UniGroup CIO on IT Enabling the Business

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 02-08-2010

UniGroup CIO on IT Enabling the Business

Randy Poppell is a rare CIO for one major reason: he's lasted in his current role--CIO of St. Louis-based UniGroup--for nine years. The IT leader for the $2B transportation and logistics firm, which owns United Van Lines, Mayflower Transit and other subsidiaries, has spent 30 years in the IT industry, and he's learned more than a few things about leadership, workforce development and vendor management.

He spoke recently with CIO Insight Editor in Chief Brian P. Watson about his leadership priorities and outlook for 2010. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

CIO Insight: How has the recession treated you?

When I came to the company, it was the typical transformational situation. The company was looking to catch up on technology and bring some innovation to the industry. We've had a long road to get us to the point where we feel like we're doing things pretty well. We developed some industry-leading technologies, and everything was going well until the economic downturn began. It's cast a new light on the things we've been doing and our priorities for the year.

Obviously for us, being in the transportation and logistics business, we started to see changes coming early. Our national account customers were starting to pull back, our agents were starting to see a downturn, and when the housing market imploded, the enterprise really felt it.

But we had done a number things right in terms of getting ready for what was to come--we were getting more efficient, we were cutting costs, etc. We were doing more with less already, so the challenge was to leverage those improvements.

The recession forced many CIOs to work more closely with the business. That was a challenge for many, but a great opportunity for others.

That's true, and for us it was a matter of prioritization. We worked very closely with the business in saying; we've always had a supply and demand curve, so how do we want to manage from a business perspective? Before, we would get all the things done that were a priority for the business units--it was just a matter of timing. Now that we are in the downturn and have downsized the company, it's more about choosing the right things, being more selective in what we do.

So that's been the focus over the last year; working with the business to prioritize, and also to get them to understand they can't have it all. The demand is as great as it's ever been, so good decision making is critical. We have to be a collective enterprise team focused on growing top-line revenue and wringing out savings to achieve more earnings in this reduced business environment.

What's the IT-business collaboration like at UniGroup?

Our industry is operationally focused and our business partners spend their time on how best to move shipments and make things happen from a logistics viewpoint. Over the years, we've been able to show them how to better enable their business with technology, and at the same time, create some new thinking for them in how they approach the business. It's been good to see them grow and think about business problems in a different way.

The relationship is such that they appreciate what technology can do for them. They're still challenged by the fact that it's not as easy to achieve technology adoption in the company as they would like, but it's come a long way in the last few years.

What's big on your priority list for 2010?

Our major initiative for this year is a new sales management system. About 18 months ago, as we entered into the downturn, our senior vice president of sales began to analyze how we approached customer sales, and concluded we should enable the field salesperson in a much different way.  In short, the new system will provide improved mobile capabilities to the sales force to help shorten the sales cycle.

We're also coupling field technology with new initiatives at headquarters around call center technology. If a customer chooses to contact us through an 800 number or the Internet, we can link into the same technology and have customer service reps use it to close a sale on the phone.

We believe both these initiatives will drive top-line revenue and help get the company back to where we want to be.

CIO Success

You've outlasted most of your CIO peers in terms of tenure. To what do you attribute your long standing there?

There are probably two things. The first is building a collaborative relationship with the business. It's getting involved with them on a day-to-day basis and having a relationship that allows them to call on you to help solve problems. The opportunity to participate with the business in their strategic planning is also important.

The other piece is around execution. A lot of CIOs get in trouble when they're not able to execute effectively on technology projects that enable the business. If you're going to be involved and work with the business, then they expect you to deliver on the things you've helped craft from a strategy standpoint. I've had the good fortune to work with business people that value what they can do with technology and the problems they can solve. My team has lived up to every expectation in terms of execution--and I'd like to think that on some major projects we've exceeded expectations.

But it's also a challenge to balance running the IT operation with being a corporate strategist. How have you approached that?

You have to hire the best people. There's nothing magical about organizations. It's like chemistry--you have to find the right mix of people and the right mix of skills. When you have some really talented people that manage your infrastructure, security, networks and application development, it makes it a lot easier to empower them and let them run with their particular area of expertise. You provide the guidance they need from time to time, but it frees you to focus upward in the organization and be more valuable versus trying to manage the details of the operation. Also, if you leave the details to your team and empower them to work through issues, they grow and become better leaders.

We also spent a lot of time early on focusing on architecture. We wanted to define what tools, languages and methodologies we'd use to build applications. It's like anything in IT--there are lots of ways to solve a problem. If you're not careful, you can divide and conquer your own resource base because you end up with many different types of systems to support.  We were aggressive early on in defining our standards and guiding principles. This allowed us to put in place a self-governing organization with a focus on enterprise architecture.

On every major project we do what we call an "enterprise architecture fit assessment"--we look at the solution the development team has come up with and ask how it fits with the target architecture we're trying to meet. There is give and take on both sides, but it keeps us more in the mainstream of doing things consistently across the organization, which ultimately improves execution.

You talked about hiring the best people. What's your philosophy on building the best team possible?

IT people predominantly want to work on meaningful projects. They want to grow and have the fulfillment of seeing projects from start to finish while working with the latest technologies. Compensation is a big part of it, too, as well as being part of a growing company where their work is valued.

The challenge now, in a limited growth environment, is keeping the staff engaged since we have fewer resources. In most cases, they're working harder and balancing more priorities. That means we have to focus more on retaining staff.  In the past we wouldn't have worried about retention as much, but it's a much more prevalent issue now.

What about training?

There are two aspects to training. There's certainly the technical training--helping the staff keep up with the latest technologies. But the ability to let them interact with the business units and understand business issues on a more granular level is equally important. We spend a lot of time talking about how to interact and focus on business people as the customer. We think about our staff as IT consultants, working to solve business problems.

Another challenge for CIOs right now is vendor management. How do you approach dealing with your technology providers and vendors?

We tend to view technology providers as either "vendors" or "partners." Vendors are companies that only sell products and services. Partners bring value to your operation. We require our partners to understand our business and the problems we face so they can map their product sets in ways to best support the company.

We've been successful because of relationships we built years ago with our major vendor partners to say, we're going to make upgrades or changes now, with the understanding that we expect their continued support if we have to trim back later. There's a certain amount of cost escalation that's always going on with technology providers. The key is working through the issues and getting them to understand what it is in your business that makes it work or not work. The alternative is to seek out partners that can provide what you need.

Back to CIO Insight