Rob Chester started his career as a Saturday worker at Tesco, worked his way up to being a store manager.
Got into compliance and spent the rest of his career in various roles at Asda, Walmart US and China.
When he arrived in China on the back of a food crisis, the term compliance wasn’t common parlance. Much of the traditional compliance tools and techniques were found wanting.
And Rob first witnessed how blockchain could potentially help.
At the same time Prof Chris Elliott was compiling his report for UK government on the horsemeat scandal, and many of his recommendations could be applied to China.
Fast forward a few years and Rob was UK MD at NSF International and he was introduced to ubloquity cofounder Kieran by former Asda colleague Dawn Welham.
Kieran had a revolutionary approach, starting at the beginning of a supply chain, not just going back one or two steps from the retailer.
Facing the truth, they spent the day redesigning the compliance model. Rob realised a new approach would enable you to manage risk and add value into supply chains.
Digital solutions were clearly going to start to have a major impact, be that sensors, cameras, telematics. So Rob has taken the plunge and joined ubloquity as its CEO.
He’s relishing being in a startup environment where you can innovate quickly and seize opportunities in ways that are harder in large organisations.
Dom Burch, Rob Chester
Dom Burch 00:09
Welcome back to the ubloquity podcast with me Dom Burch. This is the podcast where we get to speak to thought leaders from across the industry, about this sector and to try and I guess demystify the world of blockchain and give you real life examples of how it’s going to make dramatic differences in almost every industry actually, and I’m delighted this week to welcome one of our own and it’s the new chief executive of ubloquity Rob Chester. Rob, welcome to the podcast.
Rob Chester 00:35
Dom, thanks for having me as always.
Dom Burch 00:37
So let’s reverse back a little bit then Rob, what brings you to ubloquity
Rob Chester 00:41
Started out as a as an hourly paid colleague actually in Tesco as a Saturday lad worked my way up to being a store manager and got into compliance by writing a cheeky letter off to the equivalent of a compliance officer highlighting his compliance stuff was not in plain English and really needed to be. Got in to the compliance team at Tesco. Then left for Walmart, I joined Asda and very happy time at Asda. Moved out to China as the Chief Compliance Officer for Walmart China in 2011. And lived and worked out there for three years, then moved to the United States and lived there for three years in Bentonville really enjoyed my time there then joined a fantastic organisation, NSF spent four and a half, five years as the UK Managing Director, but now very proud to say I’ve joined ubloquity and looking forward to doing a startup for the first time in my career.
Dom Burch 01:34
And just tell us a little bit about that time in China then, because I guess when you’re in China, in your head of compliance, gosh!
Rob Chester 01:40
Compliance as a term didn’t actually exist in China, believe it or not [hugwei], as my Chinese, obviously will be laughing now at my terrible mispronunciation. But the actual concept didn’t even exist as I arrived. So yeah, I went to China on the back of a food fraud crisis, where the traditional compliance tools had been found in wanting and it was my first real exposure to the difference that blockchain could have brought to a to a crisis situation. The same time Professor Elliott was doing a food fraud report back in the back in UK on the back of the horsemeat scandal, and there was a lot of learnings from Chris’s report that applied very much to my situation that I found out in China. I then went on to the United States and again, saw similar there, the traditional approaches of things like, like audits, were really struggling to cope with the issues that were coming in their direction. And so I saw in the compliance world an increasing role for, for data for cameras for sensors for digital basically to come in and do a better job where the traditional tools didn’t do very well. I had a sort of watching brief on blockchain until 2018, when a lady called Dawn Welham, a great ex colleague from Asda introduced me to Kieran. And we spent a day together in Oxford, and he just described what he was up to with this blockchain aspect, why he believed it was going to change the change the world. On that day, actually, we designed a new model as to how we felt the world was going to operate within compliance. It was a real meeting of minds Dom as to basically facing the truth about where traditional tools were going to struggle. And increasingly, the digital world was going to be able to do a better job, not just of managing risk, but actually of really sort of starting to add value into supply chains. Been really lucky through my career I’ve worked for three great brands in Tesco, then Walmart, then NSF. But I really did, by that point, really think we were reaching a tipping point of where these digital solutions were going to start to be just seen as part of the answer. And so yeah, for the first time in my life, I’ve joined, joined a start-up business, ridiculously excited about what it’s all going to mean. And that really has been a bit of a moment, because I’ve been lukcy over the last sort of nine months to be reading lots and one quote, I read Mandela’s autobiography, again, long road to freedom. And there was a quote in there that sort of really stuck with me. And has done which is, you should plan your future based on hope, not fear. That really is what took me down the road of a startup. In big traditional businesses, you find it hard to innovate and do things differently. And therefore when stuff like the digital revolution and blockchains and cameras and sensors all come along in a traditional business, you’re often feel a bit like you’re walking through a china shop. Go to maybe the big boss and say, Look, I want to change this and they’d say to you, well, don’t make that team upset. Remember about this, and you ended up feeling like I’ve got to navigate through all of this really, really, really carefully, and in a very cautious way. And which sort of back to the Mandela quote is fear, isn’t it really, that’s what they’re doing. They’re instilling fear into you that you can change lots of things, but you sort of really can’t. And that’s why I think ubloquity is such a really interesting business, an interesting time entering an interesting field. And it’s why I’m so excited about joining.
Dom Burch 05:26
You started out in life as a store manager in Tesco. And you spotted that you could do things differently back then. And you had the courage I guess, to write to the head of compliance to the head office and say, Look, I think there’s a better way of doing this is a better way to explain what it is we’re trying to achieve. And then fast forward through Asda and then assignments in Walmart, over in the US, and in China. Each of those sort of pivots in your career, I guess you’ve had the wherewithal to spot there’s a better way to do something, you know in the kind of customer’s interest in making things better in the world rather than just, you know, here’s a new process or technology for the sake of technology is that as you look back, is that how you reflect that, you know, that’s what’s happened throughout your career.
Rob Chester 06:11
It was drilled into me as a very young store manager in Blackpool. And I walked into my office one day, and Philip Clarke was sat at the desk, he ended up as the CEO later, it was a strange day because I had been on the early shift, I arrived at six and Gosh, what’s this guy doing in my office, but on the way into the store that morning, I’d run into a lady who’d forgotten her wallet in the petrol station, I was filling up my car with petrol walks into the petrol station, this poor lady was loud, gosh, I filled my tank, but I forgot my wallet. So I stepped in as this new bold store manager, don’t worry, don’t worry, please put 20 pounds of petrol in your car, no fear, just just pop the 20 pound back later. Walked into my office then into the store. And there was Philip. And he said to me, and he said to me, so what have you done so far for the customer today? And it was like, this is like 6am in the morning. And I thought to myself, God, I can’t believe I’ve got this brilliant story to tell this to tell the, you know, future CEO of Tesco. And then he just said to me, why don’t you tell her to fill the tank and completely burst my bubble. And he then just went on to say, look, Rob, you had the chance there to build like lifetime loyalty with the customer. So from the very earliest point of my retail career, you’re really taught you want to go the extra mile, you want to innovate, you want to do different things, you want to take a risk. And although that was in a very big business, you know, it really did show me there was a different way. And yeah, through my career, if I’ve sort of lived by asking myself that one question of what’s the best way to do what I’m doing? That is why I fear that the whole compliance industry is going to really struggle to cope with this digital innovation that’s coming. Because it really starts out with the fact Well, we do audits, and therefore the way that we are, we’re going to do things, is we’re going to shoehorn it into an audit. You know, we, we right, we now care about food fraud, let’s let’s have it, let’s add it into the audit, let’s ask a question about food fraud in an audit, not standing back and thinking? Well, if you didn’t come at it from the audit angle, and you came at it from what’s the best way to manage this issue angle, you come at it from a very, very different point of view, and you’d start looking at innovative tools that are out there, that can maybe do a much, much better job than, than what’s actually there and right in front of you. And what that does is drive you to looking at innovative tools, innovative technologies. And if you can do that really quite well and efficiently and show that actually, it’s a better way of managing the issue that you’re managing. I think it just gets you to a much, much, much better place. But you’ve got to be brave. You know, if you if you plan it based on not upsetting those people who were maybe currently doing those audits, then you’re going to shy away from difficult decisions, I think.
Dom Burch 09:00
And in a previous podcast, we had the pleasure of talking to Frank Dunsmuir, from Fujitsu. And his approach was really to look at what is the solution that would be most elegant. And then how do we get there, rather than what do we currently do? And how do we make it better?
Rob Chester 09:15
Yes, I think Frank is absolutely right on the money with that. It’s that. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last nine months, just literally reading through audit standards and other aspects of compliance. And just truly asking myself, what’s the best way of managing that issue, what’s the best way not what is there today? What’s the best way of doing it? And that’s what leads you to a lot of aspects and technology like blockchain, because the fundamentals of why did a blockchain exist? What does he do? It’s basically Dom. It’s about building trust. Really. I remember an old commercial director from Asda, Darren Blackhurst. He was always talking about the middlemen. He was always talking about you know, the main people here are the people that produce products, we sell products and everybody else that’s in the middle of all of this are all taking their slice of the pie and all taking their bit of margin, which basically affects both ends of the chain. So really look at that, you know, if you’re, if you’re Western Union sending money around the world, if I want to send 100 pounds to Zambia, someone there, by the time it gets there, it’s 94/93 pounds, whatever it is, why is that? Fundamentally a big percentage of that number will be the middlemen that you’re relying on. And what blockchain has got the ability to do is remove a whole load of those middlemen. And that for me, therefore, is why it’s going to be a brilliant part of the future. Because what it does is enable trust to be built and really get at, actually, what do we really care about here to really manage and monitor these things, it builds trust, and what that will do, I think, for the future will make a massive, massive difference to the traditional approaches that it can and will replace.
Dom Burch 11:04
So help bring this to life for me then, and you know, there’ll be examples, whether they’re in food provenance, or whether they’re in, you know, smart borders that we’ve we’ve spoken about previously, but just bring it to life for people. Because I guess the blockchain can be one of those amorphous things, it’s quite hard to put your finger on what is it? You know, I understand it’s not just somebody’s database in one computer. And, you know, we’ve had all of the fraudulent issues around VW or whoever marking their own homework. So there’s a sense that the data is, you know, held across multiple places, which means it’s updated together at once, and everyone can see who’s part of it can see when something’s changed, but bring it to life for us. You know, let’s take a use case, like I don’t know, I’m producing a product from the moment I’ve got it in my shop, or my warehouse, or I put it in my trolley. As you go back to the point of creation. There are big black holes, aren’t there in that visibility, of being able to see exactly what happened? How does blockchain change that? What difference does it make?
Rob Chester 12:05
I’d give a example of my wife, Caroline, you know that she, when she orders something on the internet, one of the things she does is she looks at who’s actually going to be the delivery provider. Because you’ve got all ends of the scale there, you’ve got people that give full transparency of your delivery from the minute you place your order, you basically know where your package is, you know where it’s coming through the chain, you can see it visibly see it. And that I believe that radical transparency is what is going to come to issues like the food chain. And because that’s what consumers are going to expect in the future. They’re going to expect that it’s not just I trust you to tell me that all aspects have been controlled through that supply chain, it’s that I want to see it. And I believe that radical transparency that’s heading towards us is going to be one of the key themes of the future. It’s going to be one of the things that really stands out as to what consumers are going to expect. And if you therefore think of blockchain as an immutable, secure way of storing information, and conducting business, without the need for third parties, who were often very expensive. I think what you’re onto is where blockchain can start to make a difference to all of those supply chains, where those middlemen exist. And that that could be like, you know, a herb and spice that gets produced in India. And then blockchain could be the way that that gets held together. So that transparency can be given to consumers. Or it could be an aspect of animal traceability of being able to do that, in relation to it to a cow, where if you apply an ear tag as the cow is born, and you can then interact with that ear tag around all the different interventions, so vet interventions, feed interventions, et cetera, et cetera, what you’re really doing is enabling that transparency to the consumer to happen. Areas like beef, for example, which have become the lightning rod to consumers of the climate and environment challenge that the world now faces. For my money, beef farmers have got to tackle that, by that radical transparency, by that being able to show that actually not all beef is produced the same, not all beef is produced with with cattle feed that’s got soy in it that’s destroying the rain forest. There are genuinely different areas and different types of ways that you can produce products today, some of which are very environment, climate friendly and some which are not. And if you believe you’re one of the guys that does it in a good way. Well, the only real way you’re going to be able to do that in the future is to prove that to the consumers. And that’s what I think blockchain is an enabler for that transparency that’s coming down the line. I think it’s scary for a lot of those traditional industries that are looking at this and thinking Gosh, I’m one of those middlemen, you know, what’s this going to mean for me? But I think, frankly, the progress is going to be inevitable, Dom, I think the genies out of the bottle. And I don’t think it’s I don’t think there’s any putting it back in.
Dom Burch 15:12
We’re living in a world now, where ESG reports environmental, social and governance reports are becoming an absolute key requirement. If you’re a publicly listed company, or even if you’re just a large organisation privately held, you know, increasingly shareholders, consumers, pressure groups, you know, NGOs are saying, Let us see your environmental, social and governance strategy, let us see the report, let us put to the test, then the claims that you’re making. And the idea that you can just kind of greenwash these things with a sort of, you know, an air of we are carbon neutral, those days are going aren’t they where you’re going to actually have to be able to say, well show me your production then and show me to what point you can go back and measure every single input and output? And where are the bits that are missing? before you’re able to make that claim?
Rob Chester 16:00
If you care about these aspects, what is the best way of managing and monitoring them? And again, if you ask that question, you get yourself to a very different place than you would do otherwise. For example, just a food safety outbreak was the first question a journalist ask is, well, do you not audit these things, as if you know, a once or twice a year audit is going to necessarily prevent all the issues that are there, and I don’t I don’t denigrate audits, audits are a key part of how compliance in the future will operate. They absolutely are. The point I make is that they’ve been extended so far, that actually they’re now controlling risks, where there are better tools available today, to monitor those. And your environment, if you think about it, I dunno, if you think about the environment and climate impacts of a farm. Well, there’s no way in the world you choose an audit, just to monitor those aspects where you’d send someone maybe once a year or twice a year, to get information. What you would want ideally is real time information that is being produced that’s coming from that facility. And the data flowing on an ongoing basis. And blockchain, enabling that trust to be there that says, This isn’t just data that someone has produced, it’s verified data, and then potentially follow up with with audits, potentially introduce other aspects like cameras and sensors, but basically find the best way of monitoring the aspect that you really care about. And you want to control because if you don’t do that, I fear you, you could become the lightning rod for those consumers that are going to expect, frankly, that if you’re making these claims, that you can back them up not maybe because you’ve sent an auditor once a year, but actually because you’ve got a real time way of being able to update them and show them what you’re doing.
Dom Burch 17:53
If you’re an organisation, you want to be in the pack, right And increasingly, approaching data and hoovering it up in such a way that it then is locked into a blockchain it’s verifiable. As you say, it’s immutable. Once it’s in there, you can’t change it, you can add another block to the end to say, some of the information that went in was incorrect, or we’ve now established that this thing is changed, or whatever it is. And I guess you’re triangulating aren’t you? Every opportunity saying whatever data exists already, what can we feed into this? Where’s the API that can drag that in there, too? What are we already measuring? So I’m imagining in, you know, people listening to this are going… Right. Okay, so I’ve got lots of different pockets of data that sit in different systems, they might even be owned by different parts of the supply chain, how do we plug all of those things in and Hoover them up? And then once we’ve got them, then that really enables you to go right? How do we use that insight and take action from it? But also, let’s go back one further stage. Okay, what can we learn now? What would we have to change and do differently in order to be able to gather reliable, regular data points, which then just… so I’m sort of imagining, you know, this is this is sense blockchain, you don’t necessarily build from the start always and get to the end result, you might start in the middle, and build out in both directions. And those things can be incremental over time.
Rob Chester 19:12
As a compliance officer previously, you know, the way that I would have tackled most risk was to work back from the primary supplier. So if my primary supplier is supplying me with the goods, obviously, that’s where you’ve got the most control, it’s where you’ve got the most influence and where you’ve got the most power. But the problem is, it’s at that end of the chain where most of the risk doesn’t exist. Most of the risk is at the other end of the chain, which is a long, long, long way from where those retailers have control and where they even have relationships with people. And that was one of the things back to my conversation with Kieran back in 2018. He was coming at it from the very opposite end, he was coming at it from: Well, we’re tagging calves at birth. That’s what we’re doing. We’re coming at it from the other end of the chain. And of course, that, in essence was genius, very counterintuitive, very different to the way most of the supply chain, certainly different to the way I’d been taught around managing supply chains. But I think the key differences that blockchain enables you to do that, if you want to start at the end of the chain, yeah, it can cope with that. If you want to start with the middle, yeah, it can cope with that. All you’re doing over time really is building more and more confidence that enables that trust to be to be happening. Dom, we’ve got a deficit of trust in the world at the moment. I think is increasingly getting worse. And that’s one of the other reasons why I love the concept of blockchain, because it was about this thing of building trust. It won’t happen overnight. And it’s certainly not the only tool in the toolbox. And it is certainly not right to fix every problem. But but it will have a transformative effect on supply chains of the future. It just will.
Dom Burch 20:53
And as you look ahead, then because, you know, it’s such an exciting time, isn’t it to be involved in a business, like ubloquity, and just to see the advancements, but also to see the penny drop in conversations when you’re talking to, you know, logistics providers or manufacturers? You know, there’s so many different use cases, what what is it you’re looking forward to getting your teeth into over the coming months now that you’re sort of, you know, back in the saddle as it were having had time to reflect and think and absorb, what is it you’re you’re really looking forward to now?
Rob Chester 21:22
One of the great things about doing a start-up is that ability to be working with people where you can really engender a very different culture. You know, all organisations have them (culture), don’t they Dom? But really it’s only within start-up businesses that you get a real chance to build that from scratch, to make it truly truly a sort of great place to work that embodies all the good bits about where I’ve been previously and bits of culture that I want to bring from previous organisations, but try and improve on it, you know, really make it a brilliant organisation that’s ready to cope for the future. And but secondly yeah, it is that ability to bring new thinking, to try and solve some of the gooiest, stickiest problems that are out there. But aligned with where consumers and where businesses have got to head to. Because that trust is going to be the enabler, it’s going to be the building block, isn’t it, of all these relationships going forward? And that’s fundamentally why blockchains are going to do really well. But the other aspect is customers, I was brought being addicted to listening to customers, and blockchain is interesting in that often that you’ve got to lead customers a little because some have had maybe some experience and maybe read a book, maybe read something about Bitcoin. So some of it is about genuinely getting into conversations about what preconceptions people are bringing into this. And but others are just about listening to where they can see the world is going to go on what their customers are telling them. And well, I’m just addicted to that Dom I think there’s there’s so many businesses have forgotten the customer. And it’s got to be at the heart of everything you do.
Dom Burch 23:04
And that translation point is key, isn’t it Rob, because you know, whether you’re a retailer with products with a price and quality and all the rest of it, you need to be able to translate stuff that’s quite conceptual into terms and things that are meaningful for the end user. And part of I guess the job of leading an organisation like ubloquity, is to demystify the technology almost to say, Look, don’t worry about the blockchain. This is how it works. This is an example of it in practice, and look at the benefits that are manifesting already. Just imagine the future and painting that picture of because the future is going to look, I mean, it’s an old trite phrase, but the future is gonna look very different, isn’t it even in the next 12 to 24 months in terms of how goods flow, how we’re able to validate whether or not something really is what is inside the tin. And, and it’s not just in the sectors we’re operating in blockchain is going to fundamentally shift many, many different parts of the world we live in.
Rob Chester 23:59
It is one of the reasons why people have struggled to get their head around blockchain is you can’t really see it Dom. You know, I’ve always believed that if people can see and touch something, they get much, much, much more excited about it. Whereas blockchain is by its nature, you know, it’s a technology it is hard for you to get your head around, why the role it plays, and what it does. But that’s the brilliant thing about where ubloquity currently is, because we are we are testing this now in real world examples. We’re tackling real world issues, whether that’s border technology, whether that’s in cattle, whether that’s in spices, you know, these are going to be real tangible things that we’re going to be able to talk people through as to the difference that blockchain is going to make to those those supply chains, those ways that goods are moving, etc, etc. It’s going to be transformative. I think that it is part of the challenge is people just being able to see something and touch something and feel something. Everybody knows the power of the iPhone, you’ve got it in your hand, you can touch it, you can feel it, you can download the app, you can interact with it really, really, really well. Whereas blockchain is just, it’s just more conceptual for people, that the way that people will start to understand that is when they start to see a difference that it’s making, and particularly if it starts to have significant impact in reducing cost in supply chains, because that, again, is what people want, isn’t it? They’ll want the benefit, the financial benefit of these changes that are getting introduced? And back to all those middlemen that that Darren talked about all those years ago, they’ve all got their slice of the pie. And if blockchain can be removing some of that, it’s going to make a big financial difference to people in the pocket. And that’s when it will start to be really believable, tangible, and understandable.
Dom Burch 25:47
Brilliant. Well, listen, Rob, it’s been great catching up with you. It’s been brilliant hearing your perspective, and I can hear the excitement in your voice. It comes through the airwaves. I’m sure we’re going to have to keep on having these conversations, because the pace of change is just so quick, isn’t it that who knows where we’ll be even a month from now. But Rob Chester, the new chief exec of ubloquity. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Rob Chester 26:07
Thanks for having me Dom.