Making it in America
Elizabeth Theis is Ocado Technology’s Vice President of Construction and Installation in North America. Her challenges range from rapid growth to creating change in an industry that isn’t accustomed to it…
Elizabeth Theis, appointed Vice President, Construction and Installation with Ocado Technology in December 2021, has been working at the top end of large scale construction for 20 years. Her latest mission is to continue to bring the future of automated grocery ecommerce to the whole of North America, working with our partners Kroger in the US, and Sobeys in Canada. "I worked on a lot of different projects during my time in general contracting," she says. "Everything from retirement communities, to arenas, to high rises and mid rises... I was running projects all over the US, from digging the first hole to fitting out the building."
Ocado Technology’s Construction and Installation teams in North America are responsible for implementing the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) inside our international partners' warehouses. Our Tech Ops teams maintain those installations once the facilities go live. Every project includes construction of the massive grids on which the bots travel, the bots themselves, and installing the conveyor systems and automated mechanical handling peripherals - every aspect of automation and infrastructure that stores and retrieves products in the warehouse.
“I've always concentrated just on who I am, and not that I'm a woman… I'm a hard worker and this is what I do. I think I rarely even bring it up or focus on it.”
Elizabeth feels her experience in both construction and installation is invaluable when it comes to the Ocado Technology mission. "Even though we don't get involved in the warehouse ‘shell’ construction in North America, my experience means I know exactly what's happening on site before we arrive to start building the OSP. I know what we need to ask the contractor, and I know when they're being difficult!"
As a woman in the industry, Elizabeth is still part of a significant minority. Even though the tide is turning, progress is slow. Of the 30 people in her graduating class for her degree in Construction and Engineering, only three others were women.
"I don't know if my mentality is correct, but I've always concentrated just on who I am, and not that I'm a woman,” she says. “I've always been clear - I'm a hard worker and this is what I do. I think I rarely even bring it up or focus on it. Maybe because of that, people are less likely to focus on my gender and instead say 'it's Elizabeth - she cares about getting the project done… Most of the time they quickly get over it once they realise I am here to do a job like everyone else.”
She does take the responsibility of being an example and a mentor to women in the industry seriously though: "I will always want to encourage them, but not purposely single them out, which is a tricky balance to strike. Sometimes you just want to be one of the team."
Elizabeth's most pressing challenges in her new role are wrapped up with the expanding territories for OSP and the potential variation in the requirements at each new site. "The first set of Kroger projects were all quite similar,” she explains. “We built similar projects each time, but now we’re looking at building variations on that theme, taking advantage of our most recent advances, and the advantages you can get from building smaller sites, for instance. Something as seemingly straightforward as working out how many people we need to work on these different sizes of jobs can be a challenge. We need to set these projects up for success, but not over-staff them - we need to make sure our engineers are challenged and can take ownership of a build.”
The rapid growth in North America, even with the immense experience and foundation of the UK operation, presents its own challenges: "The Ocado Group has been around for 20 years, but we've only been active in North America for four of those and we've never built at this rate before. So a big part of my day is simply trying to make us better, and trying to grow the team.
"We used to rely on the UK much more, but we're now trying to be as autonomous as we can, building our own processes, while still being cohesive with the UK and cohesive across the North American territory."
Ocado Engineering in North America has six large projects currently active and the breadth of operations stretches from Denver in the West to Washington DC in the East, with a new CFC recently announced for Canada as far North as British Columbia. Elizabeth has been impressed with the strength of communications and relationships nurtured across that immense geographic separation: "There's unlikely to be a time when we're all in the same room, so those remote relationships are especially important... I think that’s pretty cool, and I've tried to continue that and make sure we're as connected as we can be."
“I love being part of something where you can create change, where you can challenge things. Yes, we're accountable, but no one is yelling and screaming…”
She thinks a big contributor to that connectedness and cohesion is the culture of Ocado Engineering and a willingness to usurp the expectation of a more traditional style of construction management: "This is definitely a different world from the one I come from. My previous environment was a fourth-generation general contracting business - very fixed in its ways. If you hadn't been there for 25 years, you weren't going to change anything.
"Here, I love being part of something where you can create change, where you can challenge things. Yes, we're accountable, but no one is yelling and screaming; we understand everyone has a life; we treat you well."
This cultural difference is something that comes up even at interview stages for potential new recruits. Elizabeth feels it's important to be open with people, especially in an industry where it defies expectations. "I joke that I've 'given the Ocado Technology warning!" she says. "There is going to be change, so you have to be up for that challenge. For people who are already enjoying this kind of dynamism, it can be difficult to understand that some people genuinely wouldn't want that!"
Of all the changes that Ocado Technology embraces, maybe the cultural change has the biggest impact. And a big part of spreading that good news is spreading understanding of
what we do and how the business operates. " Having these relationships with Kroger and Sobeys helps a lot," says Elizabeth. Everyone knows who they are here.
"This is such an exciting thing to be a part of. The things we could be involved in and be a part of are unlimited, right? I feel like we have so much potential."
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