5 Minutes With Neil Poultney, Managing Director, Vodat International

With a career spanning more than 15 years at the helm of Vodat International, the UK’s premier supplier of private, managed networks to the UK retail sector, Neil Poultney has been perfectly placed to witness the rise of in-store digital connectivity.

What are the biggest in-store trends you’ve noticed during your career with Vodat International?

One of the biggest changes is digital transformation, whether that be omnichannel retailing, embracing social media, single view of stock, alternative payment methods or in-store digital technology. That is more pertinent for retailers whose heritage is in bricks and mortar, because of how their systems have evolved. Key to any digital transformation project is an increasing dependence on fast, resilient and secure networks, to support data across any channel, from anywhere and at any time.

What differentiates Vodat from other network suppliers?

We’re different from other network companies because we have consistently focused on and built up considerable expertise in the retail sector.

This translates into a client list including brands such as Beaverbrooks, Poundland, AF Blakemore, Joules, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Lush, Warehouse and Oasis. You don’t grow a client list like that without a unique level of retail expertise and a reputation for delivering the very best service.

We have diversified into other sectors, especially after we acquired managed IT services company, Axonex, which has helped us strengthen our retail offering even further through being able to support a broader range of clients IT infrastructure.

What emerging technology promises to trigger the next step change in store connectivity?

All the hype currently is around 5G and how it will revolutionise connectivity, not just in retail but across sectors and domestic users. While in theory the technology will deliver significantly more bandwidth than 4G, it will unfortunately suffer from the same problems as 4G, in that the user experience will vary dependent on where you are and how many other users you are contenting with locally for bandwidth. As such its use as a primary technology for business class connectivity will be limited and so broadband, particularly fibre based products, won’t become obsolete any time soon.

SD-WAN on the other hand, has a lot more to offer retail, enabling fast, reliable and secure access to on-premise and cloud-based applications anywhere with a data connection. Cost is a sticking point at the moment for UK use, but we’re seeing a growing demand for SD-WAN among retailers like Poundland who are looking to expand overseas, where international connectivity costs mean SD-WAN is a much more attractive proposition. We’re also seeing an increase clients looking to be SD-WAN ready by ensuring any new equipment can support SD-WAN in the future.

How is Vodat helping its clients meet the challenge of the fast-evolving high street?

Our value proposition is quite simple. We deliver best-in-class digital connectivity so that our clients can concentrate on what they do best: retailing. Our fully managed service means that our clients can monitor how their networks are performing (if they wish) but otherwise they don’t need any further input. At a time when the demands on – and complexity of – digital networks is increasing, especially around cyber security, this level of service is increasingly important to retailers.

What’s the biggest connectivity challenge facing retailers at the moment?

There are lots of big challenges for retailers, but the one at the forefront of every retail C-suite right now is cyber security and data protection. We’ve seen some eye-watering GDPR fines levied by the Information Commissioner’s Office recently after blue-chip companies failed to protect their customers’ data – the biggest was British Airways’ £183 million fine. Cyber security is a board-level responsibility, but the good news is that Vodat’s networks have the inbuilt security to handle and protect sensitive data at every stage.

Corporate and social responsibility is very important right now. How is Vodat “giving back”?

We’re keen to employ former members of the armed services. We’ve had a great experience with a former soldier, turned Vodat employee who has seriously impressive knowledge and a ‘can-do’ attitude that’s second to none. We’re also taking former armed service personnel on work placements as it can be incredibly tough transitioning from the forces back into civvy street, as the homeless stats show. So, we’re proud to give service people support and to access to the training they need.

We’re a key employer in our home town of Stockport and we run a successful apprenticeship programme. In a company where staff are key to delivering customer service excellence, recruiting candidates as they finish their education allows us to train them in the Vodat way, instilling our skills, values and culture. This really shows in our employee retention rates – invest in training and employee welfare, and they will tend to be loyal.

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