In Charles Bonomo’s world, a few milliseconds lost in the warehouse can mean millions lost in revenue. The senior vice president and CIO of MSC Industrial Direct is in an influential position at the executive table, and can be found in the back office making sure every cog is turning according to plan. Though the two titles have vastly different vernaculars and require different skill sets, Bonomo says he approaches both with the same objectives in mind: to grow the company to $10 billion in revenue and to make MSC the best industrial distributor in the world.
What do you consider your most important responsibility as CIO?
My team’s most important responsibility is to keep our business systems running smoothly without any downtime, so our customers get the products they want when they need them. Every year, we have more than one billion transactions running through our ordering systems and distribution centers. In 2012, those orders totaled nearly $2.5 billion. In that regard, what we do is mission critical.
How do you communicate effective technology solutions to the rest of the management team?
If you’re unable to translate the technology needs of the organization into a common business vernacular and business-driven justification, you’ll never survive. You’ll be the backroom IT guy who people don’t want to deal with. I don’t speak to my internal customers—sales, HR, finance—about ERP or data archiving. I talk about solutions in terms of what our customer needs and what the business will need as we grow to $10 billion. I also discuss the importance of our business road map, and how the shortcomings in our existing systems and back office are creating obstacles and risks on that path.
What advice would you give to CIOs or IT professionals looking to make the case for investment in technology?
You have to get to know your customers and the business as well as, if not better than, everyone else. Get out there, spend time with your internal and external customers, and know the pain points. IT is a function that has to constantly work at building trust and legitimacy with its customers. Proving that you’re taking the time to listen and to deliver solutions that solve real business problems will give you a voice at the decision-making table with your peers.
IT budgets are playing a larger and larger part in the expenses of the modern company. How do you decide when to develop a solution in-house and when to use an off-the-shelf technology?
We ask if a custom-built solution will create a competitive advantage for us. If it will, and if it responds to a core competency of business, we’ll lean toward developing it ourselves. If it’s the image on a PC or the financial system for maintaining our general ledger, we’ll use a commercial product. You don’t get any kudos for owning your own IP on something like that, nor do you necessarily want them.
What specific elements or trends in your industry affect your role as CIO?
One of the biggest trends right now is vending technology. The same technology you use to buy a Coke or bag of potato chips—but more sophisticated—is being employed by industrial-distribution firms. Companies purchasing products from us want us to sell them a product and deliver a solution. A customer may have an unmanned and unsecured tool crib on their shop floor, making it hard to control inventory. With our vending solutions, the inventory that our customers purchase from MSC can be tracked via employee authentication and automatically billed to the respective job where it is utilized. That’s a dramatic change for our industry.
What does the next generation of IT leaders look like? How are you working to mentor your reports and team in pursuit of this vision?
IT leaders need to be business people. They should be focused on solutions that will allow the business to grow and maintain a competitive advantage. I like to put people in unconventional roles to develop them—something that exposes them to a department or project that’s completely outside their comfort zone. The next generation of IT leaders needs to develop the capabilities to operate outside of their specialization or focus area.