Meet the Pizza Hut MD putting digital on the menu

Regina Borda has spearheaded a project to make digital and e-commerce central to the 61-year-old pizza brand

Once up a time, few in senior management at non-tech companies paid much attention to IT and IT had precious little to with the hospitality and eating sector outside of keeping the wheels of the back-office turning and point-of-sale systems. But today, times have changed, even if the "every company is a software company" (Satya Nadella) and "software is eating the world" (Marc Andreessen) mantras long ago began to sound tiresome, given the heavy rotation those terms currently enjoy. But the reason clichés begin is that they capture some sort of universal truth and these buzz-phrases are no exceptions.

When I was approached with the chance to talk to Regina Borda, the managing director of Pizza Hut Europe and Canada about its attempts to capture the digital zeitgeist, I thought about how far we had come and then, like the character in Proust with the madeleine cake, I thought of pizza. As an undergraduate thirtysomething years ago, I lived off the moreish, deep-crust variant and its must-have accompaniment, the intensely pungent and unctuous garlic bread. In those days, I suppose computers fulfilled its grunt work of operations but Pizza Hut, a digital company? Surely not.

This is a 61-year-old brand, having started out in Wichita, Kansas, the very town where Glen Campbell located the anonymous lineman in his famous song. Today, Pizza Hut is the world's largest pizza chain with over 18,000 restaurants. Borda, a Swiss-born, multilingual globetrotter and veteran of the food and food service industry at brands including Hershey's, KFC and Taco Bell, says, when we talk by phone, that the backdrop to this was three years ago when the company cooked up a strategic plan "to be the fastest, easiest place for pizza: the easiest to find and easiest to afford. E-commerce [needed] to be a core competency."

Making the base

To drive this, a dedicated digital team was created. Amazon calls its development sprints ‘two-pizza teams' because the group should be of a number requiring only that much food at a sitting. But Pizza Hut's digital project was a broader effort, and consulting firm McKinsey was recruited to help the transition process, creating a partnership that started in the UK and is being rolled out globally. Today, the digital plan revolves around front-end work done in London, back-end work in Vietnam and a local US centre in Denver.

Some rivals had, of course, by then already begun to tap into the power of mobile, GPS, the internet and other sources that feed information, transactions and fulfilment. UK readers will recall that one of the key advantages of having an early Sky Sports subscription was the chance to purchase a Domino's from the red button at half-time in a Premier League game. Fast-forward to today and McDonald's looks more like an Apple Store than a burger joint. Everyone gets the importance of digital, customer loyalty, the customer experience and service.

"We were a bit late to the game," Borda concedes. "Pizza Hut always prided itself on having the tastiest pizza and for a long time we thought that was enough with our restaurant heritage."

Today, she wants to have the most innovation-packed pizza on the block.

"What people are looking for is making their lives easiest and frictionless. We were so focused on creating these special moments and [now we have a situation where] you can click on the button and the family can eat at 8."

How far down the line is she and Pizza Hut?

The e-commerce platform is built and now the job is to scale across Europe and continuously improve an app that scores highly, is highly reliable and leads to higher conversion rates. Already, 80 per cent of delivery orders in the UK come from apps and online customers get loyalty rewards. There's also a delivery-in-30-minutes-or-your-money-back promise.

In the pizza world, you might expect the bricks-and-clicks model to persist more than in many sectors and you'd be right. Half of revenues still come from eat-in restaurants but even here technology can help with app users booking tables faster as part of a scheme being rolled across Huts.

Aside from that type of smart queue-busting, Borda says, Pizza Hut can learn from rivals and then try to beat them at their own game. Nando's, chosen hangout venue for so many teenagers these days, pioneered customers paying at the counter and food being made in front of them, for example.

"It's all about keeping the brand relevant," Borda says. "Pizza Hut started in 1958 and today the execution is a bit different." 

There's more to come with delivery tracking being tested. Some of this is playing catch-up but other efforts, Borda hopes, will be pioneering.

So digital really is going everywhere and hiding places from that reality are few but then of course you always need to have a product that people like to eat as a treat. "We [still] exist for the love of pizza," Borda says.