With more than 20 years of experience in information technology leadership in the retail, food service, and hospitality sectors, Adrian Butler assumed the new role at Casey’s General Stores, Inc. in June of 2020 to lead all information technology strategy, innovation, modernization across the organization. Adrian’s career path has spanned from serving in the Air Force to leading a startup as CTO. Adrian believes that his childhood passions and dreams helped guide his way to technology careers. He strives to lead by example and attributes his success to mentors, and his family.
You recently moved to Iowa. How has your experience been so far?
I’ve been impressed with the welcome that my family and I have received since we’ve been here in Iowa, and I tell people Iowans are so nice. The welcome we received has warmed my heart as a parent and a spouse, particularly since we moved from across the country; that’s important to me, so I certainly appreciate that. I have certainly been welcomed here at Casey’s as well, and as I think about the Casey’s story and the communities we serve, I just get inspired and excited about where we are.
I couldn’t be happier to be here. I’m glad to be part of this community. I look forward to continuing to engage with my colleagues and peers across various industries as I come up to speed and get to know Des Moines better.
Your background spans from being a United States Air Force captain to serving as CIO for several companies. Can you walk us through your career history and what eventually led you to your current role at Casey’s?
I always like starting my career story off from the beginning, when I was a kid growing up on a farm in Louisiana. I always liked technology, and I realized I wanted to go into the career field. And I didn’t know exactly what a career would look like at the time; I just thought it was interesting. And so, as a young child, probably 12 years old, I remember writing a set of goals for myself. Part of those goals were around all the things you would expect; what I wanted to be when I grew up, what I wanted a career to look like, when I wanted to get married, how many kids I wanted to have, those kinds of things.
Early on, I convinced my parents to buy me a Commodore VIC-20 computer. I started learning programming basics and took some of those classes in high school. As a 12-year-old, I made a list of goals, and one of the things I listed was that I wanted to join the US Air Force. Growing up, I saw Air Force recruiting commercials, and they spoke to me. I recall thinking how exciting it would be to be part of the Air Force as I thought it was very technological.
As I got older and thought about colleges and what I wanted to major in, I decided to attend Grambling State University and major in computer science. It just so happened that my college campus had an Air Force ROTC unit, and I decided to join. I served on active duty for about six years. It was one of the most impactful decisions I have made in my life. I learned what it means to be a leader, to show up well every day, and the importance of service for a cause bigger than one’s self. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the USAF and will always attribute it to setting me on my current course.
The next phase of my journey as I left the military, I always think about that as my phase of transition. I took a role in the financial services and insurance industry. I was learning, and I had a question for myself back then about how the things I’ve learned in the military, do they transcend, and do they apply outside the military? I learned that treating people well is essential regardless of what the construct may be. I learned that leadership is leadership, and if you are a leader and you understand the value of that in the lives of teams, in the role you play in helping to support others as a leader, I think that transcends place or industry or role.
The next role for me was my first officer opportunity as Vice President at an international hotel company called Accor Hotels, and being able to interact and spend lots of time with colleagues around the world, working to solve broad-based problems from a technology perspective, getting the opportunity to be exposed to boards and create vision, strategy, and transform underperforming teams and deliver results was an essential part of my success there.
One of my favorite quips is that most IT people believe they can solve the world’s problems through a start-up. After my time at Accor, I spent some time at a startup as Chief Technology Officer/Chief Information Officer in the educational services space. One of my passions outside of work is around access to education. Education has certainly been a key component for me in my career journey. It has enabled me to learn new things, pursue new opportunities, and position me for what I’ve been able to accomplish up to this particular point.
Next, I moved to Target in Minneapolis and spent about four to five years there. And I’d say that decision to move to Target was all about scale and how we apply things we’ve learned up to this point in a very large matrix, very complex organization. I wanted to prove to myself that I can be successful in an environment like that. Target at the time had roughly 10,000 IT resources between the team, consultants, and contractors. I learned a lot during my time there. I was fortunate to start there as the director and got promoted a couple of times. Ultimately I left the organization as a VP in their technology area.
Following Target, I went to work at Dine Brands. Applebee’s and IHOP restaurants are their two underlying brands. This notion of real-time feedback from guests was pretty powerful, and I think it’s been one of the things that I’ve enjoyed about my time in hospitality, my time in restaurants, and my time in retail.
And now, I’m with Casey’s. From a company perspective, I think Casey’s is one of the best-kept secrets in the country. I’m here to help drive Casey’s technology capabilities forward, but more importantly, toward what is the impact to our guests and how does it impact what they are believing and make decisions around the many choices that they have when it comes to retail, food, et cetera.
How has being a leader evolved for you with respect to the service industries you’ve worked in?
It started with growing up on a farm, which was impactful to me. There’s a value system that you develop because of that experience, and for me, that value system was around honesty. And the words I’d use today would be honesty, transparency—persistence, living up to your commitments, and supporting others.
I also think so highly of people who decide to serve their country. That’s a selfless act in and of itself to me. This notion of service is built into how I think, how I grew up, and certainly through my experience in the military.
What does a day in the life look like for the CIO of Casey’s?
The role of the CIO has changed over the past several years. Gone are the days where we are focused on systems or technology availability. We are key parts of running our businesses and are expected to deliver business value.
There’s so much variability to this role, which is what makes it exciting to me. Every day is different, and when I come into work, I have a general sense of what’s happening in the day, but ultimately every single day, I come in with the goal of, “I want to make an impact and learn new things today.” How do I learn something new every day, be exposed to something different, and hopefully help others learn something new that positive impacts Casey’s?
Every single day, I want my team to bring their big hearts and their brains to work. I don’t want them to leave those things checked at the door, and so I want them to bring their total selves to their experience at Casey’s. And by doing that, that gives them permission to provide thought-leadership, to question things that others may not. And as much as we invite that and encourage that, it puts us in a great situation to bring the best ideas forward that will have the biggest positive impact for our guests and each other.
How have you seen diversity transform throughout your journey?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work for companies who have leaned in to and understand the value of diverse voices and diverse thinking and diverse experiences. This remains very important as having a workforce that looks like and represents the communities they serve is essential. From a leadership perspective, our role is to ensure that we’re building teams representing the places we want to serve.
What are some tried and true IT processes and procedures that you feel are translatable to all companies you have worked on?
The biggest one is making sure that IT is not an island. I’ve worked hard to ensure that IT was considered to be part of the whole. It’s not an appendage. IT is part of the business. It’s integrated into decision-making, and that we are part and parcel of helping to drive differentiation and value creation for our shareholders and our team members.
How do you encourage innovation, idea sharing? How do you inspire your team at Casey’s?
One of my favorite sayings is that no one wakes up every day to come to work to change. A leader has to help paint a picture of what that looks like and drive innovation.
A leader creates an environment where ideas are welcomed, recognized, and rewarded, where they can thrive, and where they can see them evolve. By encouraging team members to do that, you give them the platform to generate innovation (processes, technology, etc.), be recognized and valued. I’ve seen teams begin to generate and self-support their ideas and, through that, create impactful ways to improve guest and team member experiences through their ideas.
How do you share your time and talents outside of Casey’s and your professional career?
My area of focus outside of work centers around education, access to education, and making sure that people have access to mentors and those who they can look to and say, “Here’s a person who may look like me or who may have similar experiences to me, if they can do it, so can I.
In each of the communities I’ve been fortunate to live in, I focused on providing education for underserved communities and ensuring that members of those communities had access to educational opportunities. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to sit on a handful of boards for universities around the country. I sit on the board of my alma mater, Grambling State University in Louisiana, and Capella University in Minneapolis. While in Los Angeles, I also served on the board of advisors for the Collins College and the School of Hospitality California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Tell us about any mentors you may have had or still have and how they’ve influenced you.
My parents taught me the value of hard work and commitment, and I grew up in a large family, so I had siblings who were also growing up in that environment who were all supportive.
I’ve also been married 21 years now and certainly have a wife and a partner who has been part of my journey and who is a sounding board for me, and I rely on her as we make decisions together around what’s next in my career. She’s been the person who has undoubtedly been instrumental and that I trust and look to for advice and perspective.
And I would say career-wise, there are a handful of people I often point to that have been vital to me in my journey. My first leader in the Air Force, his name was Robert Kremer, and he was a silent leader, but he led by example. He led by demonstrating, above all else, a high degree of integrity. He had a gravitas to him and just a presence, and that was all built around people trusting him and being able to rely on him.
The next person I’d call out was my first boss at Target, Jeff Mader, who understood how to drive value. He understood that the value of any person was their ability to tap into that special thing about them. He was someone who also modeled behavior, had a high degree of integrity, someone that I could look up to and say, “That’s a person that I respect tremendously.”
What advice would you give to a young person considering a tech career or aspiring to work in tech or a business or a leadership role? What would you say to them?
There are so many opportunities to make an impact in the world and people’s lives. And many of those existed before, but I don’t think at the scale that they do today.
Certainly, technology has played a major role in being able to expand the opportunities that are available to people today.
First and foremost, I always ask, “What are you passionate about? What do you care about? What gets you excited? What gets you stoked? What gets you fired up?” I ask these questions because the most meaningful path will combine the things that you are excited about with the vocation you would like to pursue.
Lean into that thing, tap into that energy, and understand the thing that you’re passionate about and work to pursue that and find something that aligns so that that you can pursue as a career.
The next piece of advice to remember is that leaders lead. When times are great, leaders are out front cheerleading their team and supporting them. But when times are not as good, leaders are out helping to understand how we go from where we are to where we need to be. And remember, a leader doesn’t have a formal title. All of us can be leaders, regardless of our role.
And ultimately, it takes a village. None of us get to where we are by ourselves. This notion of community is important. There’s an African proverb that says, “If we want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you go together.”
Why is it important to have people of different backgrounds in technology?
The wonderful thing about what we do is that there are many different paths all of us have taken to get to where we are. It takes people who’ve come from many different experiences to be successful. So different backgrounds could be, “‘I’ve worked at big companies, but I’ve never worked at mid-sized companies. I’ve worked in small companies, and I’ve worked at startups. I’ve worked in these types of jobs, but I’ve not worked in these types of jobs.”
So when you bring all those things together, better ideas come. And so if you open yourself up to the possibilities to walk a day in another person’s shoes and respect and value their perspective and their opinion, I think you as an individual grow. I certainly grow when I spend time with my peers and their teams and my teams; I learn from gleaning insights from the experiences they have had.
The more you can bring people into an environment where you create this notion of togetherness. It allows an organization to create better ideas. That’s why I think it’s really important.
How have you seen technology evolve, and specifically, as you look to the future, how do you see it evolving specifically in Iowa?
I think technology has certainly evolved because the power of choice and decision-making around it is inherently in the hand of the guest or the consumer in our context. And so we have to figure out how to make sure that we are showing up well, that we are part of their consideration set, and that we are providing options that they need when they need those things.
I would also say that how people think about experience has changed. What an experience looks like when you want to go out to dinner or what an experience looks like when you want to go to the movies, or when you want to go on vacation. Prior to that, a lot of that decision-making was not digitized. Now, we can get deeper into the experience around what it would be like to go into these restaurants and what that food looks like and how that food is prepared, et cetera. And so I think there’s a lot of evolution in technology to enhance the experience.
I got an opportunity to sit on a panel for TAI’s 2020 Iowa Technology Summit and listen to how Iowa leaders drive more diverse conversations across the state. Part and parcel of my job at Casey’s and other technology leaders in Iowa is how do we grow skills and talent in our community to tap into and not necessarily have to recruit talent extensively outside of our community. This will allow us to further grow Des Moines as a technology center for the Midwest.