BaselHack meets Bell

An interview with Sven Friedli, the CIO of Bell Food Group AG.

Bell is a main sponsor of BaselHack 2022. We have taken some time to talk to Sven Friedli, the CIO of Bell Food Group AG, based in Basel.

Bell is a well-known brand in Switzerland – the now industrial-scale processor and producer of fresh meat and convenience food was founded in Basel in 1869 by Samuel Bell. Today, the Bell brand is part of the larger Bell Food Group, which employs over 12,300 staff across 15 countries in 65 locations. When thinking of Bell, we typically do not think about IT in the first place. So let’s get to know them better and their motivations behind sponsoring the BaselHack 2022!
BaselHack: Let’s first get to know you, Sven Friedli. Could you tell us a bit about your career path and how you became CIO at Bell?

Sven Friedli: I started my career in studying computer science and business economics at the university of applied science in Bern. During my first studies I joined the startup Mimacom in the early 2000s that was at that time offering custom software development based on open source Java frameworks. After that I joined Swisscom where I first was responsible for introducing a big CRM project for B2B. Then I was responsible for several managing roles in the enterprise business group, mostly focusing on managing and delivering IT projects and telcom services. The last five years I was responsible for the architecture, technology and innovation steering among Swisscom.

After 12 years at Swisscom, I thought it was time for a change in my career. I originally thought that I would stay in the telecom industry. However, one of the then board members of Swisscom also happened to be on the board of Bell Food Group. One day he called me and made me aware of Bell, suggesting to me to get to know the company better. At first I was not sure about this radical change of industry. However, the innovative spirit at Bell fascinated me and now I am here already for two years now.

BaselHack: Bell is well-known in Switzerland as a brand for fresh meat products and convenience foods. When we think of Bell we may not think of IT in the first place. Of course IT is ubiquitous nowadays, and I imagine logistics and production systems (as in an ERP) are predominant in your organization. True or prejudice?

Sven: It is true that ERP systems are the core IT systems in the Bell Food Group. I do not want to imagine a scenario where the ERP systems are down or a major ERP project fails - the group and its companies would quickly come to a halt! Across the different companies in the group we use eight ERP systems from different vendors, such as SAP or Oracle. We focus on the configuration management of the standard softwares that we buy, but also on custom software to extend the base functionality of such ERP systems. This can include software modules in SAP ABAP or C# for process automation and integration.

Nevertheless, the IT at Bell is much more than just ERP systems! The IT department is at the group-level of the Bell Food Group, all while we are supporting all the group companies with their different needs. As such, IT is more generally responsible for the digitalisation of the group and to provide the infrastructure and environment to allow for the same on the level of the group companies. One major goal of this digitalisation effort at Bell is to allow for smooth and efficient processes as well as a high degree of process automation across all domains of the business. To fulfill this goal, we also offer a low code platform that other business units can use to automate and streamline their processes. 

Besides supporting other business units, one major challenge at Bell is the automation of production and logistics processes. There we also rely on data science, e.g., to improve quality assurance processes by using data collected from machines.

Finally, another important pillar of the IT at the Bell Food Group is to provide the entire IT infrastructure to the business - we are talking about networks, systems and servers, but also the workplace clients. This domain includes everything from IT support, network and system engineers, up to enterprise architects.

BaselHack: Can you tell us a bit how technology supports Bell to work more cost-effectively, to provide better products for the mass market, or to enable product or service innovations?

Sven: In the food production and retail sector we are working on close margins. Overall, the role of IT is thus to provide transparency on the working mechanisms of processes and the dysfunction of processes, as well as providing solutions that effectively improve the status quo and actively contribute to better the bottom line. We thus also support the business units to digitalise their processes. When I started at Bell two years ago, I found a highly varying degree of process automation. While in some areas some of the processes were still performed fully manually, in other areas we already employed extremely sophisticated and state-of-the-art techniques to partly or fully automate production and logistics processes. We have been relentlessly pushing for a higher degree of automation in production, quality assurance and logistics ever since.

In terms of innovation, we also rely on data science and machine learning. For instance, we have implemented leading edge quality assurance processes that can judge the quality of fresh food products based on video imagery analytics. These applications with data science approaches enable us to ensure the high quality of products in a cost-effective and reliable fashion. 

Another domain of IT at Bell is business intelligence. We use Microsoft PowerBI with a multitude of adapters to gain access to data from purchase, production, warehousing and sales for analysis.This has been incredibly helpful in recent months with highly volatile prices on the supply markets. Some prices have gone up dramatically – prices for sunflower oil have gone up 3x. The BI solution help to build an understanding of what is going on, and to find solutions.

BaselHack: Hot topics in computing – and technology more generally – include machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing, cloud computing, robotics, industry 4.0 and the internet of things. How do these general trends in computing and robotics affect Bell? 

Sven: We use computer vision approaches in quality assurance processes. We were able to achieve good results in initial use cases here. 

In order to manage the increasing complexity in the interaction between man and machine in all our different production processes, robots, highly automated high-bay warehouses and logistics centers, the different ordering and delivery rhythms across the Group, close cooperation between business and IT is very important. I am convinced that structured management of all our data is a key success factor and will become increasingly important.

BaselHack: Could you give us an example of a recent project at Bell in one of the aforementioned domains?

Sven: We recently started a project that was called “Blick in die Kiste”. In our butchery production processes pieces of meat are placed into boxes when they enter the production chain. At some point, the boxes have to be connected with the inventory system in the ERP to allow for the tracking of the foods. Traditionally, this was a manual process where an experienced butcher would have a quick look into each box, recognizing the type and piece of meat in the box, and accordingly typing in the inventory number on a screen. We were able to fully automate this process using machine learning approaches through image recognition and classification. Due to the nature of the process, we could easily collect the labeled data that was necessary to train a good model.

I should note here that we do not simply apply machine learning in every domain. For a machine learning application to go into production, we have high demands: it must produce more accurate results than if the process is run by a human. If the demand is fulfilled, the model is deemed good enough for production. This is one way how IT introduces clear efficiency gains.

BaselHack: As a sponsor of the BaselHack 2022, Bell is also pitching a sponsored challenge. Can you tell us a bit more about the challenge?

Sven: We did an internal competition with our staff members to provide this challenge. We got a good response rate and many different ideas. Quite a few ideas related to improving specific processes. Others were about improving certain aspects of our products. Finally we decided on an idea relating to food waste, as it is an important societal topic. With our challenge we want to reduce food waste by helping people to remix their food leftovers into new recipes. More generally, we would like to follow this approach at Bell to later introduce product recommendations and engage with end-customers directly, e.g., through a mobile app.

BaseHack: Bell has around 130 staff members in IT in Basel, which might be a surprising fact to some. Can you tell us a bit about the structure of the IT teams and the typical roles within IT at Bell?

Sven: The group is present in 15 countries at 65 locations. Overall, the IT department has a headcount of 250, while about half of the IT staff are based in Basel. The 130 IT headcount in Basel represent a broad set of IT competencies. The roles within IT are not specifically bound to places – with digital workplace and communication tools, we have adopted a philosophy of working remotely across locations and fostering the active exchange of staff members across locations.

We want to keep the balance by defining central guidelines (e.g. for I4.0) and setting technology standards, operating cross-group ERP platforms and IT infrastructures, but also enabling local units to supplement these for countries, companies and production-specific needs. Close collaboration between all units is central to this.
Also, each group company and factory site has its own head of IT. We see many advantages in this approach: the competencies are on-site, situative, and can react quickly to changes in the environment. It also fits with the overall corporate organization, which is rather modular to enable organic growth.

In terms of profiles, we employ software engineers (SAP ABAP, C#), data scientists, systems and network engineers, business analysts, project managers, enterprise architects, and IT support specialists.

BaselHack: There is a gap between the supply and demand of qualified IT staff. How do you feel about the situation in Basel and how does Bell try to tackle the challenge in finding qualified employees?

Sven: It is increasingly challenging to find staff members with the right qualifications and we have to rely on headhunters more frequently now. This not only applies to Basel but to most of our group companies’ locations as well. We try to counter this by collaborating directly with universities and universities of applied sciences, such as by providing project works for students, or employing work students directly at Bell. This is a way to connect with young professionals very early on, sometimes before they even launch their career. On the other hand, there are some positions we can not fill at all, especially positions that relate to some very specific ERP systems with only small developer communities. In these areas we have started to further educate our staff members by ourselves in order to ensure the continuity and further growth of the required skill set. 

We are also aware of the need to proactively engage with the technology community and make our group companies known as cool employers for tech roles. We want to attract professionals by offering an environment that is attractive to the younger generations. Overall, the IT team at Bell is quite young and dynamic, we value flat hierarchies and our IT managers try to model a good leadership culture. You will rarely find me in a dress shirt in the office, rather you will encounter me and my colleagues regularly wearing t-shirts. In our culture we value openness and transparency, all while having high demands towards our staff members, but also undertaking the necessary to empower them in their roles to do a good job. 

BaselHack: How would you define a talent? What does it take?

Sven: I think there are three aspects to consider. A talent brings a deep technical skill set. That is a basic foundation. However, in tech, talents also need to bring a certain human skillset: the abilities to clearly communicate technical concepts, interchange with others, and react to changing environments. Finally, it has to do with a strong will. I once saw an interview of CR7 and I was really struck by one of his answers, that went along the lines of “talent without hard work is nothing”. You need this strong will to persistently push forward, to question yourself and to readjust.

BaselHack: How would you describe Basel as a place for young professionals wishing to pursue a career in IT? What could the companies with large staff bases or needs in the IT domain do to make Basel even more attractive and to drag talents to the region?

Sven: Basel is well known for the pharma industry, insurances, logistics and maybe arts and watches. The digitalisation plays an ever increasing role in all of these areas. The region also enjoys good living standards and a high degree of quality of life. There are high quality higher education institutes, and there is a stong community of expats from all over the world working here. The city feels very much international, and the locals can handle this multiculturalism really well. Overall, it is an attractive place for young professionals and there are good career perspectives. I think the region, companies and universities have to communicate more actively and provide transparency on these advantages. For sure a big advantage of Basel is the central position between France and Germany, which attracts many good IT talents from the border countries and promotes multicultural cooperation.

BaselHack: Is Bell currently recruiting in IT and what profiles within IT is Bell looking to recruit?

Sven: Yes: we are hiring, in Basel and beyond. The company has a good understanding that the further digitalisation requires a larger number of talents to join the group. We believe that the “war of talents” will increase further in coming months.

In terms of profile, we are looking for ERP developers (SAP ABAP and C#), IT support specialists, project manager, data scientists, and system and network engineers. 

BaselHack: Final question: what makes working within IT for Bell fun?

Sven: Bell is fun! Bell has a relatively young, dynamic and skilled team. We face many different challenges that touch on big data, machine learning, and automation Hence, our daily work is an enriching experience and helps us to grow personally and as a team. 

Of course we are an international group with locations in 15 countries. We enjoy a lot of engagement and exchange with colleagues abroad. This international context also offers great opportunities to take on roles in another country. We are spread out over Europe, but we are like a big family: we get to travel and meet our European colleagues to strengthen our collaboration.

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