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How to take a brick and mortar business digital, with Boels’ Bjørn Kreijen

November 5, 2023 / 21:50 / E42

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Deep dive into taking a traditional brick and mortar business into the digital age. Bjørn Kreijen, Director of Digital and eCommerce at Boels equipment rental company, shares his firsthand experience of starting a digital department from scratch with a team of just three people, and steering an 8,000 employee enterprise onto the path of digital transformation.

Learn about:

  • The unique strategies that guided Boels' digital revolution 
  • Creating customer journeys instead of traditional "personas", which shaped their technology and digital strategy 
  • Implementing a monolithic platform before making the leap to a composable approach 
You'll learn how Bjørn overcame challenges, convinced stakeholders to invest in digital, and his roadmap to digital success in the world of brick and mortar businesses. 


1:06 What is Boels?
1:35 Bjorn's role at Boels when he started as director of marketing and communications
2:19 Technical landscape at Boels and how the idea of a digital department came to be
4:29 Talking to the board about investing in digital 
5:26 How the team structure changed during the company's digital transformation 
7:06 Making the decision to have front end and back end developers in different teams
8:25 Changing the ways of working - selecting a framework
11:32 Creating customer journeys for digital (instead of personas)
14:24 Going monolith first, then composable
17:45 Advice for brick and mortar companies starting digital transformation
19:13 Working with partners for change management 

Jasmin: [00:00:00] How do you take a huge brick-and-mortar business online? Well, how about doing it with a team of three? And showing the board what's possible. Our guest today did just that. Starting a digital department inside Boels, a building equipment rental company that's been around since 1977. Learn how Bjørn spearheaded the 8,000 people strong company to not only go digital but to go composable, including their curious approach that involved a monolithic platform first, on purpose.
You're listening to People Changing Enterprises. I'm your host, Jasmine Guthmann. and please [00:01:00] enjoy this episode with Bjørn Kreijen, Director of Digital and E-Commerce at Boels.
Bjørn: Boels Rental is an equipment rental company. We are active in 18 countries. And in these 18 countries, we have 750 depots, shops for our business customers, and something like 3,000, rental points for our DIY customers.
Jasmin: . That's huge and see, it never ceases to amaze me. You're a really big company. You have a lot of customers and yet, if I go around and ask 50 people, probably, I don't know, very few would be able to tell me what you've just told me. What was your role when you started?
Bjørn: I started back in 2016 as a Director of Marketing and Communications. But at the time when I started, I was a little surprised because the focus was mostly on offline and that's not only for Boels, that's for the whole industry. Back in 2016, you can say that they were really late in adopting online and most of the companies in rental were still focusing on the [00:02:00] rental guides and going to fairs and within three years, we introduced segment marketing, campaign management, work intelligence, and also in a small online department. But it was really small at the time. So that's where we started.
Jasmin: So how did the idea of a digital department come about? What made you consider that and what made you actually do it?
Bjørn: So we had a webshop, but it was really minor at the time. There was no focus on it, but there were a few reasons why we had to start a digital department and the first reason was that we had more than 90 websites at the time. And that was, yeah, that was really a lot. I think we did something like 350 million euros. And at the moment we are doing 1.6 billion euros. So we grew a lot and Boels grows not only organically, but also by acquisitions. And when you do an acquisition, you also get a new website. And so you end up on a lot of websites. So if you have one product on one website and a product on the other website, it's impossible to do some cross-sale.
So [00:03:00] we were really looking to consolidate all these websites into one platform, a one-stop shop. So that was really an important one. The other one was that the that we had at the time was built on really outdated technology. So we really needed to go to new technologies. That was another reason.
And the third reason that we had was that our customers and also the internal organization were asking for a seller service portal. So it is not only the website, but also seller service. And I think these three reasons, and also the fact that we were looking for a CRM system, a PIM, a DEM, everything together, yeah, made it a good decision to go for a digital department.
The problem that we had is that we were not connected to any backend systems. So it was all standalone websites. Different CMS systems not connected to the backend system. Yeah. What we had is it was really difficult to get all the data aligned, and that's all about product information, other content.
So how do you align all this data [00:04:00] and all this content. All kind of systems. So it's really important for us to have this one system and use that as a source.
Jasmin: Yeah, and especially if we talk about PIM, product information management for our listeners. How do you even, and if you store your data in various background systems, you're in hell very shortly because mistakes happen and then you need to find out where it went wrong and oh my goodness, congratulations for seeing the opportunity.
How did you make that happen? Because it is a big change. It's very hard for people to let go of something that they've had for a long time. And embrace the new thing. How did you make that happen?
Bjørn: I think the first thing that we did was starting up this digital department. And that was quite easy to start because I took three colleagues from the marketing department.
I would just start the new department. So that was quite easy. But the challenge was a challenge to talk to, especially the executive board. The questions that I got there for, if we are going to focus more on digital. What is the [00:05:00] impact on the offline channels? So are we talking about cannibalization?
So everybody knew that we needed the online channels, but yeah, what does that exactly mean for the organization? If you go online and on the other hand, what happens if you don't do it? So if the competition goes for these on the channels and goes for this webshop and you don't do this as a company, what is the impact?
So it's not only about gaining money, but also what are you going to lose if you don't do it?
Jasmin: How did the team structure change then? What else had to change in order for you to be successful?
Bjørn: So what we did is we started three sub-departments within digital. And the first one is digital enablement. And in digital enablement, we have the product owners.
And then only the product owners that are working on the customer-facing solutions. So the websites, the apps, the portals, that kind of thing. Then in the second team that we have, the digital development department, how the digital development, we have a business analysts, we have our [00:06:00] desktops, we have our developers.
And then only the web developers. So focusing on the front end, the backend developers are in the IT department. So we have a split. Then the third department that we have is the e-commerce department. And as I said, you start with three people, three colleagues. The e-commerce department is focusing on getting traffic to the website.
So it's about SEO. It's about campaigns. KPIs, frameworks, data. That is what they do. And so we can think about the new solutions that we want. That's what the do together with the stakeholders and the business. Of course, then we have the developers who can develop it. And then we have the e-commerce department who make sure that the app gets trafficked to the website and make money out of it. So that's how it works.
Jasmin: How big is the digital department now?
Bjørn: At the moment we are with, I think something like 25, 26 internals and 50 or so external. So it's a big difference with the three that we had three years ago.
Jasmin: Oh, wow. And it tells me that you've [00:07:00] been wildly successful because you only grow a team that quickly if you see results.
Curious about the split between front-end and back-end developers. How is that working for you?
Bjørn: Yeah. I mean, lots of discussions about it. You can imagine, of course, uh, yeah, some people say, well, yeah, you should have the back end or front end together. It's all IT. Others say that you can split it. For us, it really works well because we have the product owners and the e-commerce team and the developers sitting together, working on the same things, just as one team, and what we did, we first.
Make sure that we have an integration layer. So first it was all point-to-point that we had. So we made sure that we got an integration layer and we set below the integration layer. That's IT. So making sure that we have the CRM information, pricing information, that kind of thing. So the backend systems that goes to IT.
Then we have the integration layer. And put the integration layer. Also, IT is responsible. And then the digital development department. [00:08:00] Yeah, they take the data that we need through APIs from the integration layer from that. So that's how we work now.
Jasmin: Super interesting. And that's a great segue into ways of working because I'm sure the way you work and just the setup that you've just described means you're, you have a very new way of working compared to, what you came into in 2016 when you started at Boels.
Tell us a bit more about that. How did the ways of working change? How do you operate today?
Bjørn:When we started with this new department, I think we were the first team working agile. So no team worked in the tools organization worked agile at the time. So introduced this scrum way of working. And it was easy in the first days 'cause we had only one team, we introduced the scrum team. But a few months later, half a year later, we had my Boels team, so for the seller service portal.
A nd that was also a scrum team. And the n we got a CRM team and then we got a team for DIY and then we got a team for careers and so on. at a certain point in time it became [00:09:00] that big and dependencies became, yeah, became really difficult. And also the dependencies from the IT department because the IT department has to work with so many scrum teams and the front end and also with the marketing department because you had this overlap of marketing as well. And I think that was the biggest change for us. And last year, I think it was 2022, we decided to go for scaled agile approach. So we moved from the scrum teams that we had to the SAFE implementation.
Jasmin: That's amazing because you adapted to the growing, literally the growing needs of the business and agile is great in those early stages when you have small teams and not four digit number of teams. Once you get there, I find it admirable that you were able to pivot because SAFE is a fantastic framework, but it's something that's not hugely popular, it's my feeling. How has that worked out for you? Is it something you're going to stick to?
Bjørn:I was in the [00:10:00] middle of that transformation, to be honest, because as I said, we did just four or five PIs, PI plannings, but now we are working on all the strategy streams and all the Rs and how should they look like. And as you can imagine, it's something that we do company-wide, so it's not only for our department to do it, but the whole company,
So we are not there yet, but we're making a big progress there. But yeah, it seems to work for us now.
Jasmin: And that's great. That's all that matters, right? And it's like in life, you need to find what works for you and you can look at others to get inspiration, but ultimately you have to figure out what works for you and what actually really gets you where you're wanting to go. So talking of that, what improvements did the business see? What is working better now than when you started your journey at Boels?
Bjørn:I think that since we are implementing a SAFE framework and the new way of working, the teams are better aligned with their goals, so I think that's a big improvement. The stakeholders better involved. So everything is transparent to the organization and everything is put in the big backlog.
[00:11:00] Everybody says sees what was on the backlog and it's easier for executive wards to manage the total digital and IT portfolio. So you have oversight now and you have a steering instrument at the moment. So that, I think that's a big advantage.
Jasmin: Absolutely. And I love that, the majority of your conversations with the board, were about the customer.
That's how it should be. And as a business that spends a crazy amount of products and audiences. You managed to settle on just five customer journeys. Tell me a bit more, I'm super curious. How did you create those customer journeys for Boels?
Bjørn:I have to go back to 2017 when we made the first customer journeys.
And it was also the time that we were talking about digitizing Boels as a company. And so. You can always only talk about technology. Why do you need a new website? Why do you need a new CMS? But the question is, for who are we building this? What do we need to build? And so we decided to start with the customer journeys instead of the technology.
So [00:12:00] what we did, we did a lot of market research, so we looked at the competitors, we looked at our customers, we had customer interviews. What do you expect Boels to have digitally in the future? How can we help you? What else did we do? So we had, I think, more than 40 workshops together with our colleagues from the marketing department, from sales, from IT, from legal, from all kind of departments. We made this big brown papers, you put them on the wall, we divided customers, all together we looked at these brown papers and asked them, is this really what you want us to build for you to help you? And we made some minor, some small changes. And then that was for us, the blueprints to start the technology.
And these brown papers, they are not brown anymore. They are now really nicely rubbed out. We have them on the wall in our department, everybody who enters the department sees this big customer journey. And that's what we were aiming for. So that's how we developed customer journeys. And we saw that we talk a lot of always what [00:13:00] personas and the persona is let's say the painter between 35 and 20, 35, two children, reads the certain magazine, et cetera, so that's how we started the personas in the first place.
And then we saw that it didn't really matter if a customer was a plumber or he was a landscaper or it was more about the size of the company. So if you have an corporate sized customer, you have decision makers, you have users, everybody has a different role. If you look at the other end of the spectrum, you look at the self-employed customer, for example, or the DIY customer that a purchaser is the user.
All the roles are in the same person. So when you want to show a certain information on a website, on a portal. In certain cases, the information should be all together, available just for one person, and in other cases you just want to show a certain amount of information. So, and that was the conclusion that we had, and that was the reason why we developed these five journeys.
So for the corporate [00:14:00] customer, for the, that's called the large companies, the mid-size and small customer, and then the DIY and the self-employed customer.
Jasmin: I love the fact that you brought in the customers to actually sense-check what you thought about them. Let's talk about the technology that you need to support those new customer journeys once you come up with them. How did you find the right technology for your needs?
Bjørn: Well, we started, the situation was completely different compared to now. There's three people in the department. There was no knowledge at the time. We were looking for agencies that had the knowledge was also a requirement. So we chose a platform where you can find the developers for and we had a lot of time threshold at the time. We really needed to merge all these websites together so to have this one-stop shop, and of course, at that time we decided to go for monolith. So we didn't go [00:15:00] for composable, but idea was that when the organization grows, we really will go for an composable architecture. S start with a monolith to start to speed things up. That was the idea to get the capabilities in the team and when that's ready. So when you have this one-stop shop, then start, decomposing the monolith as you have it. Changing the CMS and PIM system, slowly stop decomposing the thing that you have and build up the composable infrastructure. So that's how we, yeah, that's how we did it.
Jasmin: And that's so interesting that you did that start to finish. You onboarded a monolithic system knowing that you would eventually slice away and slice away until you didn't need it anymore and could go fully composable. How did that work for you? Harder, easier than expected?
Bjørn: No, we're not in the stage that we are fully composable at the moment, but when we made the decision to go for this [00:16:00] monolith at the time, I had lots of discussion with my peers in other companies and some of the companies were already working composable at the time. And I asked them, I'm in the phase where you were three years ago.
What should I do? Should I go for the composable? Just make this big step at once? And they said, don't do it. Just first go for this monolith, make sure that you have the right capabilities in your team, that you have the technological knowledge. And then when that's there, then you start decomposing. And that's how we did it.
So last year, 2022, we made the decision to go for Contentstack. And because we saw the limitations of the CMS that we had at the time, but the platform that we chose this monolith, it was in commerce engine, it was a CMS and PIM, but it was built in such a way that was in the cloud. So that was one and it was headless, only the CMS wasn't that capable of the things that we needed. So it was relatively easy, to change , the CMS. And we did it last year, with our [00:17:00] website as a start. So there we first introduced Contentstack, our CMS, and now in Q1, 2023, we are going to put the Contentstack CMS on the the commerce engine that we have.
Jasmin: You need a certain level of digital or technical maturity to run a composable system, a composable tech stack well. Very smart move to say, Hey, we don't have that capability in-house just yet. Here's a temporary solution that will get us to where we need to go and then deploy the composable approach because it will make us faster, more flexible when you look at your long-term vision for that kind of technical environment. There are still brick-and-mortar businesses out there, believe it or not. If they are just starting out and creating digital or at least partially digital customer journeys, any advice you've got for them?
Bjørn: Not only look at composable, all the whole MACH architecture philosophy. I think you should do it [00:18:00] gradually. What we did, and it worked really well for us. We first worked on going to the cloud. So our IT department, they migrated all the servers that they had and everything to the cloud. We bought a CRM system. It was all also cloud-based. We had a CMS and suite and monolith that was also cloud-based.
So everything was the cloud. That was the first thing. The second thing that we did was getting this integration layer in place to make everything API-based. So then you have the C in MACH, cloud, and you have the A for APIs also in place. And then the next step that we are making now is the headless part. And then, so you build things up.
Jasmin: Yeah. And I think that's great advice because it really is. There's pros and cons to everything. Right. And I think you did a great job at identifying your needs first and then seeing, okay, what fits the bill? What do I actually need and what's going to get me the best value for [00:19:00] money. You worked with several partners, external partners during your transformation.
Any advice for our listeners about how to best incorporate those partners into your change process?
Bjørn: We work with two kinds of partners. We work with let's call it the implementation partners. So because we started just three of us, we needed lots of externals to help us develop things that we need.
So that was the first part. So we started with three and lots of externals. Are we trying to flip that now. So have more internals and less externals. So that's what we are doing now. And the other partners that we have around change management, because as I said, Boels was a brick-and-mortar organization. And when you start digitalizing, you need to talk to your colleagues to tell them what the change means.
Jasmin: Oh, and that's something that is so often overlooked. I cannot tell you the number of times that people in hindsight say, yeah, we got the technology part [00:20:00] right, but It went downhill from there because people didn't know how to use it, didn't like it.
I love that you actually brought in external help to do that. Many times that is something that's not addressed and it can make life very hard for people for a long time. So how did that decision come about?
Bjørn:Yeah, I think it came really naturally. So where we started developing, I think we recognized that we were in an organization that was not really familiar with the digital way of working.
So we said we needed somebody to help us. We don't have the time. We need somebody with the expertise, explaining it to the organization, what we are doing and why and how we are helping them. And to be honest, it didn't always go right that several times there was some misunderstanding and, but yeah, that's how we managed it.
And now at the moment, since a few months, we are starting off an internal organization around change management. So now it will have in place in the Boels organization, just looking at change, not only for the digital department, for all the change that you see in the organization, you have to make sure that [00:21:00] everybody is involved, that communication is there. Yeah, that's what you're working on now.
Jasmin: And that will make you future fit in the best possible sense because if one thing is permanent and it is change.
Bjørn: Absolutely.
Jasmin: Thanks for listening to People Changing Enterprises. This show is brought to you by Contentstack, the leading composable digital experience platform for enterprises.
Got a question or suggestion? Email us at If you like the show, please leave us a rating. or review on Apple podcasts. We'll be back next week with a new episode, helping you make your mark.

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