For the longest time, information technology departments in companies all over the United States have been viewed as internal, back-office departments only. AAR CORP.’s chief information officer, Kevin Larson, likes to think otherwise.
Larson first joined AAR, an aviation parts and services company, in 1989. He started at the company as a technical support analyst. After three years with AAR and after earning an MBA, Larson became interested in a leadership position to leverage his business degree. He joined the Bank of Montreal to work for its information technology auditing group, where he gained a large amount of experience with key business leaders and enterprise systems, data security, and general controls.
This experience helped Larson when he returned to AAR in 1995 as director of operations and technical support. Since becoming chief information officer in 2000, he’s worked hard to make sure his team not only services AAR but contributes to customer-facing solutions.
Larson first realized the potential in this area when his team started to get positive feedback from customers based on how AAR provides technology for supply-chain programs and solutions with a significant amount of information technology. “We started to see a differentiator for the company to have all of the tremendous aviation experience, but then also to have the IT systems that were aviation-specific to support the supply chain, maintenance repair and overhaul, and most importantly, the integration,” Larson says. “We’ve come up with a lot of ways to do web services [and] systems integration, and we put together our own middleware database that supports effective integration as a message broker.”
Support from the Top
It wasn’t just positive customer feedback that made Larson realize his department could play a larger role in AAR’s revenue generation. Chief executive officer David P. Storch and his leadership team were also a big part of the department’s strategy to commercialize information technology. Storch praised Larson and the department for its numerous capabilities and for the fact that it had been able to avoid some of the problems other information technology departments suffer when it comes to enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) implementations.
“That put us in the position to keep pursuing new opportunities,” Larson says. “We see a lot of momentum there to commercialize our IT and sell it directly to the customer outside of the supply-chain program. I think the industry is shifting to where customers are getting much more open to software as a service (SAAS) without having to go through procuring the software, installing it, and maintaining it. So the timing—and the fact that we have these systems and can also provide hosting—fits well with what is going on in the industry.”
Getting people to change their mind-set about an information technology department’s purpose is one of the bigger challenges Larson faces. It’s not just people outside of the department, either. Sometimes information technology professionals themselves need to take time to realize they’re not just there to serve their colleagues’ technical issues. Helping drive revenue for the company is also now part of the job description.
To get the word out about all that Larson’s team can do, he has hired a sales engineer to work on proposals and marketing materials. Larson keeps his direct reports in the loop and has gotten an assist from some of the company’s general managers who, when they’re selling AAR’s aviation services, are also trying to sell the company’s information technology services.
“I just got an e-mail last week from one of our general managers who is looking at opportunities for the customer to use some of the IT team’s solutions, whether it’s SAAS or a subscription to some of our applications,” Larson says. “It read, ‘I’m pleased to be your sales guy.’ When you have that kind of support from a general manager, the CEO, and other executives in the company—and they see the value of selling technology straightaway—that’s what makes it really exciting.”
Turning a Department into a Company Asset
An information technology department can gain support from its company when its solutions help the company thrive. To that end, Larson’s team is in good shape. The team built an inventory management system that tracks aviation parts. Called IMOPS (Inventory Management and Order Processing System), the system accounts for a customer’s parts requirements, including what alternative parts they’ll accept, as well as paperwork and packing requirements.
Larson’s team also developed another system, called StAAR, to help track all work cards. Keeping track of labor is a key component of the heavy maintenance industry, and at AAR, StAAR tracks labor for more than 2,000 mechanics. “Tracking the labor, what qualifications a mechanic has and the tools that mechanic checks out has really helped that application grow and evolve,” Larson says. “It’s integrated with our IMOPS inventory system, so together they function as a monolithic inventory MRO [maintenance, repair, and overhaul] solution. We see that as a real value for other third‐party MROs and other customers that are looking for that type of capability.”
The information technology department at AAR has taken big leaps when it comes to contributing to the company’s bottom line. Larson says keeping the department “forward-focused” is key. It starts with great customer service. “If a customer’s phone is not working, they can’t get their e-mail, or they can’t print out a report before they run to a meeting, whatever it is, we’ve been stressing customer service,” Larson says. “You need to get out of your chair and go help them out. We have a motto: IT is our passion and service is our specialty.”
Playing well with others also plays a part in helping the company see its information technology department as a partner in revenue generation. Larson admits that a key team-building plan requires that all technical employees are working well with the application and development teams. “We have to be one united team,” he says. “Once you have that, the internal and external customers can see where we’re committed and dedicated to supporting them.”
A team can’t be forward-focused without learning new things, and Larson’s department is no exception. He’s open to his team taking training courses and attending conferences; it enhances their knowledge and helps retain team members, which in turn keeps knowledge in‐house over the years. “Think about just in the span of my career, or even in the last five years, how the technology has changed,” Larson says. “I think we’re very good at providing training for our employees.”
Larson’s efforts to get his department more involved with the business beyond the traditional service role has paid off. Marketing IT services has even made its way onto Larson’s direct reports’ performance reviews. For example, Larson added an objective to the review of the person who handles logistics and integration: start looking at opportunities for AAR to not only sell IT systems but their services, too. The idea worked—not too long after implementing, AAR got a request from a defense contractor to do some additional integration for a program. “We created the situation by adding value for our customers and our partners,” Larson says. “Let’s go ahead and price it into the program and give them a real competitive way to enhance some of the capabilities that our existing programs provide.” This model will ensure customers have a focused information technology support team for all projects.
Stories like that just encourage Larson to keep getting the word out, with the help of AAR’s general managers, about their capabilities. For Larson, it’s about not letting the foot off the gas and staying focused on what they’re trying to accomplish. “When you talk about how it came together from our leadership and our general managers, it put a lot responsibility on me to really push it, to focus,” Larson says. “I feel like I work on it every single day. And now that I can see opportunities coming in one after another, I’m excited to keep working on it.”