INTERVIEW: Barry J. Brunetto on Taming a Wild Vendor

Usually, the Deck Chairs blog describes horror stories of waste, hubris, and failure. But not this time!
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Usually, the Deck Chairs blog describes horror stories of waste, hubris, and failure. But not this time! Today the story is about taking control and turning vendor-supplied failure into success.

Today’s interview is with Barry Brunetto, Vice President of Information Systems for global manufacturing company, Blount Inc. I first read about Barry in CIO Decisions magazine, in an article written by Maryfran Johnson.

When mismanagement on the part of IBM took down his SAP system, Barry was put squarely on the hot seat. I asked Barry to describe how he dealt with this nightmare.

Did you detect any early-warning signs of trouble prior to the meltdown?

There are always early-warning signs, but most people tend to ignore them. In this case, the signs started when there was a change in ownership at Nexus, our original vendor. We had a number of issues, that although minor in nature, did give me cause for concern.

In response, I alerted the staff to monitor all activity with this vendor, to analyze their work and make sure things were okay. We were also concerned about the possibility that staff changes, resulting from the vendor’s change in ownership, could cause us a problem. So, we shared our thoughts with the vendor.

Eventually, IBM took over the vendor, and we immediately met with the new IBM executive contact assigned to our account. Unfortunately, this meeting left us with the feeling that that we could be facing even more trouble. I’ve never been impressed with big names, and just because they were IBM did not mean that things were automatically going to be perfect.

After the meeting, I told my staff to notify me of all activity and requests that we had with IBM.

The signs of trouble had already begun. What happened next?

The first major warning sign occurred when IBM made noises that they wanted us to replace the storage area network (SAN) solution that the previous vendor (acquired by IBM) put in place to alleviate other problems. After detailed questioning, IBM admitted that cost was driving this issue for them.

I agreed to follow their recommendations, but also demanded a detailed migration plan. Every plan we received from them was missing information, which was yet another warning sign. We held firm to our position, until we started having problems and were told that replacing the SAN was the only solution to our problems.

During a conference call with IBM and another vendor (AT&T), it became apparent that we were not being told the total truth about what was going on. During that call, I felt AT&T wanted to tell us the truth, but could not do so since IBM controlled the account.

Sounds pretty bad. What did you do about it?

We were left with no choice but to proceed, but I warned IBM not to screw it up. My confidence in their ability to pull this off was extremely low.

We recognized a number of key warning signs. First, IBM was not always able to execute our requests; second, they offered too many excuses; and finally, they made statements that I knew were untrue or didn’t make sense, based on my experience.

Eventually, a full-blown crisis hit. How can a CIO gain control over a crisis situation?

First, get as much information as possible, to help you understand what is transpiring, and confront the vendor immediately. When talking with the vendor, make sure you cover all the possible scenarios regarding what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Second, inform your boss and all other key executives about the situation. Be as honest as you can. Even before you have a resolution, make sure they understand that you are fully engaged and working on the problem. Also make them aware that you will most likely need their support and involvement.

Third, get other people involved who can be of help to you. Focus on the people who may be adversely affected by the situation, such as other vendors working on your account.

In my case, we contacted other areas of IBM that wanted to do business with Blount. We also got SAP involved, explained that our users viewed this is an SAP problem, and asked SAP to pressure IBM. Finally, we contacted the unit of IBM that we were having problem with, and I applied as much pressure as I could. We kept up the pressure until the situation was resolved.

The key to this plan of attack was having knowledgeable staff, who gave me the information that I needed, and included their best opinions.

Do you have any advice for a CIO who sees the early warning signs of trouble?

The best advice I can give is to get actively involved. I don’t mean micro-manage, but use your resources and become an involved part of the team dealing with the situation. If you just sit there and try to manage something like this from 100,000 feet, you will crash. I also recommend that you work out the role each member of the team will play in resolving the situation. In addition, be sure your team gives you the information you need to correct the situation quickly.

I also recommend getting involved immediately whenever a high-risk event is scheduled. By being involved up-front, you can set the proper expectations with the vendor, which will help ensure that things go smoothly.

Don’t be afraid to use your network; vendors are after your business, and there is nothing wrong with using them to help correct a bad situation. In fact, during these difficult times you will learn a lot about the people seeking your business, as well as about those already doing business with you.

Don’t be naïve; all vendors say they are business partners, but we all know they are out to make money, just like your company. Just as your own company will look for ways to cut cost, so will the vendors. We all know that vendor cost cutting could affect your service levels, so watch our for that. Remember, you are paying the vendors for a service, and you have every right to demand and receive the service for which you are paying.

Finally, don’t be afraid to admit that you made a mistake. In our situation, it was not the case, since IBM only came to us when they acquired our previous vendor. But there have been times in my career that I made the wrong decision and things did not go as expected. In those cases, I admitted the mistake and changed the plan of attack. If you are headed in the wrong direction, maintaining the same course will certainly lead to disaster.

Plans need to be dynamic, and as new information becomes available, you need to make adjustments. Of course, this is project management 101, but I have observed people stay on the same path even when they know it is the wrong one.

Barry J. Brunetto, CCP , is Vice President Information Systems, Blount Inc. - OCSG

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