Chrsity Sports CIO
Over the years, the company has grown significantly through expansion and acquisitions — now operating 11 different brands, including Sturtevant’s, Ski Mart, Boot Doctors, Cottam’s and more. With each brand and location comes a unique culture, built on the personal relationships between Christy Sports’ associates and their customers.
At all levels of the organization, employees share a passion for the great outdoors and strive to help others step outside the walls of their comfort zone to experience new adventures. But, like many growing organizations, with disparate branches came disparate systems and processes, many of them highly manual.
This was a key challenge faced by CEO Matt Gold when he was brought on board in 2016.
“He realized that each of these locations were operating independently,” recalled Christy Sports CIO Mike Starkey. “It wasn’t a one-company, one-system, one-process approach. So, his strategic vision was to bring about a digital transformation to bring all these different banners and brands together.”
But, for a company that prides itself on authenticity and personal connections, the question quickly became how to embrace a technology-driven transformation while preserving this core tenet.
“Christy Sports historically did not embrace or invest heavily in technology, partly because our number-one asset is our people,” Starkey explained. “Especially our front-line associates in the stores that build these relationships with our customers in an analog way — with a handshake, a name and face — keeping people coming back and renting from the same place year after year. So how do you go about a digital transformation without losing that culture?”
For the Christy Sports leadership team, the process began by aligning on a definition of digital transformation which went beyond simply building out an e-commerce site. They wanted to create a holistic digital journey which streamlined processes both online and in store, creating a seamless experience starting with online purchasing, continuing all the way to store pickup. This would simplify the customer journey while enabling associates to spend more time building relationships and less time on paperwork.
But for a company with no existing cloud or digital strategy, this was a truly ambitious goal.
When Starkey joined the Christy Sports leadership team in 2020, he brought with him 35 years in retail with 20+ years of experience as a CIO, a cloud-first mentality — and a strong belief in partner relationships. He recognized the scale of the ongoing transformation efforts and saw an opportunity to work more strategically with technology providers.
By this time, Christy Sports had begun to make the transition to digital tools, including Outlook and Teams through Office 365, led by CFO Lindsay Goszulak. However, the IT team relied on a variety of vendors for products and licensing. They often purchased devices on an ad hoc basis through online retailers such as Amazon or eBay.
One of Starkey’s first initiatives as CIO was to optimize the IT supply chain. In his analysis, he identified Insight as one of the existing vendors with whom he felt he could build a stronger, more consolidated relationship. “I said, I’ll give you three months to become our primary, preferred source for all commodities, laptops, servers, hardware and so on.”
At the end of the trial period, a QBR revealed Insight had performed well and soon became the preferred vendor for all devices, IT services and Microsoft licensing. Over time, Insight cloud experts were brought in to support ongoing Azure migration efforts, and by May of 2021 when Christy Sports was ready to execute their vision for a fully digital rental experience, Starkey knew he had established a partnership that could make it a reality.
While Christy Sports had made significant progress toward their broad transformation goals, particularly in the area of e-commerce, Starkey recognized a gap in the digital journey. “Until last winter season, if you rented your skis from one of our stores, you would have been handed a clipboard,” he said. “We thought, how can you create this great customer experience if your associates are still doing things on paper?”
The vision became to extend digital capabilities to the rental process, including online reservations, in-store waiver and compliance agreements, and point-of-sale integration.
“But at the time, we didn’t have the skill sets internally to do what I wanted to do. This needed to be an enterprise-level system that allowed customers to rent skis from one store and return to another. In order to accomplish that, we needed all our locations to have access to the database,” Starkey explained.
So, he and his team turned to their now established IT partner for support. A team of Insight experts was brought in to spin up the Azure environment, establish Azure VPN Gateways and set up the Active Directory. In addition to building out a secure cloud database, each storefront also needed to be fully equipped with Microsoft Surface tablets, rugged equipment scanners, printers, servers and connectivity solutions. Insight procured and deployed an average of 200 of each of these devices per store — amidst ongoing global supply chain disruptions.
“Originally we were told by some vendors that this looked like a three-year project,” recalled Starkey. “But because we ramped up our resources, we went live with phase one within three months and the whole project will be complete within eight.”
As a result of this rapid transformation initiative, for the first time this winter season, Christy Sports customers will have access to a fully digital equipment rental experience. Online reservations will allow stores to gather sizing and payment information ahead of time, so equipment can be set aside by the time skiers and snowboarders walk through the door. Once boots have been properly fitted, waivers can be signed via tablet and checkout will be as easy as pressing a button.
All of this means less time in the store and more time on the slopes.
“We did the math,” Starkey pointed out. “We knew how long the average transaction took on a clipboard and multiplied it by the number of projected transactions with the new system. In total, we determined we will return over one million minutes to our customers this season alone — which we think is just incredible.”
As with any large-scale digital transformation, there was more to this project than technical planning and execution. Leaders at Christy Sports also had to educate and prepare their employees to embrace a new way of working.
“On a project of this scale that touches almost everyone in the company, change management is significant — the technology can be the easy part sometimes,” said Starkey. This began with early communication to help associates understand the types of systems that were in development, and what the anticipated benefits would be both for them and for their customers. “Our store associates were used to doing everything on paper. But Dan Fox, our VP of Retail Operations, did a great job of getting everyone bought into the technology and excited about what it means for them in the store.”
As the new system was being implemented, Christy Sports rolled out a training program to help employees get comfortable with the devices and applications under the leadership of Dan Fox, GM of Rental Gordon Wade and Brian Sullivan. The digital experience has been met with enthusiasm, and associates are on track to be fully equipped for the coming snow season.
But Christy Sports isn’t stopping there. Their ambitions for the new digital system extend well into the future with plans for continued optimization — and critically, data collection — that will help them better understand and serve their customers. By identifying purchasing patterns and other user preferences, the company hopes to improve demand forecasting and create a truly frictionless journey for their customers year after year.
While industry leaders and customers alike continue to speculate what the future of retail may look like, Christy Sports is confident that it has established the robust foundation needed to serve its customers now and in the future. By building on cloud-first, data-driven strategies, the organization is well-positioned to navigate both pandemic-related changes and the broader evolution in shopping trends.
For those companies looking to achieve similar digital transformation outcomes, Starkey shared his advice: “What was key for us was that our CEO had a clear vision and strategy around digital transformation. Once that vision is clear and communicated, that lays the groundwork and answers the question of why we’re doing this. And if the groundwork is laid with a solid vision, the execution becomes that much easier.”
An ongoing partnership with Insight has also played a significant role in this future-ready outlook. By leaning on the experts at Insight, the organization has been able to accelerate and extend their transformation goals. In addition to continuous support for cloud and data initiatives, Christy Sports recently enlisted Insight’s managed security services to safeguard systems against ransomware and other cyberthreats.
“Christy Sports started out with a transactional approach to our technology purchases. But once we started working with Insight, we were able to do so much more,” Starkey said. “They’ve gone above and beyond to help us reach our goals, even navigating supply chain issues and meeting tight deadlines. Having that established relationship has made all the difference.”