Not just “The IT Guy”

Robert Russo of Maidenform discusses his passion for technology, the IT industry, and becoming a CIO at a young age

Robert Russo has worked as an IT wizard for such companies as AT&T, Pepsi, and Clairol. Today, he levies his expertise for Maidenform, as the company seeks to hit the $1 billion mark.

Robert Russo is a visionary, an implementer, and a hard worker who finds great pleasure in his job. Beginning his career as a computer programmer, Russo has worked his way through the ranks at seven top companies. Today, he serves as CIO of the global intimate-apparel company Maidenform Brands, Inc., a position he has held for five years. One of many change agents at Maidenform, Russo is actively involved in bringing the Iselin, New Jersey-based company’s technologies up to speed, be it on the web, in the company’s back end, or at the checkout counter. Here, Russo shares how he looks for challenges and delivers results.

How did you get your start? 

As a math major at Cortland State University of New York, I happened to take a computer course and fell in love with technology from that point on. It came easy to me and was fun as well. Fresh out of college, I took my first job as a programmer at AT&T, while at the same time acquiring my MBA at Pace University.

What parts of your work with AT&T shaped the job you’re doing today?

I was assigned to the new-technology committee in the pre-Internet days, and was involved in many new development projects, strategies, and technologies that many companies are only implementing today. During my tenure, I also achieved four performance-based promotions. From there, I was lucky enough to be offered many opportunities that allowed me to choreograph my career to gain the experience and skills to get to where I am today.

Explain how you “choreographed” your career. 

While at AT&T, I realized that in order to move up the corporate ladder, you would have to learn all of the areas of business and technology. At AT&T, that would take a very long time. Having excellent mentors along the way, they advised that if you are going to sit in the top seat, you better know everything about the business, and to never underestimate the skills and experience of the executives at the top. When an opportunity came up at Clairol as a project manager, I knew it was the right move. This was a great first step. I learned the business processes in finance, supply chain, and manufacturing, as well as learning a new technology from SAP [Systems, Applications, and Products in Data Processing].

And you took that experience to Pepsi and General Cigar?

Moving to Pepsi gave me experience in both sales and marketing and supply chain, as well as an opportunity to work on a major corporate reengineering effort. I worked on a new, three-tier architecture technology and served as the chief application architect and methodology lead. At General Cigar, my experience included responsibilities for logistics and supply chain, as well as the CIO role, which was a very unique opportunity. Each of the moves was made, or choreographed, to gain experience in many business and technical areas.

What obstacles did you have to overcome? 

I was once told I was too young to be a CIO, but I like challenges. I’ve also had to overcome the resistance to change in many companies. Change in upgrading to a new system or a new process is not easy, but when it is completed, it is great to see the team reach a new level of performance. Getting things done and delivering better business results is a lot of fun. It is all about the process and the team.

You’ve sold different products in different industries, from telecommunications to beverages to tobacco to apparel. Is that a challenge? 

Yes it is, but business processes like sales, marketing, ordering, allocation and distribution, supply chain, manufacturing, and planning are basically the same at the root, but each company has its challenges and specific product attributes. The art is to create a corporate ecosystem for process, system, and culture, and an organization that all works together as one single unit, an engine that can support any speed. Building the consolidated foundation and team with the ability to be able to grow and sustain growth is much more important than seizing a one-time opportunity to grow.

What are your plans for the future? 

Maidenform has grown from a $400 million to a $600 million business in the past five years. We are implementing IT changes in phases, and the company has plans to reach the $1 billion mark. Our company processes are ever changing, and we are getting better and better every day due to our leadership, our products, and our people. My plans are to do whatever it takes to help get the company to the next level and beyond.