From Space Dreams to Digital Innovation in Thailand

After an impressive career in the space and telecom industry, Thibaut Girard switched gears to join BCG before setting his sights on the digital retail market in Southeast Asia.

What inspired you and grew your passion toward the digital space?

As a kid, I was fascinated by rockets and wanted to become an astronaut. Growing up, I remained captivated by how science could explain everything in our daily lives and how one could calculate everything, from the wingbeat frequency of a specific mosquito species to the yearly drift of the moon away from Earth (4 cm per year!). Science and engineering fostered my curiosity to interpret the world, and my two years living in the United States opened me up to the ability to dream big, giving me the desire to start my own company. In the early 2000s, entrepreneurship was less common in France, and it was expected that people graduating from aerospace engineering would work for large companies like Airbus or Thales. But in the US, many people around me wanted to change the world or create new business models. I had never thought about it before, but it then became a possibility.

I started to think about how space technology, telecommunication technology, and digital innovation could have a significant impact on people's lives. My first startup, which aimed to predict malaria epidemics, was an eye-opening experience. Although it ultimately failed, it taught me valuable lessons and fueled my passion for using technology to create a meaningful impact. My second startup allowed me to work closely with rural communities in France, developing a custom outdoor wireless communication ecosystem financed through a private-public partnership. This enabled grandparents in small villages to video call their grandchildren abroad, or younger people to continue living in their village by working remotely. Witnessing firsthand how technology can change people's lives is my everyday energy boost and makes me want to continue pushing organizations and people for change.

Generative AI has been dominating tech conversations lately. What role do you see technology—specifically AI—playing in your organization, and more broadly? How should companies be leveraging it in the coming years?

We are at a pivotal moment in how AI impacts our lives. Organizations have utilized data science for analysis, customer insights, and process automation for years. As a consultant, I've experienced this firsthand. However, we have now reached a stage where the speed, adoption, and relevance of AI will revolutionize how organizations enhance customer experiences, optimize operations, and drive innovation. What we're witnessing today is astonishing. ChatGPT reached 100 million users in just two months, while Midjourney, Copilot, Stability.AI, Jasper, and numerous others are introducing products that have the potential to completely transform the job landscape. As "technologists" or "digital" experts in a somewhat traditional retail organization, everyone looks to us for answers on where we're heading.

While AI will undoubtedly improve the customer experience, it will have a big impact on our organizations. It will generate massive workforce efficiencies once seamlessly integrated into existing workflows. We can also anticipate changes in the roles of managers. As hard skills become less valued, we will need new generations of talent with strong cross-functional collaboration, continuous learning, embracing change, and readiness to experiment and innovate alongside AI. I advise companies to fund a limited number of small teams consisting of technologists and business operators who can test and learn about these new technologies without the pressure of daily operations. Once they demonstrate clear benefits, businesses should actively engage teams in their deployment.

AI technologies are now mainstream and here to stay. Companies must be proactive in adopting AI technologies and integrating them into their business strategies. Identifying areas where AI can create the most value, investing in the right tools and talent, and fostering a culture of continuous learning and experimentation will enable businesses to stay agile and competitive in an ever-evolving digital landscape.

What are some of the most promising applications of digital tools in retail, and how have you seen them implemented in practice?

Digital tools have tremendous potential to transform the retail industry. At Central, these digital tools are a core part of our omnichannel strategy. We have implemented many of these and continuously adapting them to improve our customer and employee experience.

  1. Personalization: By leveraging customer data, we can provide tailored recommendations and promotions, leading to more engaging and satisfying shopping experiences. We currently use one-to-one recommendation algorithms to offer products to our customers online, employ segmentation to display different homepages on our web and app channels, and utilize AI to recommend products based on customer search history or previous purchases.
  2. Multimoment: This refers to the ability to connect with customers at the right time and through the right channels. We can now determine whether a particular customer is more likely to click on an email, an app notification, or an SMS—or is more likely to respond to a communication focused on discounts or new sport brands arriving in stock.
  3. Omnichannel Retailing: Integrating physical and digital channels enables seamless, consistent experiences for customers, whether they're shopping in-store, online, or through a mobile app. We have implemented click-and-collect services, provided real-time inventory updates across all channels, and introduced an e-ordering function that allows sales agents to find out-of-stock inventory and ship it directly to customers. We will soon experiment with “clienteling” solutions to help store agents recommend the right products to customers.
  4. Virtual, Augmented Reality and Metaverse: These technologies offer immersive, interactive experiences that help customers visualize products in their own environment. In retail, AR can be used to visualize furniture in a customer's home, while VR can offer virtual malls where customers can access stores and products virtually. We have conducted several experiments, but customer adoption remains relatively low. Nevertheless, we continue to innovate and will soon launch a metaverse experiment.
  5. Internet of Things and Smart Environments: In retail, IoT can be employed for real-time inventory tracking or to analyze foot traffic patterns, thereby optimizing store layouts. We have also done some experiments and are now assessing how best to use this information to optimize our operations.
  6. Data Analytics and AI-Driven Insights: Omnichannel retailers have a lot of data from all online and offline interactions with customers. This allows us to better understand customer preferences, predict trends, and optimize operations. We are also using AI to analyze price elasticity and adjust the level of discounts offered to specific groups of customers online and offline.

What currently inspires you in your role and how do you envision the growth of Central Group in the coming years?

What currently inspires me in my role is the opportunity to drive digital transformation across Central Retail, helping the company stay relevant in an increasingly competitive market. Central Group boasts an impressive success story, starting from a family shop opened in 1947, launching the first department store in Thailand in 1956, and now expanding to 100,000 employees with 70 nationalities and 3,700 retail touchpoints across 18 countries. However, our executives recognize that the future is not solely determined by our past; embracing change is essential. Seeing the positive impact of technology on both our customers and employees is genuinely motivating. While we sometimes face resistance to change, this challenge makes my job exciting.

As for Central Retail growth in the coming years, I envision several key focus areas. First, we will continue to enhance our omnichannel retailing capabilities, ensuring seamless integration between online and offline channels. By investing in cutting-edge technology and data analytics, we aim to further personalize the customer experience and drive customer loyalty. Second, I foresee expansion into new markets and verticals, exploring untapped opportunities both locally and internationally. This growth will be supported by strategic partnerships and acquisitions that align with our core values and business objectives.

Third, innovation will remain at the heart of our strategy. We will continue to experiment with emerging technologies, such as AI, IoT, metaverse, and AR/VR, to identify new applications that can benefit our retail businesses. By fostering a culture of innovation, we strive to stay at the forefront of industry trends and set new benchmarks for customer experiences. Lastly, sustainability will play an essential role in our long-term growth. We are committed to reducing our environmental impact and promoting responsible business practices across our operations. By integrating sustainability into our decision-making processes, we will create lasting value for our stakeholders and contribute to a more sustainable future.

What is the most memorable piece of career advice you have received thus far that you can share with others?

It is hard to pinpoint only one piece of career advice, as I have worked with many amazing people in different industries and geographies. What I could summarize is that to thrive in your career, it's essential to surround yourself with colleagues and mentors who appreciate and value your contributions. Such an environment fosters personal growth, professional development, and a sense of belonging, all of which are critical for job satisfaction and long-term success. Cultivate meaningful relationships and actively seek out opportunities to collaborate with like-minded individuals who inspire and challenge you.

Staying curious and embracing change are vital aspects of a successful career. Keep an open mind and maintain a learner's mindset, as this will enable you to adapt to new situations, technologies, and industry trends. By being open to change, you position yourself for growth and demonstrate your resilience and adaptability to potential employers or partners. In terms of leadership, focus on the impact you make rather than the number of people you manage. Effective leaders inspire and empower their teams to achieve goals and overcome challenges. Don’t hesitate to give even if you are not sure you will receive anything. By emphasizing the quality of your leadership over the quantity of your subordinates, you'll create an environment where everyone can contribute meaningfully and achieve shared success.

In summary, to maximize your potential and achieve a fulfilling career, seek out supportive and inspiring colleagues, remain curious and adaptable, and prioritize impactful leadership. By doing so, you'll create a strong foundation for personal and professional growth, resulting in lasting success and a legacy of positive influence.

You have founded two startups in your career. What would you share with those here who are interested in starting their own ventures?

Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster of emotions, filled with excitement, challenges, fears, and rewards. When embarking on this journey, it's essential to share your ideas with as many people as possible. This not only validates your concepts but also helps you refine and improve them through diverse perspectives. Though generating ideas is crucial, executing them is the true key to success. Focus on assembling the right team, building a compelling product, and securing paying customers to create a solid foundation for your business. Remember that each step requires determination, hard work, and persistence.

Embrace the possibility of failure, as it's an inevitable part of the entrepreneurial experience. Use setbacks as learning opportunities to grow and improve your strategies. Maintaining a resilient mindset and learning from each challenge will make you a stronger entrepreneur. Family support is invaluable on this journey. Ensure your loved ones understand the risks and potential consequences associated with entrepreneurship, such as a temporary loss of income or increased stress. Their encouragement and understanding can make a significant difference during difficult times.

In summary, entrepreneurship is a complex and rewarding experience that demands idea sharing, effective execution, resilience in the face of failure, and unwavering family support. By embracing these principles, you'll be well-equipped to navigate the entrepreneurial rollercoaster and ultimately achieve lasting success.