published Friday, July 20th, 2012

Business Profile: Partha Mukherjee, Krystal tech guru talks data mining

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    Partha Mukherjee, vice president and chief information officer for the Krystal Co., sits in his office in downtown Chattanooga.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
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The life of a chief information officer doesn't seem too appealing at first glance.

Whiteboards with server infrastructure flowcharts dominate conference rooms. Code optimization meetings run straight into other meetings set aside for timelines.

The hours are long and most of the work is covered by various nondisclosure agreements.

But the mundane tasks help unlock a company's future. The brainstorming meetings generate the ideas needed to push the technological envelope. A groundbreaking idea can transform a person into an enduring geek icon.

Partha Mukherjee, newly appointed chief information officer of Chattanooga-based Krystal, relishes every moment of it.

"Being a CIO touches every facet of an organization," Mukherjee said. "It's a gardener concept -- you go to people and you water them."

Strangely for a guy who spends a lot of time talking about computers, he didn't always like PCs.

IBM Mainframes, which required users to share a single server by scheduling individual calculations, were common in his formative years. The personal computer was not so common.

The 49-year-old got his start in India, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.

At Mukherjee's first factory job assembling parts for Siemens, he realized that the life of an assembly line worker wasn't for him.

An extrovert, he wanted to talk to people, come up with solutions and push boundaries -- not put widgets together.

"It was too structured, you had to have your breakfast at 8 a.m. and be working by 8:30," he said.

A billboard caught his eye one day on the way to work: "We catch bright brains and set their minds on fire."

It was an ad for HCL, an early leader in technological outsourcing.

"I went in for interviews with 3,000 other people, and they offered me a job," Mukherjee said.

He left India in 1993 and worked his way up various corporate ladders, even setting up HCL operations in Dubai and the Sultanate of Oman.

After landing the top tech job with Church's Chicken, he was primed for the next big step: Krystal's head technology guru.

Krystal, the fiesty southern chain known for its small, square burgers, was acquired in March 2012 by Atlanta-based investment firm Argonne Capital Group. The next month, Argonne brought a handful of former Church's Chicken executives to run the show, including Mukherjee and CEO Doug Pendergast.

Krystal's customers are far more tech-savvy than those who favor Church's, he said, which opens up new doors for a guy interested in what comes next after next-gen.

"At Church's, I didn't have the same opportunity I have here," he said. "Krystal's customers are faster to embrace new technologies."

Now, he wants to position the entire fast-food industry — not just Krystal — at the top of the heap when it comes to connectivity. As chief information officer for one of Chattanooga's best-known brands, he's a trendsetter by default.

"In history, it was always banks and financial institutions who adopted technology first when they figured out it could make them money," Mukherjee said. "I think that's going to change. I think from now on you'll see restaurants, retailers and the hospitality industry taking the first steps."

Part of his role is to eye new initiatives like a Krystal mobile app and new social networking initiatives to track customer sentiment through the Internet.

"The exciting part over here has to do with handhelds, and how our new social media initiatives will connect directly with customers," Mukherjee said.

One of the first things he did was create a company page on Pinterest, a social-networking service that allows users to "pin" their favorite things to a virtual bulletin board for friends to see.

It's a cute tool with mouth-watering photos of burgers, but like most social networking efforts it's unclear if it generates any actual revenue for the company.

That's a common issue for companies rushing headlong into the 21st century.

Facebook and Twitter are great, but Mukherjee wonders how can they be used to add to Krystal's bottom line.

"When the Internet started becoming popular, people would build websites because everybody else was doing it," he said. "Now, they're doing the same thing with social media."

He hopes to take what has become a curiosity and use it to gather data from customers' dining experiences.

"A lot of people are using social media to float coupons, but data mining is the future," Mukherjee said.

He can use data to track complaints at a store, or to reward a particularly skilled manager. Engineers can analyze data to find a way to raise the average check at a Krystal from $5 to $6, for example.

"Whether a customer says we are good, bad or ugly, we value that feedback," Mukharjee said. "It adds tremendous value to the business."

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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