The Search for New Asset Protection Technology Solutions

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Brand Elverson was the director of asset protection systems and analysis with Walmart when this interview first appeared in LP Magazine. He is currently the director of asset protection strategic initiatives at Walmart, and still deeply involved in the search for effective asset protection technology solutions.

EDITOR: Tell us about your current role with Walmart.

ELVERSTON: My current title is director of asset protection systems and analysis, which is one of the primary support groups for the asset protection division. We have four different functions in our group.

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Probably the most visible function is the merchandise protection group that has the responsibility for developing asset protection technology strategies and solutions, such as EAS source tagging, and restrictive or anti-sweeping fixturing; any of the theft-deterrent measures in place in the store. This group not only manages the current merchandise protection strategies for whats in the store today, but looks at what the future asset protection technology footprint should look like in the future.

We also have a group of analysts who do all of the mid- and high-level analytics for the leadership group. This group manages and filters the abundance of information and translates it into a useful and relevant executive summary. This is a key service to our leadership group in terms of assisting them in the development of their asset protection technology strategies and decisions.

We also have a systems support group, which manages all of the AP store-related systems requests and support of the AP field associates.

And finally, we have what we call the operations liaison group, who are project managers that handle various key projects.

EDITOR: What does Walmarts overall asset protectionorganization look like?

ELVERSTON: There are about 8,000-plus associates who makeup the asset protection group, with the majority in the field.At the store level we have AP associates [APA], who focusprimarily on shoplifting and deterring theft. The next levelis our AP coordinator [APC], who is primarily responsibleto work in tandem with store management in key areassuch as theft deterrent measures, safety, administrative-typeshrinkage, and general controls in the store

The next layer is our market asset protection manager[MAPM], who oversees a group of stores in a particulararea. Above the MAPM are two levels of regional directors,depending on the complexity of the area, divisionaldirectors, and then three geographic business unit APdirectors who report to a vice president at our home office.

EDITOR: You are describing the U.S. structure, correct?

ELVERSTON: Thats right. The U.S. stores organizationchanged early in the year moving from five main businessunits to three, with the AP organization following thatalignment. We work closely with our operations team at alllevels to ensure close alignment and clear communications.

EDITOR: Youve been in your present role how long?

ELVERSTON: Ive been at Walmart fifteen years. Immediatelyafter leaving the Army, I started as a market asset protectionmanager in our New York area stores, and moved to thehome office within the first year to take on a new role, calledthe merchandise systems coordinator at the time. As it isin retail, that role has changed dramatically over the pastfourteen years. That position, which started as a one-personrole, is now a very effective team of several managers withexpanded responsibilities beyond just merchandise protection.

EDITOR: Its fairly unusual for a person to remain in a verysimilar role for that length of time. Talk about how yourposition has changed over that time

ELVERSTON: When I first came in, the position was mainly a liaison to the merchants to help them with asset protection technology issues, more specifically merchandise protection. For example, when a buyer bought the next version of the TI-59 calculator, I would work with them to suggest, for example, that it be packaged in a clamshell, heat-sealed package to deter pilferage. But considering the large number of buyers, it was a challenge for one person to keep up with the volume of high-theft products.

At that time we were just testing EAS in a handful of stores. We were largely reactive at that point. When a problem item was identified on shrinkage reports, I worked to develop potential asset protection technology solutions to reduce the shrinkage liability. At that time we didnt have an internal analysis group or the robust merchandise protection group we are fortunate enough to have today. There was no group of smart people telling us, From this data, these categories or this product is likely going to be a shrinkage liability. Our analytical ability evolved over time as we hired additional staff and as we gained more and more access to our systems and data.

So, to answer your question, from my start at the home office as the single merchandise systems coordinator, primarily focused on asset protection technology solutions for merchandise protection to leading a diverse team of very talented associates, its changed a lot in the short fifteen years Ive been with Walmart.

EDITOR: When did that strategic change occur?

ELVERSTON: Around 2006 the then-named loss prevention division, now called asset protection, underwent a significant reorganization. This change impacted not only the field organization, but the home office support staff as well. In a short period of time, primarily through consolidations, my group expanded in scope and staff from about five associates to more than thirty. It was at this point that we really began focusing on the larger challenges at hand. With this change, my role clearly took on a broader scope beyond merchandise protection to include new areas, such as theft-deterrent asset protection technology development, systems, and analysis. Of all the things that keep me up at night, it is the state of available theft-deterrent asset protection technology in the industry that concerns me the most. This will be a tough road for the industry.

EDITOR: What do you mean it will be a tough road forthe industry?

ELVERSTON: I believe that for the loss prevention community at large, its been hard for us to effectively explain to suppliers, Heres what we need. We have to expand beyond more traditional solutions, such as EAS or locking fixtures. Sure, we have to take care of todays problems with todays solutions, but whats next after EAS? What solutions do we need two, five years down the road? How do we change the solution set to be more customer friendly, more transparent to the honest customer? The persistent challenge is to seek and implement more customer-friendly solutions. Part of this is going to require the identification and recruitment of nontraditional asset protection technology solutions and suppliers.

EDITOR: How do you get vendors to work with you on developing new asset protection technology solutions as opposed to selling what they presently have?

ELVERSTON: Currently in our industry when we have abusiness problemlets just say razor blades, cologne,whateversuppliers will likely present some sort of amechanical solution. With the intensity and pressure of theretail environment, theres a sense of urgency that we haveto fix it now. We dont have the luxury of saying Well, letsmap out the problem on the whiteboard and discuss somepotential solutions. Lets meet again in a few months toreview what you recommend.

We have to implement something. At that point they arelogically suggesting what is available, and we select fromwhats available for implementation. Our traditional LPvendors are doing what we have asked them to do over yearsand years in the industry, and its workedto this point.

What weve been focused on in the last couple of yearsis to completely reverse that cycle. RILA has put togetherwhat is called the Horizons Committee, which consists ofseveral well-known retailers in different segments, includingpharmacy, big box, specialty retail, and do-it-yourself, tocollectively lead this change.

EDITOR: How would this work?

ELVERSTON: For example, to more effectively identify ourlead shrinkage liabilities, retailers would conduct extensiveprocess reviews from supply chain all the way to the refunddesk in key areas of concern in the store. From there,clear process maps provide visibility to the real points ofvulnerability, allowing a more focused effort on the top10 percent of the most significant liabilities. The final stepwould be to draft the business requirements much like amilitary bidif you want to manufacture a solution for us,here are the specs it has to meet. Its a much more effectiveprocess for both the supplier community and retailer

EDITOR: You used the term nontraditional before. What doyou mean by that?

ELVERSTON:I believe that therell be two kinds of suppliersin the years to come who will support retail LP. Therell bethe traditional suppliers who we have now, who have done amarvelous job in getting us to the point where we are today.We wouldnt be the effective asset protection organizationswe are today without them. And there will be nontraditionalsuppliers who will introduce an entirely new, more advancedsolution spectrum to retail.

The nontraditional supplier, for example, might be that guy in the garage who is working on something for a government agency or someone who is not associated with retail that has a potential solution that with a few tweaks might work in our environment. So we bring these two togetherthe traditional who is interested in developing new asset protection technology and the nontraditional who has some interesting new technology that can add more depth and scope in the R&D cycle of those traditional suppliers.

And finally, there will likely be those suppliers who will notengage in this new pursuit and will stick with what theyrecurrently doing. And thats fine; therell probably always beroom for that. I think our challenge is to change the processand lead the development of new, more customer-friendlytheft-deterrent solutions. In many retailers today, the appetitefor mechanical devices and conventional solutions is dryingup, and its going to become less and less tolerable.

EDITOR: How do you go about identifying thesenontraditional suppliers?

ELVERSTON: As an example, one has to look where theinnovative research is going on and build relationships.Places such as MIT, Silicon Valley, academia. Thereare numerous think tanks and research institutionsworking with government agencies to develop newtechnologies. Think about all the technology that has beencommercialized as a result of the military organizationsand agencies such as NASA and DoD [Department ofDefense]GPS, cell phones. The whole process of taking anobscure idea from concept to product is much more refinedand disciplined in some of our government agencies thanpossibly in the public sector.

These relationships will take time to build. This is along-term strategy; not a quick fix. These relationships willhelp the industry grow and will expose us to new solutions,quite possibly even outside the asset protection industry.Its a huge challenge because youre talking about directrelationships and groups who have supported DoD fora long time. They may not understand retail. Its a wholelearning process to explain the problem were trying toimpact and have them suggest technologies that could beapplied in the retail environment.

EDITOR: As you look at retail in general, and loss prevention specifically, how well or how poorly are we thinking about asset protection technology and solutions in our stores?

ELVERSTON: Frankly, as an industry we are not keepingpace with the larger, more customer-focused parts of thebusiness. Look at any retailer, not just us, and the storesdont look anything like they did ten years ago. Theyvemade great strides in cleaning up the store environmentand making it more customer-friendly. Then look at thetheft-deterrent strategies that LP puts in placetags, locks,cables, alarms, all those conventional things we did ten,fifteen, in some cases twenty-five years ago.

Retailers at large spend millions of dollars withconsultants and researching new formats, conductingcustomer insight studies, trying to improve the customersshopping experience. As an industry LP has not done thatand is way behind on that curve. And honestly, at somepoint I think its fair to ask the question of LP, Weve justspent $20 million to get this new store format right, andhere comes AP putting in the same theft-deterrent measureswe used twenty years ago? How is this solution customerfriendly? Surely, this is not the best asset protection hasto offer.

EDITOR: In the past its typically been one or two largeretailers who have the resources to push for these types ofchanges. But youre suggesting this needs to be an industryeffort, correct?

ELVERSTON: Yes. I believe in order to make it effective, fair,and realistic for the supplier community, in most cases, wehave to erase the face of the specific retailers. Thats wherethe trade organizations come in play. They can be a hugehelp. That also makes it fairer to the smaller retailer who inthe past had to wait for the big guys to push to develop anidea. Now they can play a part from the beginning, becauseits an industry push and not a retail-specific push.

EDITOR: Going back to your specific role inside Walmartand the different functions you manage, what are thetypes of backgrounds and experiences you look for inyour direct reports?

ELVERSTON: First and foremost is diversity in experience.There are different skill sets required in each of my fourfunctional areas. For example, someone in the analysis groupmay not be the best person for merchandise protectionand vice versa. Weve learned over time that the quality ofdecisions from a diverse group are ten times, a hundred timesmore effective and relevant than decisions made by a room fullof people with the same background. Thats why our recruitinginitiatives look for diverse candidates, such as internal audit,military, information systems, finance, and store operations.

EDITOR: Im always intrigued when I hear people using theterm diversity as it relates to thinking and experience asopposed to diversity in skin color or gender.

ELVERSTON: By looking for diversity in thinking, inbackground, in experience, you will end up with diversityin other areas. They go hand-in-hand. The military is a goodexample; probably the most diverse organization anywhere byall definitions.

When someone applies for a position with active-dutymilitary on their resume, to me it is a significant strengthbecause they have been challenged in ways atypical to mostcivilian careers. After all, retail is not a predictable, methodicalfield. Its in a constant state of change. Its not, Okay, we havethis one project. Well get this done, then move to the nextproject. It can be chaotic. Over the years, I have found thatthose individuals with military experience are very effectiveoperating in chaotic environments. Theyre well suited tofunction and lead in fluid environments.

When I left the military and joined the LP organization in1995, it wasnt common practice to have someone without anLP background in the division; certainly not from the military.That experience burned this idea into my mind back then thatit is absolutely the right thing to do to build an organizationwith a diverse range of technical skills and backgrounds.Diversity is just good leadership.

EDITOR: Now that you have mentioned your background, tell usmore about your career and how you ended up in Walmart.

ELVERSTON: As a youngster, my intent was to become a policeofficer. My parents had other plans in mind with college being firston the list. When I was 18 or 19 years old, I was offered a positionin the local sheriffs department in central Virginia. I was going tocommunity college at the time and thought, I really dont needschool. I have the job I want. After some stern family conversationsand direction, off to the University of Alabama I went. I joinedthe Army ROTC program at the university and found something Ireally liked and was fairly good at. That was a great experience thatturned in to a twelve-year career as an artillery officer.

EDITOR: Where were you stationed?

ELVERSTON: Ultimately, I ended up in an artillery battalion inGermany. I had the traditional artillery officer jobsfire supportofficer, battery executive officer, and on up through the chain.Finally, I had the opportunity to command an artillery unit. Havingthe opportunity to command soldiers in a combat arms unit is theultimate career experience for an officer. I loved it.

After an intense 23 or 24 months in command in troopunits, the Army transitions you into whats called a non-troopassignment, which is away from troops to essentially give youa break. That was Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for me where I was aninstructor in the schools gunnery department.

While teaching at Fort Sill, I decided to get an advanced degree.While in grad school we always did case studies on things that hadnothing to do with the military. It made me begin to realize thatthere was a life outside the Army

EDITOR: What attracted you to Walmart?

ELVERSTON: It seems every business case study we did in gradschool involved this company called Walmart. Remember, in 1993,94, it wasnt a big company. So I sent my resume into the logisticsorganization at Walmart primarily because I had been a logisticsofficer while in Germany. It was the only area in which I thoughtI could somewhat apply my professional military experiences atthe time. Somehow my resume wound up in the loss preventiondepartment, luckily on the desk of a former Air Force guy. He readmy resume, called me, and convinced me to interview. The rest ishistory. Were friends to this day.

EDITOR: As an industry, retail loss prevention does a poor job ofattracting military people to this discipline. Would you agree?

ELVERSTON: Yes.

EDITOR: Why do you think that is?

ELVERSTON: Honestly, I think its somewhat a lack ofunderstanding of the skills our servicemen and women haveto offer. If youre a person thats been in boots for ten years,you probably know very little about the retail world. Themilitary is a tremendous talent pool for a large variety of skillsets that can contribute to the retail organization. Think aboutsomeone who has served as an officer or senior enlistedperson. Very early in their careers, theyve had a much broaderand different professional experience than they may haveotherwise experienced.

EDITOR: How can retailers better recruit ex-military?

ELVERSTON: While careful not to compete with military serviceretention, we have engaged points from which men andwomen transition from active military service, as I believe onlyan enterprise with Walmarts corporate footprint can. We havebuilt and fostered relationships with the military academiesand military and veterans associations. We have partnered withthe reserve and guard to offer career opportunities to thosewho continue to serve as citizen-warriors. And, importantly, wehave partnered with the services to offer career opportunitiesto military spouses. We believe those enterprise programswill begin to create top-of-mind awareness of the careeropportunities at Walmart.

EDITOR: Is there a difference between officers andenlisted men?

ELVERSTON: In terms of what they have to offer, I dont thinkthere is. The noncommissioned officers have as much, if notmore, of a leadership challenge than do the officers; its justa different scope. The transferability of the skill sets are thesame. Leadership is leadership. Youre talking about someonethat might be 24 to 28 years old, commanding hundreds ofsoldiers in very intense environments. You dont get thatexperience anywhere else.

EDITOR: Some people think that there is a risk in hiring somebodyfrom the military who doesnt have any LP experience; that theyare going to fail, and thus reflect poorly on them.

ELVERSTON: I understand that fear. Someone took a chance onme. But what makes somebody successful in retail is that theyare professional, dedicated, and smart. Its not that you haveto have retail experience. Frankly, we are following a simplepremiseif you bring us a leader, we will teach him or her theretail business.

Another objection Ive heard in the past is that hiringex-military is a risk because you get people that areintellectually inflexible. Theyre used to A, B, C, D, and ifit doesnt go that way, theyre not tuned in to be able tohandle that, which is absurd. There is nothing more fluidthan a military environment. Sure, the military has trainingmanuals and strict protocols, but as one of the great leadersof the armed forces, Colin Powell, once said, As soon as youcross that line of departure, all bets are off; its goingto change.

EDITOR: You are obviously well read. What books would yourecommend that might influence LP professionals?

ELVERSTON: Probably one of the best Ive ever read professionallywas The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman. There is a lot ofapplicable business insight in his ten flattening forces analogy.Another great Friedman book is Hot, Flat, and Crowded, whichtalks about sustainability in a very broad sense, and the risks it hason the world economy. Earlier in my career was Colin Powellsbook, My American Journey, and of course, Sam Waltons book,Made in America.

Another great book is Competing on Analytics, by ThomasDavenport and Jeanne Harris, which talks about the challenges ofmoving an organization from basic guess work to more advancedpredictive analytics.

Right now Im reading a book called Ghost Wars, whichdiscusses the recent history of conflict in Afghanistan. Maybe its alittle more personal to me because I was recalled to active duty in2003 where I was stationed in the American embassy in Afghanistanunder then Major General Eikenberry. That experience wasprobably the steepest learning curve Ive ever experienced in myentire life. I had all the wrong perceptions of the Afghan culturewhen I first got there. It was the most profound experience Iveever hada very positive experience.

 

This article was first published in 2010 and updated January 2016.

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