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.

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