To understand what has made Gregory Zelo a tech turnaround titan, you have to cover the decade he spent consulting early in his career.
“Every month or so, [we] were just flying into the eye of the hurricane,” says Zelo, Veeco’s current chief information officer. He got so many reps in early in his career that the incredibly stressful world of turnaround projects just feels like home.
“I was just there long enough to get comfortable with the team and with the industry, and then I would get moved somewhere completely different,” Zelo recalls. “Now I support corporate turnarounds and technology reboots, and I owe a lot to those first ten years.”
Prior to coming to Veeco, Zelo led a complete technological transformation at Computer Associates that would either make or break his career. He followed that success with an increased desire for challenge: he proceeded to tackle CBS’ then-analog broadcast media tech transition to compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon.
“Walking into CBS was incredible because it was running on a a thirty-year-old mainframe system doing $4 billion of sales with a bunch of post-it notes on the computer monitors,” Zelo says, laughing. “I supported a very complex landscape with six different business units. We moved from the physical data center world to the cloud, and that coincided with a number of supply chain business initiatives to help make this legacy company relevant again.”
Zelo assumed his CIO role at Veeco in January 2020. The turnaround objective was the same: a transforming company now found itself with a new CEO, CFO, head of sales and head of services, and of course, Zelo. The executive was charged with rebuilding his team and partnering with the business to surpass its about $450 million in revenue.
In 2021, Veeco did over $580 million. Over the next five-to-seven years, Zelo is confident the company positioned to grow. How was the CIO able to contribute to such immediate results, during a pandemic, nonetheless?
Veeco has doubled down on its semiconductor growth, a promising industry and one that seems intent on expanding. Meanwhile, Zelo rebuilt a team that didn’t have the strongest track record of delivering for the business or defending the company on the all-too-important IP and cybersecurity fronts.
“It was important to examine the team and see what skills we had and where our blind spots were,” Zelo explains. “I also needed to consolidate our vendors to get some critical mass, and to gain some third-party institutional knowledge about Veeco that can be flexed when the company is in need. This was all part of a broader roadmap and multiyear plan I had to deliver to our board about how we’re going to protect the company and what sort of investments were needed.”
Zelo says it’s essential for a CIO to be able to articulate the return on investment that technology can provide. He emphasizes the use of metrics while focusing on execution, predictable delivery, and building confidence with the rest of the business.
The relationship between people and work took a strong focus in early 2020. “Six weeks into the job, we packed up and decided to work from home for ‘a couple of weeks,’” Zelo recalls.
With half of the company working remotely due to the pandemic, Zelo’s team had to rapidly deploy and train a team that could ensure that working from home wouldn’t impact the business. The tech team deployed Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed-reality headset, to conduct remote field support. Virtual walkthroughs were conducted with customers using Zoom and, amazingly, revenue continued to climb all through the lockdown.
“That was all this separate unplanned track of work needing to be addressed while you’re still trying to accomplish your day-to-day,” the CIO explains. “That was year one. Now it’s really time to continue our growth trajectory. “
Zelo’s team is now examining the permanent role that tools like HoloLens and virtual training can play in the future going forward. It also studies the design process to see if it can be made more economical and customized with the aid of 3-D printing, cloud-based engineering teams, and scalable simulations.
There are dozens of other components to digital transformation, each on its own multiyear journey, but perhaps the most interesting part of the entire process is the mind that willingly takes on the challenge. Who is courageous enough to build out expertise coming into high-stakes, must-win scenarios, where failure doesn’t just dent your reputation; it might crater a company?
“The challenge that I usually get pitched is something that I haven’t done before,” Zelo says. “I just don’t like to do the same thing twice. I love to cook, but I rarely make the same thing more than once. I love movies, but I’m not sure I’ve ever gone back to see [the same] one. I built a staircase in a 120-year-old house all on my own, and I can promise you I’m never doing that again.”
That’s the best explanation the CIO can offer. In large part, it’s because Zelo has truly become this accumulation of ideal skills in the worst of business and tech circumstances. He’s the tech turnaround executive ready for the risk.
Animation by Anastasia Andronachi