How a Tech Background Hones Business Sense
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At the end of the day, it's about information, automation and execution, whether plugging away in a data center or setting strategy and reaching goals in the C-suite.
Dan Fallon's journey from CIO to board member to president and COO has been an interesting one. Fallon, who now serves as the president and COO of GFMI Metalcrafters, credits his strong tech background for understanding how many moving parts work together (and very often, don’t). GFMI (Gaffoglio Family Metalcrafters Inc.) was founded in 1979. An Argentinian father and his sons brought to the U.S. their passion for crafting custom cars. The Metalcrafters division helps engineer and those who create custom vehicles for the auto, aero and rail industries primarily. These can be prototypes to full functioning vehicles, including driverless. The Aerospace division creates glass, carbon fiber and other composite parts for the aerospace, auto and rail industries. Additionally, the Camera Ready Parts division prepares cars for photo shoots and commercials, including logistics management.
After 22 years at Accenture, the CTO role at Navistar and CIO role at Rewards Network, among other IT leadership roles, Dan Fallon was looking for a change that would offer more operational experience. He was convinced to join GFMI Metalcrafters as president and COO in September of 2014. In this interview with CIO Insight contributor Peter High, he highlights the reason for this move.
CIO Insight: How did you become affiliated with it as President and COO?
Dan Fallon: I have known GFMI (Gaffoglio Family Metalcrafters Inc.) for more than 20 years. My father-in-law, Mike Alexander, had worked with the Gaffoglio family for many years. Mike and his brother, Larry, were the Alexander Brothers; ground-breaking, Detroit custom car guys from the late 1950s and Mike, later in his career, worked with GFMI on select projects. Mike's son, Mike Jr., wound up working at GFMI. In 2014, Mike asked if I'd consider joining the company to help significantly grow revenue. To run a company while growing it was where I wanted to be next. After 22 years at Accenture, and five years in IT leadership positions at a couple Fortune 500 companies, I wanted to get completely immersed in business operations. Running a smaller company seemed to be the ideal—yet humbling—way for me to do so. Wow, have I learned a lot and enjoyed it. And I'm very grateful for my IT background.
CIO Insight: In recent years, you had been CTO at Navistar and CIO at Rewards Network. What did your time as a technology executive do for you in preparing for your current role as COO?
Fallon: Like Finance and HR, IT gets to "see" a very broad swath of the business, yet I believe at an even deeper level. Successful IT leaders have to understand business execution (processes, schedules and results) and where information and automation can change and accelerate execution. OK, we've heard that before—and it's really hard, especially given ever-increasing competitive demands, legacy systems hangovers and the crazy challenges of changing tires on moving cars. So, as an IT guy—both ex-Accenture consultant and Fortune 500 executive—I got to see how all these moving parts work together—and very often, not. It's like a mosaic in which some elements of the picture are clear and others are really mottled. As a result, I have this deep, innate appreciation for integration. It's just a sense I have developed—where are the disconnects in data sharing, process performance and automated systems. So now, on yet another side of the table, COO, I can sense these disconnects; yet even more acutely because I am now directly responsible for getting it done. My time in IT helped me hone and deepen that sense which I think as a COO enables me to quickly zero in on those mottled mosaic pieces and more quickly figure out how to unblur them.
CIO Insight: What role does information technology play in your company?
Fallon: Essentially very similar to every company: IT is an increasingly important asset to be capitalized on—from data analytics to process automation to intra- and inter-company integration. More specifically for us, we are focused on driving faster access to information to speed and improve decision making. And, by the way, it really matters little at a high level whether we are talking about on-premise or cloud-based IT. At the end of the day, it's about information, automation and execution. Always has been.
CIO Insight: What are some other aspects of your company's strategy for 2016?
Fallon: We are a tale of two cities: we have a project-based business (Metalcrafters) in which we do large-scale projects for OEMs building concept, prototype and full functioning one-off vehicles. That work is craftsman in nature, i.e., our engineers work with our customers' designers and engineers in an iterative way to create something compelling, inspiring and unique—that appeals to emotions, conveys the future, yet most often needs to work too! That is the sensual part of the business. The other business (Aerospace) is more production-based, delivering products of high quality, on time. We want to further grow the production business to smooth out automotive industry cycles and build more of a recurring revenue stream. Getting our IT systems and processes to have that dual-personality drives me nuts. Yet, that is our business strategy. IT plays a big role in getting there.
CIO Insight: You have been an advisor or board member of a variety of companies. How did you get involved in such work, and what advice would you provide for others who would wish to follow in your footsteps?
Fallon: You gotta want to give. Don't do it for the resume or just the networking. Believe in the cause and the company, otherwise don't do it. I was on one board and I ran out of time and energy for it. I asked to be relieved. It was the right thing to do. Know, though, if you're in, it takes time. Be prepared to give it the time it deserves. If the founder or CEO is not really engaging the board, either try to coach and change that or move on. The reward is in helping to make a difference, be it non-profit or business, not being on a board. Now, how you get involved is being willing to engage, letting people know and being patient. The opportunities will come when there is an experience match. To me, sharing your experiences and the perspectives you gleaned from them feels good; and it is rewarding when you can see in small parts or perhaps large, where it makes some difference.
CIO Insight: What trends particularly excite you as you look to the future?
Fallon: OK, thinking very broadly. Are we going back to cottage industries? Are "long tails" more accessible and viable? I find it really interesting how technology (apps, GPS, analytics, AI) is enabling the individual to become more empowered to innovate and participate (assuming, of course, the individual can cross over any digital divide). Our ability to find and capitalize on innovative ideas has never been greater. That is fostered by our ability to capture, store and analyze vast volumes of data and make it accessible more broadly so people can become more creative faster. Who knows where that leads. That is the innovate part. The participate part: Wikipedia, Airbnb, Uber, Etsy, Divvy, home-to-grid solar, driverless cars soon, and so many others are enabling this sharing economy. Sharing—not necessarily owning. Is technology changing the way we think about material things? Is that evolutionary progress? Is it capitalistic productivity? OK, pretty deep, but it seems that technology is increasing our ability to better use if not share our world assets (people and resources) which could be fundamentally changing our concepts of materialism and community.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy, has just been released by Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs. Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.