As a technology executive in the cement business, Dave Codack has never been on the cutting edge of the Internet revolution. But this spring, Codack suddenly finds himself front and center. He is leading one of the most ambitious SWAT teams in the business world these days. Called iSTARK, its mission is to move Swiss cement giant Holderbank Inc.'s loose collection of 73 European and North American member companies onto the Net, and then teach them how to use it to cut costs, boost efficiency, and change the way they interact with customers and suppliers.

Why the rush? Holderbank, the world's leading cement producer, boasts operations in more than 70 countries, on every continent, with 2000 sales of $8.2 billion. With what cement industry analysts cite as a paltry 3 percent return on assets in North America last year, the company needs its new SWAT teams to help its member companies get leaner and more productive—fast. Rivals are beginning to chip away at its lead: The world's second-largest cement company, Mexico's Cemex, with $5.6 billion in 2000 revenues, already uses a combination of the Net, wireless and GPS systems to get cement to customers faster, decrease order errors and use fewer trucks to do more work. The result: Cemex's worldwide return on assets reached 17 percent last year.

Holderbank isn't there yet, says Codack. "Most stuff in this business is still done with a pencil on the backs of envelopes," he says. But with energy costs rising—and the power of the Net to cut waste and costs—"we're going to use technology to help us get more efficient," he says. As CEO of iSTARK, Codack has high hopes: He's shooting for a 1 percent to 2 percent reduction in production costs and a 50 percent to 75 percent decrease in error rates on deliveries, just for starters.

It's a tall order, and the most challenging assignment of Codack's 15-year technology career. But the hardest part isn't the technology; it's the cultural issues. Team-building is difficult at any time, but in Codack's case, the nine-month-old, 15-member, multinational project team he's created is half-virtual—it often meets via e-mail and conference calls—and it's facing more than the usual cultural challenges. "The French dream a lot, have a lot of great ideas and can't execute, where Belgians are practical and less visionary. And what's built in Belgium won't be accepted carte blanche in France," he says.

What's more, Codack's team grapples with all of the usual frictions that arise when tech people have to work closely with business people on critical e-business projects. It's all the more difficult when team members are culled from four nations, speak eight different languages and are dispatched as a mobile, quick-response unit to wire up tech-starved companies within the Holderbank consortium. So far, the iSTARK team is helping them build Web sites and digitizing their company inventories, transportation systems and sales forecasting methods. But in the process, Codack's team is also rebuilding the corporate culture and expanding the role of the CIO. "What's required on the technical side is significant enough," Codack says, "but it's everything else that keeps me up at night."

This article was originally published on 05-01-2001
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