Before starting work in retail consulting several years ago, I had worked for multiple specialty and apparel retailers of varying sizes throughout my career. Like many, I thought these experiences had helped to prepare me for working as a consultant. But one of the things I have learned is that consulting is significantly more complex than what it seems on the surface.

I recently completed a 3-year engagement with a very large footwear retailer in North America. The contract included a system selection project, a business process transformation project, and implementation of the selected system (SAP FMS). The learnings were not only around the client’s business complexity and operating environment, but also around the consulting ‘lifestyle’ nuances that are not intuitively understood. The entire engagement experience is what makes consulting so rewarding and fun for me. Not only does a consultant get to learn about and understand various business models, but you also get the unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the client’s culture and environment.

The company’s corporate offices consist of several locations that span the globe. This particular project touched all business areas across the organization including wholesale, franchisee, e-commerce, and retail brick-and-mortar businesses.  The Parker Avery Group’s role was to perform overall project management for this major systems implementation, lead the very comprehensive change management and training efforts, and act as functional leads in the areas of master data management (MDM), supply and demand management, inventory management, purchase order management, pricing management, and finance. The client also brought in a systems integrator who had expertise with SAP FMS.

This opportunity to blend some of the client’s finest resources, coupled with application integrators and functional knowledge experts really allowed the teams to work to consensus on the approach that would best suit the company’s unique requirements. Although it was challenging coordinating with multiple, diverse groups, the rewards were apparent—with 3 brands and several distribution centers around the world, business process execution and continuity is critical.  As an example, the client’s existing merchandise hierarchy model and attributes were not industry standard or consistent across the business. SAP FMS includes several configurations from which the client could choose to define hierarchies and attributes. The combination of the client resources’ knowledge and Parker Avery’s retail industry best practice models was used to assess the SAP application functionality to derive the best methodology for the client—ultimately enabling a long term strategy for managing product across the business.

On the personal side, as a native Californian traveling to eastern Canada, it was like going to an entirely different planet. Winters last from late October to April of the following year and include rain, freezing rain, snow, black ice, and temperatures regularly below 0° Fahrenheit. On a weekly basis, I left 80° weather to work and live in sub-0° temperatures. You quickly learn about ‘layering’ and highly focused wardrobe planning—Californians don’t really do that. At this client, preparations for what you are going to wear to work daily include first determining your work ensemble, followed by cold weather boots, jackets, hats, earmuffs, and scarves. And all of this apparel has to be packed into a suitcase that ideally fits into an airplane’s overhead compartment…quite a feat to say the least. Upon arriving at the office, you must first invest time in removing all the outer layers and hanging them in a separate closet, changing out of snow boots to proper business attire, and then finally getting down to actual work.

On the flip side, the few short weeks of summer are truly cherished by the residents—many Californians don’t realize how blessed we are by our typically very pleasant weather. The long winter season is the reason it is not uncommon for Canadians to take 2 or 3-week scheduled vacations to tropical or warm European destinations. Needless to say, these long retreats do create challenges in project planning and adherence to implementation timelines.

Despite the weather—or perhaps somewhat driven by it—the client’s offices are stunning and incorporate a very modern esthetic with two buildings connected by an overhead bridge. We had access to a large gym and fitness classes, a large café that serves a good variety of fare including smoothies and specialty coffee drinks. For this large implementation, the client provided a huge team room where all of the project teams were situated to facilitate communication and collaboration.

My favorite part of the engagement was working with the people. Canadians are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met—they are so warm and welcoming, and genuinely eager to share their culture, traditions, and food. Of course, most speak both French and English, making it fairly easy to communicate. Not being fluent in French was also sometimes a blessing, as I was often able to completely tune out any side conversations in French and really focus on my work. After 3 years of essentially being a part-time resident, I found myself looking forward to sharing seasonal traditions with the client, such as the first maple syrup extraction of the year in March or the celebration of Saint John Baptiste day on June 24. I also learned about a favorite comfort food called ‘Poutine’ which is served year-round—it consists of crisp French fries covered with cheese curds and brown gravy. Based upon the winters, I can see why this dish is such a favorite.

As with all projects, the work was complex and challenging, the solutions ‘creative’ in some cases, and decisions are sometimes revisited and changed. But overall the rewards are similar to delivering a successful project that you ‘own’ in industry. Not only do you get to witness the development of the client’s people in their roles, the company using the solution you helped deliver to drive their business strategy and realize meaningful growth in key metrics, but also the progression of your own capabilities and deepening of personal experiences from having been immersed in the client’s environment and culture.