That’s the ticket to ride,” says Jon Harding, Conair’s global CIO, “keeping the lights on and making sure everything is functioning. Then you can start thinking about going to people and making suggestions on how we could use technology to do things differently or quicker with the aim of improving the business.”
As an international, multibillion-dollar company, Conair needs a CIO that can keep its systems operating smoothly and lead the IT teams to improve the technology support for the company’s global business units. When Harding was hired in 2004, he was given the mission to lead the IT groups and collaborate with business unit leaders around the world to contribute to the company’s growth. From nuclear fuel to corn flakes and cookies, Harding had the range of experiences to be that leader. In his nine-year tenure, the IT team has supported the other departments in the company to help them achieve an approximately 40 percent growth in revenue, which Harding is quick to point out is due to organic growth from the improvement of products, expansion into international markets, and strategic acquisitions.
Conair, known for its hair dryers and curlers, actually produces everything from food processors to showerheads. In the United States, when someone needs a countertop coffeemaker, they turn to Cuisinart—a brand owned by Conair. The company also owns Waring, Scünci, and Rusk, along with a number of other consumer goods brands.
Harding’s formative IT experiences include four years at a nuclear fuels manufacturer in Britain and a 14-year stint with the Kellogg Corporation in Manchester, England. There, Harding transitioned from an independent contributor in manufacturing IT to the overall leader of an enterprise change initiative to implement the company’s new business processes and systems across Europe. Harding led a team that included people from supply chain, finance, manufacturing, and IT—expanding his areas of expertise. In 2001, Harding moved to the States when Kellogg’s acquired Keebler, and his role had him sitting with sales executives, attending sales conferences, meeting with customers, and working with marketing. The exposure to a wider range of business-supporting initiatives was invaluable.
It’s these experiences that Harding brings to his role at Conair, where he is focused on identifying opportunities to improve the business through technology as well as executing the projects to implement that technology. One of his major accomplishments has been the worldwide rollout of a central SAP system that handles everything from customer orders through the collection of cash and accounting. All of Conair’s businesses connect into this system—creating greater transparency and keeping reporting consistent across different territories and languages.
Creating meaning out of large interconnected systems like this is the backbone of Harding’s role. In order to get momentum around IT initiatives to derive more business value out of data the company already has, Harding keeps the initial scope small. An initial success with one business unit can then be convincingly marketed to other units.
For instance, getting meaningful business insights out of a mass of sales data across the world is a huge undertaking, but by keeping things simple and breaking down the scope into smaller projects, Harding is able to effectively improve the analytical capacity with existing resources. “The IT industry has had a tendency to climb the mountain the most difficult, direct way, when you can get there a different way by scaling a series of smaller peaks,” he says.
This can be seen in recent efforts with Conair’s marketing teams. Harding approached one of the company’s US-based marketing departments about implementing new technology to transform and improve the monthly process by which they were processing market-research data that provides insights on both Conair and its competitors. As is common in the consumer-goods industry, Conair’s marketing team blends this external data with its own expertise to provide consumer insights about its product categories that can then be turned into a means to reach retail customers. Frequently, such external data requires a lot of clean up and standardization before it can be used, an intensive process that was usually taking the team most of a month, with barely enough time to produce actionable reporting before the next month’s data arrived.
The solution Harding proposed implemented new technology that automated the data-processing work. The end result has been a 93 percent reduction in time taken to produce monthly marketing analytics for this particular business unit, which has allowed business analysts to dive deeper into analytical tasks requested by the sales team and customers.
“The availability of specialized software tools in a software-as-a-service model—essentially renting software hosted somewhere in the web—has allowed us to move quicker to implement newer technology to improve processes like this marketing analytics process,” Harding says. “Traditionally, the IT and marketing team would have agreed on requirements, then bought or built a system to be hosted in-house. This all took a long time and introduced more risk of requirements changing in the meantime.”
Over his tenure, Harding has seen an increase in projects where IT acts as the catalyst to connect an identified business opportunity with an existing software solution. IT’s role has shifted into project management spectrum, and the department works diligently to ensure appropriate information security and controls are included in the contract for this software solution.
In all things, Harding begins with a problem, finds the tools and people, and positions everything for success by making the right connections. Harding is now increasing the scope, applying this same model to other teams at Conair. “I certainly don’t get hung up on implementing technology for technology’s sake,” he says. “IT projects have a lot of complexities and rely completely on collaboration with other departments for success, so you have to be open and work cross-functionally on issues you’re having.” By being open, honest, and upfront, Harding is able to take the teams that make everything from toaster ovens to shampoo, and connect the thoughts.