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David Wilkinson of NCR: “Kind of change is inevitable”

We are also helping a clothing company use mobile phones to create augmented reality solutions in the store for footwear. Our technology has allowed them to have their consumers change the color, style and size of the footwear in a way which is personalized. Another place we are innovating is in the convenience and fuel […]

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We are also helping a clothing company use mobile phones to create augmented reality solutions in the store for footwear. Our technology has allowed them to have their consumers change the color, style and size of the footwear in a way which is personalized. Another place we are innovating is in the convenience and fuel industry where there is a lot of fear around touching the gas pump. The ability to pre-stage a fuel transaction on your mobile device limits the interaction with the pump itself and allows the consumer to feel safer during that transaction. There are also some interesting applications for in-home delivery. In-home fuel deliveries via the gig economy will allow people to easily source fuel at home. Today it really comes down to convenience for consumers no matter who they are, where they are, or what they are buying.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Wilkinson. As President and General Manager for Retail, David is responsible for creating and executing NCR’s overall vision and strategy for the retail industry. He is focused on helping retailers thrive and deliver on their brand promise in a digital first world by leveraging NCR’s unique software, hardware and services capabilities that run the entire operation from back office to front end. NCR’s solutions accelerate the transformation of retailers around the world helping them to leverage technology to better serve their customers.

Paramount in this is evangelizing NCR’s next-generation retail store architecture which NCR is uniquely equipped to offer to the market. David has spent his past nine years at NCR in roles in the retail organization or working closely with the NCR Retail teams. During this tenure, he has held various positions, from leading the Global Retail Sales organization, running the cloud POS start-up within NCR, leading the Emerging Industries team or focusing on NCR’s channel business.

With 25 years of experience, David has helped many IT and Telecom companies expand beyond their traditional business models. He has a proven track record of growing existing business models as well as innovating new ones to fill strategic gaps and accelerate profitability. Prior to joining NCR, David held various leadership positions at leading IT and Telecom firms including Avaya, Nortel and Verizon.

In addition to his current duties, David is a member of the Board of Trustees for the NCR Foundation and is a board member for Junior Achievement of Georgia. The goal of the NCR Foundation is to advance technology through STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) education in the communities in which NCR employees and customers live and work around the globe.

David has a Bachelor’s of Business Administration degree in Finance from Stephen F. Austin and an MBA from the University of Texas at Arlington. David currently resides in Milton, GA with his wife and daughter.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ll say it was a long and winding road and not a direct career path, although I ironically landed where I began. If I think about where I started my working life, it was in retail. I know many of us probably started in retail and when I did, it was at a grocery store. I was 15 and had various jobs in grocery stocking and bagging groceries; then I moved to specialty retail before I went to college.

I did my undergraduate degree in Finance and had a handful of opportunities in telecom and IT because that’s where I did my internships. Then, I got exposed a little bit to the banking business and decided right out of school to go into banking. I thought well, although banking is an important profession, it was not a fit for me personally as a career choice. Serendipitously, I then got recruited back into telecom and IT by GTE, right at the time they became Verizon. It was a big time of growth for me as I was put on a leadership development path. We merged with Bell Atlantic and I learned a lot about big acquisitions and mergers. I shifted my focus and switched to the supplier side by joining Nortel.

That’s when I “went global.” It was my first international role. I really found a lot of energy in serving clients globally. When you do that well, the world becomes a really small place. I met a lot of interesting people and learned about a lot of new cultures. I loved the global view the job afforded me, and when an opportunity with NCR came across my desk, I was excited, as NCR is a big brand name. We have technology a consumer can easily relate to. I definitely found myself relating to the NCR technology, specifically in retail. I joined NCR and I’ve been here about 10 years now, as the President and General Manager of our Retail business. I’ve had a lot of fun, and to me, that’s been as important as the work itself.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

A lot of things have happened in my career in terms of interesting people, but there was a recent thing that really impacted me. I’ve known the founder of Pilot Flying J for years. His name is Jim Haslam. He started it as a single gas station and today, it’s a company he bootstrapped from inception, worth 20 plus billion dollars in revenue. I had the opportunity to sit and talk to him about a recent transaction they made with Berkshire Hathaway. Pilot Flying J is one of the only family run companies that Warren Buffett has invested in and they own almost 40%. While the investment story is great, what I really wanted to hear was what it’s like to meet Warren Buffett?

Mr. Haslam said when he went to Omaha to meet with Mr. Buffett, he picked him up in his old Buick and they went to a diner for lunch. Warren Buffett had this little table in the back and they knew exactly what he wanted; a cheeseburger and French fries. I just found it fascinating that he’s just a normal guy, as is Jim. It shows that sometimes success is not about fanfare, but really an appreciation of the simple things. Simplicity in its greatest form often leads to excellence.

Interesting. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Early in my career, I was at GTE as a product manager. We had a rental product line. Back then, you had to buy or rent your phone equipment from the phone company. You couldn’t just go to Best Buy and purchase a phone. Here I was, a young product manager, with all this responsibility. My manager at the time asked me to do a pricing analysis on the entire portfolio. I said, you know what? I got this. I’m smart. I can figure this out. So, I went in and did this pricing analysis and thought I had nailed it. I walked into his office with a printed out copy of this pricing study I’d done. I set it on his desk. He looked down at it and then looked me right in the eye and said, “I have two questions for you. Is this your best work? And are you proud of it?”

I picked up the study and I walked out of his office because I didn’t know how to answer his questions. What I learned from that is, first, you always must be prepared for the unexpected. Second, I also figured out that everything you do should be your best work and you should be proud of it. These are both lifelong lessons which have served as a compass, or North Star, for me.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now, and how do you think that might help people?

Now especially, given what’s happening, there’s a lot of exciting things going on in the field of technology as they relate to retail. When I think about some of the exciting innovations we have been working on at NCR, they are part of our Next Generation Retail Store Architecture platform that enables retailers to simplify store operations and introduce new innovations quickly. One is around computer vision and how we can leverage cameras in the store which have been traditionally used passively for security and other purposes. We’re using them actively to do things like real-time inventory management or frictionless shopping. Our new

technology offers the ability to just grab an item off the shelf and through the computer vision technology, it knows what you’re grabbing. It can build a basket and you can pay for it and walk out. An ability to serve the consumers of the world in a way which not only drives convenience for them is critical, but in the current environment, making sure we are delivering on safety and cleanliness at checkout, also has to be a strategic imperative.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them thrive and not burn out?

I know this will sound a little cliché, but you really do have to love what you do. I think if you have a passion for what you’re doing, or can find passion in the ability to serve others through your work, those are the kind of things that keep you going every day. This is especially so in the virtual world we’re in today where it feels like Zoom and WebEx calls are the new constant. When you’re isolated from people, loving what you’re doing is going to be really important.

I think a couple of other things I would say is you must surround yourself with people who you respect, and you get good energy from. That’s not necessarily going to be everyone, as we know. You don’t always have a choice in who you surround yourself with, but the one thing we can choose, is how we react to any given situation. The last thing I would say is you have to wake up every day with the attitude that today is going to be a good day and you’re going to enjoy doing what you’re doing.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped you, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story on that?

The moment I shared related to the funniest mistake I made was during a time when I had a manager named Kyle Evans. He’s the one who gave me the advice about doing your best work and being proud of it. Kyle was one of those people who always puts others ahead of himself. He was always looking out for not only the best interest of the company, but the best interest of his employees. He was always focused on giving them an opportunity to learn and grow. Kyle and his wife, Tracy, worked at the company, and I had the opportunity to work for both them. They were both fabulous people who had a tremendous influence on my career and who I am. Job skills you can pick up anywhere along the way, but what I learned from them, which was invaluable, was how to treat people. Sometimes softer skills have the most impact.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think part of this is really about mentoring others, both formally inside of NCR and informally outside of the company, within networks I run. I took the opportunity when I joined NCR to sit on the Board of the NCR Foundation. I became one of the Board of Trustees for the Foundation and I’ve really been excited about what the Foundation offers. When I think about our mission, we’re looking to advance education through STEAM and really help the communities we are present in as a company. I also had the opportunity to join the Junior Achievement of Georgia Board. It’s really been a rewarding experience to mentor people both during my personal and professional time. It’s very meaningful to me to be able to give back.

The pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the pandemic?

It’s really a great question because we get to interact with retailers doing those kind of activities, every day. Clearly, the move to online has become massive. One example we released publicly right after the pandemic hit was Wal-Mart. They asked us to help them get up and running on mobile. They have a great digital wallet and wanted to offer touchless transactions.

Touchless applications have taken off more overseas than in the U.S. What I am referencing here are consumer driven, full shopping experiences, where you can do your full shopping in the store, or you can start your transaction on your mobile device at home. In this model you can build upon that transaction in the store by scanning items on the shelf.

We are also helping a clothing company use mobile phones to create augmented reality solutions in the store for footwear. Our technology has allowed them to have their consumers change the color, style and size of the footwear in a way which is personalized. Another place we are innovating is in the convenience and fuel industry where there is a lot of fear around touching the gas pump. The ability to pre-stage a fuel transaction on your mobile device limits the interaction with the pump itself and allows the consumer to feel safer during that transaction. There are also some interesting applications for in-home delivery. In-home fuel deliveries via the gig economy will allow people to easily source fuel at home. Today it really comes down to convenience for consumers no matter who they are, where they are, or what they are buying.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or in-store card can deliver the same day or the next day?

I think shopping in a physical store will be around indefinitely. We track a lot of different research and while the numbers show that we will see exponential growth in online, that data is coming off a very small base. What we’re actually seeing is things plateauing as we’re reverting back to status quo in the grocery store. We’re still seeing close to 85% of grocery being done in the stores. With department and specialty, we’re seeing a much higher continuation of online shopping just because soft goods lend themselves to online shopping. You know what though? Online shopping is not currently a great experience and needs improvement. If I want to interact and have an experience and try things on, or look at style, size, or assortment, right now there’s no substitute for that physical interaction.

I believe the physical store is here to stay and at NCR, we will continue to focus on technology which allows consumers to seamlessly interact with the at-home digital experience, back in the physical world. I think that’s going to be key. Will stores look different tomorrow than they do today? Yes, I think so. I was in Australia before the pandemic even started and they were doing things like placing the checkout at the very center of the store. Today, in most stores, you walk into a store, there’s a bank of cashiers or cash registers. There can be multiple points of centrality in physical locations. Why not have an ability to purchase all over the store, or create new experiences within the store? We’ll see more of that; the experience of shopping and competitive differentiation based on that experience.

The retail apocalypse has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers like Lululemon, Kroger and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Sure. Those are some really good examples. There are other examples of companies who are doing a really good job and some you would say are struggling outwardly,yet are doing the right things internally. One of the brands you mentioned that is taking a very strong, new approach to the consumer and is differentiating based on the consumer experience, is Lululemon. I relate to this, as it’s of course the right strategy, but like them, we always try to act with a customer-first mindset at NCR.

Lululemon is selling clothing. They have great products, no doubt, but you can buy other brand’s workout clothing at Costco, Kroger and other places. What they’ve done exceptionally well is create an experience which allows their customers to remain loyal. I think the other side of that is the companies who are doing really, really well, are focusing on their core businesses and really starting to look to do other things, with context. Businesses which are contextual businesses, or really focused on a core set of locations, allows them to see quickly what is really working and what is not. You’ll see shrinking footprints from retailers with an eye on working to get better at what they’re doing via this approach. You’ll also see outsourcing big sets of activities to third parties so companies can get really focused on how they deliver their brand experience, which is what will matter most, at the end of the day.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New direct to consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than U.S. and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

I think that kind of change is inevitable. I believe what Amazon and some of the Chinese companies are showing us, is there’s a new way forward in the current digital economy. There’s a lot which has to be bridged from the experiences happening in-store and in physical locations, to the purely digital ones occurring via direct-to-home capability.

What we are advising clients on and helping them with most, is really creating a flexible next-generation retail store architecture because we don’t know what the future may bring. It’s interesting because if you go back 10 years, we would have never thought Facebook, or all of the companies in China, would have the ability to create commerce in their worlds. What Amazon is doing, we also would not have guessed 10 years ago. There’ll be something else in five years from now which we don’t know about today. Therefore, having the capability to be flexible and to embrace new technologies is going to be critical. It’s really all about creating an adaptable structure which allows you to plug technologies in as seamlessly as possible, because the thing we don’t know, is where that next innovation is coming from.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I go back to where I’m spending a bit of time now around education. I think often about the ability to impact and influence globally, our ability to educate. Young people must be core to everything we do, and providing access to a basic level of education for everyone in the world, is fundamentally critical. After spending a little bit of time with an underserved high school in the state of Georgia, some of the work we were doing has been incredibly satisfying to see come to fruition. When you see meaningful results like we have, it becomes apparent that education is an area worth spending your time on personally. Just as an example, we had the students write their goals of what they wanted to do when they’re done with high school. Several students said things like: “I want to graduate from high school. I don’t want to move. I want to stay out of jail.” Just six months later, after we worked with the kids to lay down a little foundation of perspective, they started to say things like “I want to own my own business. I want to start a restaurant. I want to be an accountant.” From my perspective, I think it becomes easily apparent that education is a place where we can all easily make maximum change with minimum effort.

Great. Last question, how can our readers further follow your work for us?

I would say stay close to NCR as a whole in terms of our corporate social media presence. For me personally, I’m most active on LinkedIn. I try to keep up, posting regularly with interesting things that are happening. It’s not all specific to NCR, but is always related to retail and technology innovation. https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-wilkinson-a0635b11/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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