company has started experimenting with Pinterest’s “Shop the Look” option that lets users find and buy items shown in home décor pins, Maison Numen has found that the new tool still needs refinement.

Instagram is a visual showplace not only for the brand’s merchandise, but for its storytelling and product sales, as well. The company’s ads on the third most popular social network in the world generate purchases while its videos use travel footage to bring a human element to the merchandise.

“We’ve been experimenting with video more there, mixing our travel experiences with product,” D’Ascenzo says.

Key performance indicators for the retailer’s digital strategy include website traffic and conversions as well as likes, shares, views, referrals, and consumer engagement with site content and social network imagery.

D’Ascenzo meets regularly with the marketing and e-commerce teams to monitor expenditures and results. “We have a guide we use for each platform that helps us make decisions that include whether we should invest more or less in each network,” she says. Decisions are based on metrics that include engagement such as likes and shares, traffic to the website, and the percentage of site visitors from each platform that become customers.

What the management team knows for sure, she says, is that telling the stories of the artisans is a digital strategy that works.

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