A Voice at the Table

Today's IT leaders are business leaders, too, and can articulate their vision in the boardroom

Jeff Orton had been an IT firefighter, installing and troubleshooting corporate systems for 16 years, when senior management at Wilsons The Leather Experts Inc. invited him into a different world.

As director of strategic analysis for nine months in 1997, Orton turned his attention to how the Brooklyn Park, Minn.-based leather apparel retailer could increase sales of accessories, open more and different types of stores and strengthen the Wilsons brand to sell products at higher margins.

Sound like your average IT job? Maybe not average, but Orton’s role at Wilsons is becoming increasingly typical of those held by today’s top IT leaders. These IT professionals are not only finding a seat in the boardroom, but they’re also driving the corporate conversation with passion and discipline. When explaining a network upgrade, they skip the acronyms and talk about cutting lines at cash registers. They tell business managers that a flashy new sales reporting system must take a back seat to the back-office updates needed to keep gas pumping at the company’s convenience stores. They deliver projects on time and on budget and use that credibility to fight for their fair share of corporate money and staff.

From Firefighter to Strategist

“Three years ago, a lot of my days . . . would have been dictated by the fires of the moment,” keeping critical IT systems running during peak sales periods, says Orton. “At some point, I discovered I didn’t want to \do that\.” By contrast, Orton says, he recently spent a lot of time finalizing the business strategy with the managers of the company’s mall-based and outlet stores, suggesting ways IT can help them achieve their goals or warning them about where technology might cost more or take longer to implement than they expect.

Dave Rogers, Wilsons president and chief operating officer, says Orton landed that particular job because in his previous role as director of merchandising systems “[he] was willing to look at the big picture. He was able to assess our processes. He was able to give us some insights into our people needs and requirements,” rather than throw a technical fix at a nontechnical problem. It’s a role Orton continues to fill as CIO and vice president of logistics.

An early example of Orton’s big-picture view was the upgrade of the company’s point-of-sale (POS) systems, which was completed last year as part of an overall networking of the company’s 550 stores. The project was spurred by complaints that the systems were hard to adapt to Wilsons’ reporting requirements as a newly public company and too difficult to use for a high-turnover retail workforce. Rather than merely fix what was broken, Orton asked Wilsons’ vice president in charge of the stores which POS features could actually help the business.

With the network, employees now use the POS systems to access the Lawson Software human resources system, which is managed from headquarters, and can dispatch administrative work without leaving their registers. The networked POS systems allow a cashier in one store to sell a customer a jacket in stock at another store and alert that store of the sale. It has also reduced lost sales during crush times by slicing credit card authorizations from 45 seconds to five. “We knew the technology existed,” says Orton, to make “what was an initially defensive move positive” for Wilsons.

“Even with networking, which is a bit esoteric, Jeff has an uncanny ability to . . . reduce it to terms the business head could understand,” says Rogers. “They typically look at a CIO as someone who’s out in the clouds and who’s putting in technology just because it happens to be in vogue.” When business managers know how IT investments help them, says Orton, if a problem crops up, “it doesn’t become adversarial.”

Orton also replaced his entire staff over the past two years with “the right people who could explain ‘no’ to the businesspeople” and commit only to what they knew they could deliver. “When it really works,” he says, “you don’t see all that much of a difference between a systems project and a business project, because [they] become one and the same.”

No More Moats Around IT

A year ago, the IT unit at The Rowe Cos. in McLean, Va., was a classic “24/7 data center, with the moat around it and the drawbridge,” says Vice President and CIO Suzanne P. Krupa. While technically competent, “the IT group sat back and reacted” to requests from other units rather than proactively looking for ways to help. And when a business unit refused to adopt a new system, the IT group “took that very personally rather than going out and trying to understand [why],” she says.

Today, “folks in my team know we don’t say, ‘[Users] are stupid, or they just don’t get it or they don’t want to do it,’ ” says Krupa. The burden is on IT to explain as often as needed the business reasons behind its decisions.

Krupa justified a mainframe tape backup system to the chief financial officer by explaining it would free up two hours of processing time each night for running reports on which the CFO depends. Every memo leaving IT must now include four or five bullet points explaining in simple terms “What this means to you,” with “you” meaning the business user, not the IT person.

Krupa created business unit advisers within IT whose sole job is to understand the needs of the businesses to which they are assigned and to be points of contact to IT. She then assigned herself to early efforts, such as an advanced planning and scheduling application for Rowe’s manufacturing operations. By involving manufacturing from the start and letting it manage the project, “it helped the business unit start to think . . . ‘Gee, we own this [application].’ This is not an IT initiative.’ ”

Krupa says she uses strict project tracking to help her fight for her fair share of staff time and other resources. Six weeks before the company was due to go live with Oracle Corp.’s sales compensation application, for example, Krupa warned that the project was running late—and could prove that the cause of the delay was that she hadn’t gotten promised help from sales and marketing. But she also warns her own staff against “unrealistic optimism” in promising when IT will deliver, reminding them that 20% to 30% of their average day is spent on unexpected problems. Having a voice at the table isn’t worth much if you can’t back up what you say.

Acting Like an Owner

Ask Pat Enright to name his dream job and the answer is simple: business owner.

What type of business, he doesn’t yet know, but he says he craves the gut excitement of building something he can call his own. Enright’s entrepreneurial flair “is definitely a good fit for our culture,” says Jeff Jones, executive vice president and CFO at Clark Retail Enterprises Inc. in Oak Brook, Ill. “[Enright] really has a passion to make sure we’re doing things on a cost-effective basis and things that will help the business improve.”

Enright, Clark’s director of corporate information systems, has had plenty of outlets for that passion since July 1999, when Apollo Management purchased what had been the retail arm of Clark Refining and Marketing Inc. Unlike the previous owners who were more focused on refining than retailing, Apollo was willing to invest in and grow the retail business. That meant replacing the stores’ hodgepodge of outdated systems. Since the stores no longer had a parent refining company, they needed new systems for buying gas and managing inventories.

Enright stayed focused on the most critical projects: managing fuel and creating an infrastructure for future growth. This included an enterprise resource planning system from Lawson Software as well as fuel management software. Enright had to say no, or “not now,” to other projects, such as upgrading POS systems and a new, faster sales reporting application.

“We just said, ‘That project’s on hold; that’s not the highest priority right now,’ ” Enright says. “We have to make sure the company is up and operating.” Those sometimes difficult discussions were eased because of the relationships he had formed over the previous five years working with non-IT departments within Clark. “I’d learned the business,” he says.

Scheier is a freelance writer in Boylston, Mass.

Jeff Orton

CIO and vice president of logistics, Wilsons The Leather Experts, Brooklyn Park, Minn.

Challenge: Diversify product mix and store formats to increase revenue and margins and reduce seasonal sale fluctuations.

Response: Used the replacement of POS systems as the springboard for a corporate network that has sped credit card authorization and given store staff more time and information to help customers.

Results: Since 1997, sales have grown 14% per year to $544 million in 1999 (estimated to have reached $630 million last year), and earnings per share are up 33% per year to $1.94 in 1999 (estimated to have reached $2.38 last year).


Pat Enright,

director of corporate information systems, Clark Retail Enterprises, Oak Brook, Ill.

Challenge: Implement systems to allow Clark to spin out of an integrated petroleum refining and marketing company to pursue aggressive growth as a stand-alone retail (convenience store) chain.

Response: Worked with senior business managers to identify and implement changes in key systems, such as those used to support gasoline sales.

Results: Since July 1999, Clark has grown from 700 to 1,000 stores and is expected to reach more than 1,500 by year's end. The privately held company says it had $1.8 billion in sales and was profitable in the past fiscal year.

Suzanne P. Krupa

vice president and CIO, The Rowe Cos., McLean, Va.

Challenge: Improve coordination between business units and the IT organization; implement an advanced planning and scheduling system to boost manufacturing efficiency.

Response: Created business unit advisers to serve as points of contact between business units and IT. Placed the burden on IT to communicate business benefits to management.

Results: Saving $140,000 per year by putting more voice traffic over existing data lines.


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