Double Duty

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 01-05-2005

Debby Hopkins just can't help herself. When you ask the 50-year-old chief operations and technology officer at Citigroup Inc. a question about any of her previous jobs—a list that includes stints as CFO at GM Europe, The Boeing Co. and Lucent Technologies Inc.—she can't get her mind off technology. "I have a great passion for payment systems," she gushes, without a trace of irony.

Though she has enjoyed a long career as a successful chief financial officer, Hopkins is getting back in touch with her inner geek in her latest position as head of operations and technology at Citigroup, one of the world's largest banks, with $1.4 trillion in assets. Before being recruited personally by Citigroup Chairman Sandy Weill and joining the company in January 2003, she spent decades earning a reputation as a catalyst for change in multiple industries. And she says her transition from serial CFO to the role of COO/CTO was just another step in her evolution: "I grew up in the computer business, spending 13 years at Unisys, so I'm very comfortable here."

Hopkins says combining operations and technology has given her greater clout in determining Citigroup's strategy, and it keeps her close to the customer. This saves her from the fate of some CIOs, who can lose touch with the goals of the company. "I like the hands-on opportunity of really knowing that we're running a business," she explains.

Hopkins left her job as CFO of Lucent in May of 2001 after an unpleasant one-year tenure that included the disastrous spin-off of Agere Systems Inc. Since then, she has been loath to speak to the media. "I avoid publicity like the plague," she told one business magazine following her departure. Having landed on her feet again, Hopkins says she has never been happier in her career. Executive Editor Dan Briody caught up with Hopkins at her office in Citigroup headquarters in New York City, where she discussed her current dual role and the lessons she's learned over the years.

CIO Insight: Why hire a career CFO to run IT and operations at the world's largest bank?

Hopkins: Although most of my background has been financial in nature, I grew up in the technology business. I was CFO for engineering and manufacturing at Unisys and got very, very involved in the engineering side of the house. I have a great deal of comfort in that arena. And while I was at Unisys, I had the opportunity to take on two other jobs. One was the general manager of worldwide information services. So I was driving complex systems-integration projects that we were doing on behalf of customers, which gave me great insight into the complexity of delivering those kinds of solutions to a client.

I also stepped out of finance for a couple of years and launched Unisys's check-imaging product, which captured images of paper checks. I had to learn an extremely complex product and travel around the world selling it. And for the first time I sat face to face with customers, which really changes the way you think about what you do everyday. We even beat IBM Corp. to market on it. And to my great delight, Citigroup is using that very same system.

It all comes full circle.

It is funny, isn't it? When I went on a tour of all our Citigroup data centers, we went to Englewood Cliffs, N.J., where we do a lot of our check processing. They kept wanting to take me here and there. But I said, "No, no, no, I want to go see the check-imaging system." When they took me, I would not leave the room. I was touching the machine, I was watching, I was looking at the camera, and they kept saying, "Deb, come on, we have to go." I said, "Just leave me here. Come back later."

So you've got a lot of geek in you.

Oh, I do. I love how things work. When I was four, I used to get up early, before my parents were up, and they'd find me watching programs on how factories work. At both GM and Boeing I was deeply involved in product development. Both were very complex situations where you had to understand the technology employed, particularly in the Boeing environment, where I was involved with defense projects. To be able to understand the financial side of it, you have to be very comfortable around the technical side.

And vice versa?

It's the only way.

What is the nature of your job at Citigroup?

You will find this type of operations and technology role in some other financial services companies, so it's not unique to Citigroup. And at first you think, "Why are these things together?" But if you came to one of my staff meetings where both the O guys and the T guys are there, you would see how important the interconnects are.

We try to look at everything through the same set of lenses. It's from the customer to the business unit objectives, to the process, to the operations and to the technology. And we recognize technology as the enabler, but the driver is truly the customer, the business unit objectives.

How does combining operations and IT create more business synergy?

Let me give you an example: We're doing a very large global data center plan right now. A big part of that plan is where it should be located, what kind of power is available, what kind of water is available. Well, the real estate group is on my team. So they partner together and work through that issue and look at the security issues and so forth.

We run two global teams, a Global Technology Council, which drives the strategy of technology, and the newly formed Operations Leadership Council, which looks at opportunities to leverage our footprint and scale.

Well, now we have cross-pollination going on. We're finding these projects in operations where we're immediately turning to the Global Technology Council to say, "Can you help us?" and vice versa.

What is the Global Technology Council and how does it work?

Initially, we had an IT leadership council that had about 50 people on it that would get together quarterly and collaboratively work on some issues around the company that we were trying to fix. While that was a great global group of people working together, my concern was it's pretty difficult to have 50 people make decisions. I wanted to gather a team that could collaboratively drive the strategy for Citigroup.

The GTC now has eight people in it, the top CIOs of all the business units. We meet every two weeks and we have a very specific agenda we're driving. We are also populating teams with people from different parts of the organization and creating some really strong opportunities to share capabilities.

We're trying to take very strong skill bases from some of the other businesses and put them on some of these teams so they can help us create value throughout the entire enterprise.

The GTC is truly focused on people. One of our goals is to be the employer of choice for technology talent, and we have every reason to do that. We have an incredibly diverse set of businesses with a global reach, and somebody could have a field day learning many different parts of the organization. But because in the past we've been so strong vertically, we weren't driving the talent horizontally. We're now moving to do that.

Should all companies be looking at combining the roles of the COO and CIO?

Having seen a few different industries, I think it's highly valuable for anybody, because it ensures that you have alignment. And technology immediately goes into an operation where it is then delivered to the client. So I think the connectivity is very powerful and there's a lot of synergy there.

Did you see this kind of arrangement in any of your previous positions?

As CFO at Lucent, I had the CIO reporting to me. But I haven't seen operations and technology together at any of the large companies that I've been involved in.

What CFO skills do you apply to your role as CTO?

Definitely risk management. Being able to look across the landscape for things that could cause issues for your company and how to manage that risk. That is fundamental to what I do every day in my job.

Do you think both roles are strategic?

I've been very fortunate. In all my CFO roles I've had to play a very strong role in strategy as well. At Boeing I was doing strategy, and even at General Motors we were really at the table forming a strategy. That's something that IT groups need to do as well, especially in large companies. They need to have a strategy and an ability to make that strategy clear to their technology community and their business partners. So we run IT like a business.

To whom do you report?

[President and CEO] Chuck Prince.

And so does the CFO?

Correct.

Does it require a change in thinking to move from being a CFO into a role like this?

I guess in some ways you could say that, but I have been fortunate in always being deeply involved in the strategy side of things.

How have things gone thus far at Citigroup?

Here's an organization that has been phenomenally successful. Walking in the door and announcing what's broken would be a recipe for disaster—in fact, they wouldn't even hear it. So No. 1 on the list here is making sure that you understand the strengths and weaknesses of the organization to the extent that the people around you know you have taken the time.

It's one thing when you walk into an environment and there's a crisis and they're counting on you to help them get out of the crisis. It's another thing when you walk into an organization that's been wildly successful, and you see a need to do some things differently, or simply to evolve the model. You need to learn about the history, how we got here, what went on. Because if you come walking in ripping the guns out, that's a recipe for failure in a very quick way.

You were personally recruited by Sandy Weill. Were there specific things he had in mind when he brought you on board?

We had no predesigned concept about exactly what I was going to do. It was just a recognition that maybe it's a good match of personality to the organization, so let's figure it out over time. I was running Citigroup's corporate strategy when I first came on board, which was kind of unique because it gave me the chance to see the entire operation. It was from that role that they then started looking into my background [at Unisys] and people got a twinkle in their eye, and I got the phone call saying, "Boy, have we got a job for you."

How is IT viewed within Citigroup?

In many ways, we are a technology company. It drives everything we do every day in every one of the products and services we deliver to our customers. IT was recognized last February in our senior management meeting as one of the top five critical elements of driving our strategic plan. Did you know that Chuck Prince comes to our Global Technology Councils almost every time we meet? And he is a tough taskmaster.

So I think that recognition has occurred. Clearly, what all our product guys are focusing on is where they can create competitive advantage. We've been in the forefront of many types of innovations to offer customers. And on a global technology level we're trying to increase the amount of our spend that goes to innovation and decrease the amount spent on maintenance.

You have a reputation as a change agent. What have you learned over your career about what works and what doesn't?

You grow wiser with age. And that's a very key thing about making change. When you're the new guy, the attitude is, "Well, wait a minute, what do you know about us? You haven't been here before." So I think it's how you go about it. I use a silver-bullet theory. You only have so many silver bullets on your belt and you have to decide which battle is worth spending one of the bullets on.

It's about gaining a little patience and a little wisdom along the way, and there being time to get it all done and creating some priorities.