Wayne Crane is the Ringmaster of Chaotic Technology

DXP Enterprises’ CIO transforms broken IT systems into showstoppers, and now he’s overhauling the infrastructure of the hundred-year-old industrial distribution company

Wayne Crane has made a highly successful IT career out of being a train-wreck expert—a moniker, he says, that best describes his line of work. “When a company is having massive IT problems, either internal difficulties or because the business doesn’t reflect changes in the industry, I’m usually the guy they call,” he says. The senior vice president and chief information officer at DXP Enterprises was recruited to the Houston, Texas-based products and service distributor five years ago to not only run its IT functions, but more importantly, to fix a system that was broken.

Since his arrival, the company has acquired seventeen businesses and successfully integrated each into the parent company, increasing its revenue from $800 million to $1.5 billion. What’s more, over the last five years, DXP has been able to meet its ambitious objective to grow by 20 percent per year—10 percent organically and 10 percent through acquisitions—a goal that could not have been accomplished without a major transformation.

Crane was recruited back to his hometown of Houston, Texas, to make such a fix for DXP, a company that provides service centers, supply chain services, and innovative plumbing solutions from about 150 locations in North America. Its main industries include oil and gas, general manufacturing, chemical, reseller, and transportation. DXP has roughly 3,200 employees with fifty in the IT department—five of whom report directly to Crane.

With thirty years of experience in IT, Crane says he was able to similarly turn around other companies in his previous five positions. The problem he faced when originally coming to DXP, he says, was that it “had the wrong people doing the wrong things.”

“Most of the employees had been there for decades and had never seen IT done any other way than the way they’ve always done it,” Crane explains. “The world had changed, but they continued to do things the way they did twenty years ago. The company has been around since 1908, and it was a laggard in technology.”

One obvious fix was to bring DXP into the world of e-commerce as it was not yet doing business on the Internet, Crane says. He also introduced business analytics with a dashboard that allows executives to see how their business is doing at any given moment. “When I got here, executives wouldn’t know how much money the company had made until three weeks after the quarter ended,” Crane says. “Now they know how they’re doing every day—how much they’re making, spending, and the total profit—at any given time.”

Most companies don’t have this capability, especially in DXP’s industry, Crane says. “It’s a new paradigm and manufacturing distribution companies tend to be old school, old fashioned, with old technology,” he explains.

Another major element of Crane’s success is what he calls a “people story.”

“I have a theory that if you can hire, inspire, and motivate the right people in an organization, an orangutan could do my job,” he says. “This is a hard thing to do with smart, high-tech professionals. I’m making a generalization, but people go into technology because they are introverted and like working with machines instead of people. That makes them more challenging to motivate.”

Crane likens managing IT professionals to herding cats; they’re independent and want to do things their own way, he says. The challenge is understanding how to motivate that type of mind-set. He calls his leadership style “adaptive mentoring” in which he helps each team member individually improve their skills and ability to contribute to the organization.

“My teams trust me since I’m like them, a technologist from early on. They know I have their best interest,” he says. “I value complete honesty, encourage mistakes, and want them to push the envelope and take chances. I believe culture and tone is set from the top and completely by example. I have never seen a toxic manager over a well-run department.”

If a business has a questionable mission or poor process to accomplish its goals, the technology supporting it will fail, Crane explains.

“After twenty-five years in the CIO’s chair, you realize that most technology efforts were destined for failure not because of the technology, but by the fact that you automate a bad process and you simply fail faster,” he says. “Technology is a career where you are constantly striving to maximize order out of chaos and entropy. Systems fail, requirements change, people leave, stuff happens, but that is where real opportunity exists.”

Crane says he would not be successful without a long-time love of technology, change, and solving complex problems. “That makes this type of job perfect for me. I call it ‘surfing with chaos.’ I bring order to craziness,” he says. “It’s like being the ringmaster in a dynamic technology circus.”