Washington Prime Group Discusses the Internet, Innovation and Application Development as it Relates to the Retail Sector

Cheryl VanPatten - Central Ohio Tech Power Player Honoree

Cheryl VanPatten, SVP and CIO at Washington Prime Group


Dan Burke, Account Executive at MRK Technologies

Washington Prime Group Discusses the Internet, Innovation and Application Development as it Relates to the Retail Sector.

Hello and welcome to the comSpark podcast where you will get to meet today's technology thought leaders. To learn more, visit comspark.tech

DB: Hello. We are here today with Cheryl VanPatten, who was a Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Washington Prime Group. Washington Prime Group is an organization based in Columbus, Ohio with about 1,000 employees. If you're not familiar with WPG, they are a retail real estate investment trust and a recognized leader in the ownership, management, acquisition and development of retail properties. Welcome Cheryl. My name is Dan Burke. I'm the moderator, and I am with MRK Technologies, a 20-year-old, Ohio-based company providing IT technologies and security consulting services to organizations of all sizes. I will be your guest moderator today. So, let's get started. Cheryl, how are you doing today? 

CV: Great! 

DB: Good. So, let's start out with uh, you know, a topic around what's happening today with emerging and disruptive technologies. And you know, you're in an industry with Washington prime group, in retail, it's very dynamic industry today; you and I were talking earlier about that. So, in your opinion, what is one of the most exciting disruptive technologies that is beginning to impact our work and our lives? 

CV: You know, in my opinion, one of the most exciting and disruptive technologies is the internet of things. I mean, if, from a personal perspective, if you think about from the moment you wake up to your home automation, that, with your lights and your temperature control and your garage door and your door bell to the technology you have in your car that follows you from your home to your work and it tells you how long it's going to take you to get to work…and you know, the technology you have at work is only one small piece, where it used to be kind of all of your technology. Um, and then it takes you as you go to the store or you go to the mall and you go to the movie, and it helps you make reservations for dinner. And so, it's, we're so, it's so pervasive and are interconnected in our world. Everything we do is, has a piece of technology in it, whether we realize it or not. 

Um, it's affecting our industry from the perspective of, all of that information is how do we bridge that gap? So, how do we as a mall owner bridge that gap to say, when you come into the mall, how do we know you're there? How do we offer you a deal that, that, that is meaningful to you in a way that's not creepy? So, you know, it has to be something that you want and something that you value and something you get something out of. You know, for us to even say, how do we look at all of the information around us, you know, what cars are coming near us and what people are coming in and how long do they stay there? It's all that information, and how do you connect things that you looked at online, and the fact that we could offer them at the mall, it's that internet of things that is just everywhere, in everything we do. You know, I mean, you drive down the street and you get a beacon that says, hey, you're close to the pharmacy. Do you need to stop in and get – I mean, it's that internet of things that is really pervasive in our lives and in all of our tech and all of our companies. 

DB: Yeah. That's great. Yeah. So, I guess, just thinking about what you just said, I'd, you know, a follow up question I have then is, you know, how are you using the technologies that you talked about today for positive change or disruption in your own organization? 

CV: Yeah. And you know, I'll tell you, a lot of the things that we're doing in our company, are – they’re innovation. It may not be necessarily technology, but they’re certainly innovation. Uh, our CEO is extremely focused on, really, what his goal is – it's disrupting an industry. It is taking a mall – people don't want to go to the mall, they want to have an experience. So, many of our malls are those that are the mall in a rural area. So, we want to be the town center. We want to be where people go to, uh, you know, have a Boo n’ Brew for like Halloween, or there's a brew pub, or there's the new bowling alley and the movie theater and the dog park. And, so how do you take all these, and the local, you know, as everyone hears everywhere – to have a local presence in the shops and the relationships, you know? One of the things that we've changed that is, for us, not necessarily technology, but innovation, is more about – our general managers used to be, they were the people that ran the mall, and they are our goodwill ambassadors. We've taken a table, and each mall got to design kind of their own table and buy one, and they sit out there with their laptop and they and they interact with shoppers and the tenants, and they hear what people have to say. And it's not guest services of, “Hey, can you tell me how to get to the restroom?” It's, “Wow, this is great. I wish you had this tenant here,” or, “We’re really sad that this tenant left!” I mean, it's all of those things that they hear. So, they get to know the mayors and the town and they get to know the, you know, the city council. 

It's, it's becoming a part of the community and offering events that people want, like concert series. We have concert series that people come back to on a monthly basis that we hosted our properties in the summer. So, those types of things, right? It's all about how do you get, how do you make it an experience that people want to come to the property? One of the big things for my actual technology perspective is, how do we have really interesting digital displays that are interactive, that are cool, that you know, that are, that are meaningful? That enable people to know – that kind of connect them from point A to point B and help them either get home or get there and find the deal that they want, or find that item that they can't find. So, it's all of those pieces and points. 

DB: Yeah that's, that's fascinating. So, another follow up question I guess around that, just in the area of, when I think of like, application development and that applications that you may use your own organization. So, you know, today we've got an application it seems like, for everything, every task that you do today, right? And so, you know, what are the challenges that you face at WPG around designing applications or even, you know, customizing third party applications? 

CV: You know, it is true. I mean, we have so many. You know, I think one of the things that I love about IT is that no year is the same, and there's always plenty to do and there's lots of great technology. Uh, it's really making sure that we're really listening to our stakeholders and our customers and not over-engineering. So, you know, it's so easy to take something and people are saying, “Oh, wouldn't it be nice if it did this and this and this and this and this?” But really, you know, one of the things that we did – we had an initiative last year. So, we went through an acquisition three years ago, and there were a lot of pieces. Everyone said, “We need this enhancement, we need this enhancement, we need the system.” All these things that they kept wanting. We said, “Time out – a lot of these things are processes.”

And then, because we had grown so fast and things had changed…I mean, in 12 months we accomplished so much and we implemented six systems, and the collaboration that we previously had in our departments was suffering a little. So, we had to kind of rebuild that. We had an initiative that was purely about cross-functional communication. It was, “Okay, you're all having challenges with each other, and we are hearing them.” Because we kind of are across all the departments as an enabler, and as they are our customers. So we said, “Let's take all these things that you're saying and let's figure out, what are the process problems that we're having.” Because these are not technology issues. We can code all we want, but the process is still broken behind it. So, we spent an entire project just figuring out how to better communicate across departments, and some technology things came out of it, but a lot of is that we've really stayed focused on, how do we be aware of how what we do as a department affects other departments? And if I enter this piece of data, which, by the way, that field already exists, why you need it and how you use it and why it's important to the company, not just to you. 

So, uh, it's really more about, but it's not adding technology where it's a process problem. Uh, another thing would be, just not over-engineering and it's so easy to boil the ocean. And, you know, let’s really focus on what's important, and get the key technology. Let's make sure it's – is it making our lives better? Is it tracking something we need to track? Is it efficient? Is it maintainable? Those types of things. 

DB: Yeah. That's very interesting. Did you, did you, add staff? I'm thinking of, you know, a lot of this is project management, almost, right? Or just education just among different departments. So, tell me a little bit about how that manifested itself. Just within…

CV: Like, the cross-functional piece?

DB: Yeah, and, just within, you know, your own department.

CV: You know, we added some head count when we went through the acquisition. We maybe add…we grow a little each year, but not dramatically. Uh, it was just something – the cross-functional was something that had to be done with internal staff. I mean, we use consultants frequently for projects. We always have someone internal who is a part of the project, uh, well, at least, so that we are ensuring that we know how to support it when they walk out the door. Because we don't have, we don’t want to rely on our consultants after it's over. But, that was really a lot about people that have been in the industry. I have a couple of people in my department that have come from other departments, and so that helps, you know? They, they really look…I mean, our big focus is, think like a user. How would, you know, how would you want it to work if you were the business owner? Uh, so those types of things, and really figuring out, does it make sense? 

DB: Good. Let me turn to security, IT security. Which, of course, is always a hot button for any organization. So, what would you, and I'm sure you're going through this as an organization today, what would you recommend to a company that has no security or governance plan? You know, where do you start?

CV: You know, I'm not sure if this is the right place to start, but where we started was with the risk assessment. So, uh, we did that back in 2014. We started with a risk assessment and said, “Alright, what don't we know?” It was…and we found out a lot of things, you know? You know, first we went at it as, let's do a pen test. And they company we selected said, “You know what, everyone fails a pen test. You really should do a risk assessment.” So, we've taken all of those recommendations and one of them was, we now have a security manager who, that's all they do and that's what they focus on. And we have regular patching and, I mean, so, we're kind of working through those initiatives that were identified, but really, figuring out where you are. For us it was more about, “Gosh, we need a benchmark and some guidance on where we should go from here.”

DB: Perfect. Thanks. Well Cheryl, thank you for the time. This was Dan Burke from MRK Technologies and Cheryl Van Patten from Washington Prime Group. To learn more about us, visit comspark.tech. Goodbye, until next time. 

CV: Thank you.

To learn more about sponsorship opportunities for 2020, contact Michelle Ziegler at michelle.ziegler@venuemag.net