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    Peter High is the president of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of Implementing World Class IT Strategy and World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT. - See more at:

    Leading IT With Dealers and Customers in Mind

    By Peter High  |  Posted 12-01-2014 Print Email
     0  3 Google +0  0

    At Asbury Automotive, CIO Barry Cohen leads the IT organization with dealers and customers in mind, and is making IT a broader driver of value to the company.

    Barry Cohen

    Asbury Automotive is a $5.3 billion automotive retailer based in Duluth, Ga. For years, the more than a 90 dealerships that make up the company had very little interaction with IT. Part of the issue was that corporate IT was a relatively immature function at the company.

    Prior to his ascension to the CIO role, Barry Cohen worked to virtualize almost all of IT, rendering it more flexible and more agile. Freeing up talented people and resources, he was able to put IT people in the regions and, in many cases, in the dealerships themselves. That exposed tech workers where and how business was done, enabling them to glean insights from both dealers and customers.

    Now as CIO, Cohen has continued to lead with dealers and customers in mind, and has worked to make IT a much broader driver of value to the enterprise.

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    CIO Insight: You work for a $5 billion automotive sales company. How do you use information and technology within your operation?

    Barry Cohen: Technology is used in all aspect of our automotive operations, including dealership Websites, automotive ERP and CRM systems, business analytics, credit card processing, and another hundred or so applications focused on our employees, vendors and customers. There is a tremendous amount of application integration that takes place to make it all work—not to mention a robust infrastructure to support our 7,800 employees.

    CIO Insight: Barry, prior to your time as CIO, you worked to introduce cloud computing to Asbury Automotive. What steps did you undertake in order to do that?

    Cohen: I’m very happy to say that we have been data center free for nearly two years. We are 100 percent in public and private clouds, with partners that manage all aspects of their data center operations. The reason for doing that was because I wanted IT to spend most of our time with the rest of the business, and not worrying about technology refresh projects, patching and backups. 

    Getting there wasn’t too difficult, but it did take three years. We started by creating an application inventory and an integration architecture. This enabled us to move everything one piece a time without much disruption.

    CIO Insight: IT did not have the best reputation when you started with Asbury. How did you change that?

    Cohen: When I started, I heard very typical conversations regarding an immature IT department. We were slow to deliver on projects, operational execution was poor, the infrastructure was weak, and we were not doing very well with project management. There was no alignment between IT and the rest of the business.

    To bring about change, we took a hard look at what we were doing. We made a list of our core competencies and started down the path to outsource activities that we were not good at. For example, we no longer do software development.

    We also moved operational reporting and business intelligence outside of IT. We still manage the data, and the rest of the business builds the reports they need. By focusing on our strengths, we are seen differently and now viewed as a trusted partner.

    CIO Insight: Your dealerships did not have a direct connection to IT until you established an IT role in the dealerships. Please describe the technician role, and the value it has brought to both IT and the dealerships.

    Cohen: We used to have call center technicians for phone support and a few technicians in the field, which left many stores without coverage. I combined the role into one position and relocated them to the stores.

    Each Tier 1 Technician now has between three and six stores, depending on geography. They spend some time on the phones during their day, but they are also responsible for walking their stores, building relationships and being proactive. The stores love the attention, and our CSI scores prove it.

    CIO Insight: You also spend a good amount of time at the dealerships. What information do you glean during these visits?

    I learn something new every time I travel. I look for unfulfilled technology needs and inefficient processes. I try to meet as many people as possible, and I watch how the stores interact with our customers. When I return from the trip, I usually have a few pages of notes that I put into action plans and make sure every issue gets addressed.

    CIO Insight: You leverage a broad array of external partnerships. How do you govern your partners to ensure that you are always getting the anticipated value from them?

    Cohen: We work with our external partners on a daily basis, since they have so much responsibility for our success. We share our technology road maps and strategies, and make sure they are aligned with us.

    We have also implemented an elaborate controls system that creates a system of checks and balances. I truly consider my external partners as part of the IT team.

    CIO Insight: What is on your road map for the year ahead?

    Cohen: I'm a big fan of continuous improvement, so we have a lot of plans to tweak our service desk, security and infrastructure.  We also have a number of initiatives regarding all aspects of dealership operations and improving the customer experience.

    Peter High is the president of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of Implementing World Class IT Strategy and World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT. 

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