Conair is a leading manufacturer and marketer of professional and consumer products. After more than 50 years in business it has grown into a multibillion dollar consumer packaged goods company with operations in more than 25 countries. The company operates in multiple product categories with 24 major brands, including Conair, Cuisinart, Waring, Rusk, Scunci and BaByliss.
Jon Harding has been CIO of Conair for more than 11 years. Over that span, he has taken a leadership role in mergers & acquisitions, partnered creatively with marketing to develop systems to serve existing customers better and acquire new ones, built an ecosystem of partners to facilitate innovation, all while managing a diverse, global team. He speaks about these challenges and more with CIO Insight contributor Peter High.
CIO Insight: Conair has grown substantially in your 11 years with the company. As it has acquired businesses, IT has been a key integrator of those businesses. How do you plan for the integration of a business?
Jon Harding: I plan for the integration of an acquisition as early as possible by getting involved in the due diligence process. During this early planning phase I work to make sure I understand the strategic (longer-term) objectives in making the acquisition as well as the tactical (short-term) objectives of quickly integrating the acquisition. To meet these business objectives, we then compare our standard set of core business applications (SAP) and global infrastructure standards to the current processes and systems of the new business unit. We assume all processes will change to the Conair standard processes enabled by our SAP solutions and focus in on any exceptions due to unique aspects of the new business, whether trade-driven, product-driven or statutory (especially important in overseas acquisitions).
CIO Insight: How much of a blueprint is there and to what degree does it vary, acquisition by acquisition?
Harding: Our blueprint is to vary our standard operating model only to meet mandatory local needs, whether trade-driven, product-driven or statutory.
CIO Insight: You have collaborated with your colleagues in marketing in the past few years to use information to serve existing customers better, and to acquire more customers. What shape has this partnership taken, and what are examples of some ideas you have introduced?
Harding: Traditionally here in Conair like in many consumer goods companies, IT focused on supply chain, finance and other “back office” processes. With the advent of many software-as-a-service solutions for all sorts of data analysis and business decision-making problems, I saw opportunities to improve the level of information availability for my colleagues in marketing and sales. Improvements, both in how quickly data can be transformed into usable analytics and in the availability of actionable information. The partnership with marketing has been built on working together on the evaluation and implementation of robust solutions for marketing’s data problems. IT has been the catalyst by providing funding and expertise in managing solution vendors. Marketing has provided subject matter expertise and all of the hands-on execution of these projects.
One example is the use of a “best-of-breed” software solution for transforming various disparate data sources into one common platform to enable easier analytics and derivation of consumer insights which are shared with our retail customers to drive sales. Previously, marketing staff spent most of a month just transforming these monthly data feeds into usable information and had hardly any time left for analytics before the next monthly cycle.
Another example is use of a “best-of-breed” social media analytics tool to understand consumer sentiment about selected products. This tool is also used to design online marketing campaigns, and then measure the results.
CIO Insight: How do you remain abreast of new innovations that might apply to a need Conair has?
Harding: I pay attention to IT vendor partners and listen to their proposed innovations and new product offerings. I network with peer IT leaders and selected vendors to talk about recent innovations with have been successful. I attend a few, well-targeted industry events each year to hear about case studies of new technology enabling the consumer goods industry (e.g. “Consumer Goods Technology” magazine events) and also more general CIO events which are cross-industry.
CIO Insight: You have a core IT team and you also have IT team members who are liaisons with a variety of business units around the globe. How do you govern this team?
Harding: Tactically, I have regularly schedule calls (weekly/biweekly) with each worldwide IT leader to hear from them about new local business needs, progress on their assigned projects, and especially any issues that are impacting their assigned business unit. I use these calls to drive fluid IT resource allocation to evolving high priority business needs and ensure appropriate level of collaboration between the various IT teams globally.
Strategically, I have quarterly reviews with the appropriate members of the IT leadership of IT road maps which drive our programs of work. We have road maps for technology infrastructure, SAP solutions and marketing solutions.
CIO Insight: How have you balanced setting standards for the entire enterprise to follow versus giving business units autonomy to purchase solutions of their choosing, for example?
Harding: You have it right that the key word here is “balance.” IT has standards to ensure interoperability and security of information across the enterprise, and also to control costs by avoiding multiple solutions for the same business needs. However, some business needs are unique due to valid business process variations and/or local business trade or statutory requirements. Therefore we have to be flexible and ready to deviate from our standard solutions if a valid exception is identified. I always tell my traditional IT team members that we no longer live in a black-and-white world of IT standard or no solution; instead, we live there are lots of shades of grey.
The key questions to ask when evaluating an exception to standards are: does it apply to more than one location or business unit? Will the proposed exception solution actually work based on our knowledge at this time? Is it cost-effective for the company as a whole? The critical success factor is to make these decisions quickly and move on to implement. When a unique business solution is needed that varies from standard, I will still aim to provide funding from IT as this ensures oversight and ongoing involvement in the use and possible future expansion of such solutions.
CIO Insight: What trends particularly excite you?
Harding: Even after a few years I am still excited about the availability of software-as-a-service solutions as they allow us to respond quicker to new business needs and in some cases do a “pilot” to prove out (or not) an innovative solution without committing to any major IT investment. Beyond this solution delivery mechanism I am excited by the move to online commerce and the opportunities that it gives IT to partner further with sales and marketing colleagues to drive growth.
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.