11 Questions with Susan Olivier

After spending her career working at fashion companies such as Reebok, Lane Bryant, Victoria's Secret (Limited Brands), and JC Penney, Susan Olivier recently joined Dassault Systèmes as  Industry Define Leader, Retail Solutions.  We sat down with Susan to discuss how her past product development and global sourcing experience helps her relate to her clients, as well as her thoughts on where the PLM market is headed.

1.  After spending much of your career on the client-side, what was appealing to you about joining a vendor company?

For me, it's really about the ability to impact more than one project or one company at a time. Having worked within fashion organizations for a long time, moving over to the vendor side gave me a chance to take all my experiences of 'learning the hard way' and share that knowledge with other fashion brands and retailers. This opportunity is very exciting to me. 

2.  How has working on big PLM and sourcing initiatives on the client side helped you relate to your current clients?

When I was at Calvin Klein, Reebok, Lane Bryant, or other retailers and brands, I lived in and worked through many of the roles of the end user, the project team and even the project sponsor.  This experience gives me the ability to relate to the different business pain points that need to be resolved, as well as the tremendous change management challenges that people are working through. I also understand that the project sponsor needs to measure practical ROI objectives in an industry that is very creative and very flexible.

I have seen how designers respond differently to tools; they are very visual and their work is very fluid working with both structured and unstructured data. Therefore, PLM needs to be visual and intuitive to meet the needs of the designers and the way they work; at the same time, the tool is relaying information on the styles that need to be sampled and priced to sourcing teams and vendors who need structure and clarity.

From a technology perspective, you have to realistically project the volumes of data and images along with the speed and volume of change you'll be working with.  You also need to  determine whether daily workloads may be shifting between different teams and global locations or even out to the supply base, and evaluate any impacts on the network, so that teams can work at full speed without undue network constraints. 

And, having worked on many global PLM implementations, I've also seen the viewpoint of suppliers.  As companies implement PLM software today, they're looking to shift work to the source.  Rather than having suppliers send information via email that someone has to review and re-enter, trusted suppliers are being given access to the tool directly so everyone can input the elements they are responsible for and teams can focus on moving work forward, faster and  collaborate at a whole different level.  Everyone still benefits from being able to see the history of what changed, who made the updates and even the before-and-after-data values, and even getting exception alerts to call out key changes; all of which really frees teams up to focus on the product and not the paperwork.

3.  It's been said that 2008 was an "education" year for PLM and, over the past two years, has become a more recognizable solution among fashion executives.  Do you think PLM has hit its stride?  If not, what will it take for fashion companies to realize the benefits of PLM and, more importantly, invest in PLM?

I do think that fashion companies in retail, footwear and apparel understand the benefits of what we refer to as the "single version of the truth," but they might be in different stages in leveraging the cost/benefits equation since this can sometimes be hard to measure.  

Fashion companies who don't already have a formal PLM system in place are recognizing that they cannot continue to scale to the pace and complexity that consumers are demanding simply by adding more people to the process.  They need to work differently, collaboratively and take advantage of the benefits inherent to PLM.  In order to measure benefits, companies need to examine both cost and speed, and that can be complex since you're measuring the cost of products, but also sample costs which may be buried in product margins. And you're trying to measure the value of speed.

But if you can visually review your assortment from different aspects before you start making physical samples, you can save weeks of time of otherwise iterating through the wrong product.  And if you're updating product details but your supplier doesn't have clear visibility to those changes then they're working against outdated information, and producing the wrong samples anyway.  

Plus if you can capture the materials used across different product lines, brands and genders you gain tremendous leverage in negotiating with mills and vertical suppliers.  There can also be opportunity in consolidating some very similar materials used by different design, development and sourcing teams that don't have visibility into what other teams are doing.  And those material savings can often amount to tens of millions of dollars annually.

4.  How important should PLM be on a fashion CIO's priority list?

I think it should be higher on their list than it often is.  When looking at investments, many CIOs still consider ERP systems as a way to encourage efficiency and improve the bottom line.  What they often don't realize is that PLM has a strategic opportunity to impact the top line as well as the bottom line and drive increased sales. 

Fashion CIOs should look at shorter time-to-market as one of the best opportunities for their company. If you can reduce time-to-market, you really improve your ability to recognize and respond to fashion and sales trends.  PLM helps give companies time back to test and chase their "winners", making more of what consumers will pay for, which drives sales and reduces markdowns. At the same time, fewer samples can represent hundreds of thousands of dollars of savings.  These are the underappreciated elements of PLM's value proposition that CIOs should consider more closely when setting their technology agendas.

5.  A major requirement for fashion brands is the ability to react quickly to changing trends.  How does PLM help large fashion brands become more nimble?

In addition to the time-to-market benefits that come with global visibility, PLM also helps fashion companies become more nimble through materials sourcing and reuse.  With visibility into what's working and what's not, fashion brands know which materials to chase and which to avoid.  And materials can be leveraged across styles - if one isn't selling, they can use it for another style or even in another brand or division while it's still market-relevant.

6.  "Sustainability" is a topic generating a lot of interest right now.  How are fashion brands using PLM solutions to create sustainable products?

Some of our design users tell us they find it extremely helpful to know what materials are even available to them, and how those materials perform when planning eco-collections.  As an additional benefit, even if a collection didn't start out as eco-centric, but they've incorporated something like bamboo, which is a sustainable fiber, the product team could decide to apply a new hang tag to inform customers about the features and benefits of bamboo fiber...and they may want to do it across all products using that base material.  With the "where used" capabilities of a PLM system, the list of products can be generated instantly and they can mass-apply that new hang tag. 

PLM also enables fashion companies to identify suppliers who meet their requirements on handling waste water from dyeing, washing and finishing, how are they handling cutting waste, etc.?   

With PLM, companies can even look at the total lifecycle of a product and answer the question, "What is the end-of-life of this product?" Some retailers are thinking about the total lifecycle of their products right from the design phase, trying to design product that they can reprocess into new fibers when the consumer is finished with it and brings it back to the store for her "10% off a new item".  In the same way you can design the product so that all the components add up to something that's washable and does not require dry-cleaning, you can look at the components and determine whether the product can be re-processed for an ecologically-responsible end of life.  For example, can we replace a metal button with a drawstring? 

 7.  Who are the "poster children" for PLM in the fashion industry - which brands are doing it right?

The company that immediately comes to mind is Guess, Inc.  Guess has done a tremendous job of facilitating global collaboration amongst their design teams.  They embrace design locally, share globally and then decide how each piece needs to be customized for different markets.  Guess has also done a great job connecting with their suppliers through their PLM solution. 

The GAP is another global fashion brand and retailer that's maximizing the value of their investment and really extending the use of PLM to their supply network. 

8.  What is it about these companies that made their implementations a success (aside from the technology)?

Companies that are really doing this right understand that top-down sponsorship is absolutely critical.  But they also develop and support a strong internal 'super-user' group that engages from the beginning to define how the solution will be used to support the vision....in the real world.  These teams know deploying PLM is not optional, and they may even be doing this in addition to their regular jobs, but they're invested in making sure it will work for themselves and their peers when it comes time to roll it out.

Successful companies also measure what they want to accomplish from the onset of a project - time savings, cost savings, fewer sample iterations, streamlined fit approvals, etc.  They set measurable objectives that help them balance the myriad implementation decisions along the way, keeping everything on track to go after the highest priorities first.

9.  In your opinion, where are the high-growth areas for PLM - China, India, Europe? What are the challenges in these regions that must be overcome in order for PLM to really take off?

We have a good install base in Europe, and lately we've seen a change in how this market is using PLM.  Traditionally, our European clients have been more focused on design than sourcing because their supply chains have been shorter and more local than US-based brands and retailers.  But now European companies have started sourcing-from and selling-to more countries than before and they've become keen to leverage the strategic sourcing benefits and raw materials leverage from their PLM deployments.  

India is a market where we are also making inroads. India has moved from being a low-cost provider of goods to a country with well-known fashion brands producing and selling to an increasingly global, as well as local, market.

China has also become interested in PLM quite recently but very quickly.  For a long time they were able to leverage lower-cost labor rates to manage the business through largely manual processes.  But in the last 12-18 months labor costs have escalated and, because of these high labor costs, China is unable to sustain its rapid growth by just growing headcount.  Instead of leveraging more people, they want to leverage tools that enable them to do things more effectively as well as more efficiently. 

10. Are there any emerging trends that fashion brands should be aware of?

If they haven't already, fashion brands should incorporate 3D into their arsenal. If a company has a 2D image with core material and some basic dimensions, it's possible to generate a 3D model that can be used to evaluate the product in context of the store space.  The same image can be used for virtual test marketing to get consumer feedback on new product before samples are even produced, so they can make edits before a sample is made.  Companies are also exploring how an accurately-proportioned garment in 3D can interact with an avatar that has life-like physical attributes.  This is especially valuable in markets such as swimwear and undergarments, where small differences in measurements can make big differences in the comfort and fit of the garment.  Believe it or not, some bra samples can run a company thousands of dollars by the time they make a new mold for the cups, so it's important for these companies to model as much as they can before they commit to physical samples.  It's a very exciting space that we see heating up quickly.

11.  Looking into your crystal ball, what's next for PLM?

 Fashion brands and retailers that have been using PLM for "single version of the truth" collaboration are starting to connect global sourcing initiatives, materials leverage, etc.  Companies are connecting PLM to other technologies such as Merchandise Planning and ERP in order to move data around on the front end as well as the back-end of the lifecycle.
And now they are asking, "How do we take that combination of data and images that represent our intellectual property and get more value out of it?"
Examples would be a fashion brand using the PLM line 'catalog' to work with their retailer accounts; or a retailer re-using images for early product reads on e-commerce sites.