Plant Closings, Layoffs Means Heavy Lifting for IT Departments

Like a tank, the recession continues to roll right over companies. Take Fleetwood Enterprises. Vacation trailers and modular houses don't sell when people are out of work and struggling with upside-down mortgages. Even if someone wants to buy, banks have clamped down on credit, making loans scarce. Fleetwood's sales have plummeted 32 percent from a high of US$2.4 billion in 2006, and the company has lost $119 million along the way.

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So last summer, like many manufacturers, Fleetwood scaled back factory production. That wasn't enough, so Fleetwood is now going after big cuts. Before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month, the company had plans to close nine of its 27 factories in the United States and Mexico and lay off 760 of its 5,700 employees.

Across the nation, grim-faced executives are breaking similar news. Offices are being consolidated, plants shut, employees let go. Such maneuvers, of course, are intended to save money; Fleetwood expects to save $40 million per year. But achieving lasting results can take months of work performed largely by the IT staff--a behind-the-scenes scramble that is often underestimated by others inside and outside the company. It's not as if the press release and pink slips go out and savings pour in.

There are the obvious chores, such as blocking outgoing employees from corporate networks and redeploying computers. Often, when a facility is closing, IT has to set up new equipment at the remaining offices, such as a bigger data network to handle an increased volume of transactions that a now-closed location used to process, notes Steve Phillips, CIO of Avnet, an electronics distributor fighting to make $150 million in cuts.

But IT executives who made it through the last recession in the early 2000s say the current one's a doozy that brings new challenges.

Now smartphones and thumb drives are everywhere--hard to track and easily loaded with sensitive corporate data, says Mike Jackson, CIO at Rockwell Automation, which laid off 600 of its 21,600 employees in September and is cutting costs by $240 million. Another $50 million to $100 million in cuts are planned to begin in October.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (Sox), which didn't exist earlier, provides another new source of pain. At Fleetwood, for example, with other departments focused on consolidating workloads among remaining employees, IT must watch that new job descriptions and business processes don't violate Sox rules on segregation of duties, says Larry Smith, Fleetwood's vice president of IT. Yet Smith finds invigorating the challenges in downsizing projects where so much money is on the line. "This is where you prove you can really manage," he says.

Prove it, you must. The technology group must not become an obstacle to making real the millions in savings promised when companies close offices and lay off employees, says Anna Frazzetto, vice president of technology solutions at professional services firm Harvey Nash. "If CIOs don't step up, credibility diminishes," she says.

Smith and fellow IT leaders in hard-hit industries have a warning for their peers: Convey the scope of IT work involved in downsizing. More than ever, senior management is asking fewer people to do more. That includes the IT group itself, where budgets have been frozen or cut and layoffs have reduced the number of hands available for what Smith calls a "tidal wave of activity" unleashed by a companywide cost-cutting drive. (See "Make a Difference Before the Cuts Come.")

"You might have plant managers who make the hard decision and then are done with it emotionally and want to move on," he says. "The last thing I want to hear is 'We're done,' because we're not even started yet."

Pick Up PCs and Pull Wires

Although smart executives know that closing an office or factory isn't as simple as it sounds, only those who have done it know the complexity and nuance. CIOs should educate their CEOs and peers about what it's like on the ground.

With $3 billion in revenue, Arch Coal is one of the biggest coal mining companies in the United States, supplying the electricity industry with fuel to power the country. To concentrate on the most productive facilities, Arch is selling the rights to some mines or divesting them outright. The figure for Arch Coal's 2008 revenue in this paragraph was corrected on 4/1/09. View the correction.

In mid-2007, for example, Arch sold a mine in remote West Virginia to Alpha Natural Resources for $40 million. CIO Michael Abbene, sent someone from the desktop group along with three individuals from their local support contractor to West Virginia from Arch headquarters in St. Louis to disconnect Arch's server and 50 PCs from the corporate network. Of those machines, 19 moved with Arch employees to another site. The remaining 31 were handed over to the buyer as part of the deal.

First, all data on those 31 machines was moved to network shared drives prior to deletion and then backed up on a USB drive. With guidance from Arch's lawyers, certain geologic information was copied to another portable USB drive and given to Alpha. The team reset the administrator password on all PCs that stayed behind. Alpha had two or three people onsite at various times during the weekend to help. Arch also sent a person to the mine to review and pack up paper documents that were to remain with the company. While that handoff took two months, it can take longer. A 2005 deal to sell several subsidiaries that operated four mining complexes took seven months because the buyer had little technology of its own at the start. Arch agreed to provide IT services, such as site-to-site VPN capability, while the buyer set up its own systems, Abbene says. "They created a whole infrastructure that almost mirrored what we had."

When selling a facility, Abbene advises, the CIOs from each company should meet to go over the IT implications of the deal--from equipment and data disposition to deadlines--before anyone touches any systems. CIOs should then designate a project manager to orchestrate the work.

When Arch closes a mine, it generally puts together a team that may include local mine management, IT, human resources, accounting, legal, payroll land management, marketing and sales, operations or purchasing.

"Every situation is different. You must understand what the acquiring company wants to do," Abbene says. In a true closing of an office or factory, such as Fleetwood's factories in Willacoochee, Ga., IT has to disassemble the infrastructure. Dismantling systems entails more than flipping switches. In February, two of Smith's IT staff spent a week at the Georgia plants hoisting 100 computers into crates and boxes, ripping out wiring and crawling through ceilings and closets to gather up several routers and other pieces of networking equipment.

Smith tries to keep the dismantle team small, so as not to disrupt regular IT work at headquarters. If it's a big job that must be done unusually fast, he will sometimes hire a firm to help, especially when taking apart cabling, which is complicated and time consuming, he says. "There's a lot of just plain old physical work."

Before PCs and laptops are packed up, they are evaluated for reuse or recycling. If the machine has a new enough processer and can accommodate at least 2GB of RAM, Fleetwood will upgrade it--reimaging the machines with licensed software and redeploying them to employees in other facilities who had been using older systems. Shuttering a plant completely takes from 30 to 120 days, Smith says.

Sometimes, though, a closure isn't a closure. For example, a Fleetwood factory in Waco, Texas, has stopped making manufactured housing, but several service and sales personnel remain at the facility. Or a shutdown of a large plant may occur in waves, first cutting production to 50 percent, then 10 percent or less to use up remaining raw materials. Meanwhile, Smith's IT group has to know who's going away when, shut off access and maintain other systems. IT also has to figure out whether any networking equipment can be removed as excess and look at the network blueprint to see if firewalls need to be reconfigured now that fewer people are on the systems.

In other locations, assembly lines are stopped and those blue-collar workers let go. But administrative people have kept their jobs and been moved to another office. In that case, the data network servicing the remaining office may need a larger-capacity circuit to handle additional transactions generated by the people who transferred in.

"It may sound simple, but one major thing we struggle with, to get accurate information about, is what they are doing with a plant," Smith explains. "Skeleton crew? Close? Sell? If selling, what will be bought? Is there a service group or sales group still officing there?" He says he always has to ask several times, in different ways, "Define what you mean by 'close.'" Good information comes from good relationships. IT and project managers should talk to as many manufacturing colleagues as they can at least a few times per week to stay in sync with actual versus planned schedules, he says.

Let Employees Go--But Not Your Data

Technology now touches so many more areas than it did at the start of the decade that untangling and accounting for it all during downsizing--if not done methodically--overwhelms IT, says Jackson, Rockwell's CIO.

When making cuts, the most delicate work involves disconnecting laid-off coworkers. Their access to the company network as well as local applications must be blocked and their computing equipment collected, cleansed and redeployed. Not only are emotions high but so are legal implications. Unlike during the dotcom bust, smartphones and thumb drives are more prevalent. You can fit 32GB of data on a BlackBerry memory card. The devices can also be slipped easily into a pocket alongside one's personal items as a desk is packed up, putting proprietary information at risk. Get the mechanics of data and device reclamation wrong, and you open the company to legal problems.

Stephen Fox, an attorney at Fish & Richardson who specializes in labor and employment law, recently sued an executive who left his client's company for a similar position at a competitor. The client argued that this executive couldn't do his new job without using trade-secret information belonging to Fox's client. Although the executive wasn't laid off, what happened when HR and IT processed his departure serves as a warning to other companies, Fox says.

When the executive left, IT blocked his access to the corporate network but forgot to stop the e-mail program from forwarding his messages to his BlackBerry, which was his own personal device. He opened several of those e-mails, Fox says. Cutting off all access to company data must be swift and thorough, he says. Leaving accounts open or missing a step "makes you vulnerable if you ever have to prove in court that you truly do keep secrets that should be kept secret."

Rockwell has a strict policy about cell phones, says Jackson. He issues only BlackBerrys owned by the company and closely tracks who has one, he says. No corporate data is allowed on personal phones. As for portable drives, IT and the legal department do their best to educate employees on what's permissible to download, he says, but still, "it's virtually impossible to assure you have all that information." To address the roving thumb drive problem, HR stipulates in writing to departing employees that no corporate data may be removed from the company.

When Rockwell laid off about 600 people last fall, IT set up a command center to make sure nothing fell through the cracks. Human resources coordinated with IT to disable an outgoing employee's network access within moments of a manager delivering the bad news, Jackson says.

For each employee being let go, IT collated reports from its three asset management systems to be sure all company-owned cell phones, laptops and other devices were returned.

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