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CIO Conversation: Avnet's Ed Kamins

Avnet CIO Ed Kamins discusses reinventing the IT department to focus on the bottom line.

In July 2003, Ed Kamins took over the CIO role at Phoenix-based Avnet Inc., a Fortune 500 marketer, distributor and reseller of electronic components and computers. Using his marketing and engineering background, Kamins focused on reinventing the IT department to focus on the bottom line, contributing to Avnet's revenue growth over the past nine years from $5 billion to $11 billion per year.

Ed Kamins
Ed Kamins

Is business and IT alignment an issue at Avnet?

Kamins: When I started doing this two years ago, I said to the team, 'I want to be clear on this, there are no IT problems, there are only business problems.' The last thing in the world I want is the latest whiz-bang technology. That's not what we're about. What I basically said was 'No toys.' The difference between a toy and a technology is whether we're doing it purely for the sake of the fun of the technology or we're doing it to solve a business problem. Is that something you've seen IT departments get lost in -- or indulge in?
Oh, sure. I think that's normal and natural because IT people, by their very nature -- the good ones -- are curious. They're puzzle solvers, they love new technologies. So the fun of understanding all of that is to play with new technologies. You have to do that. That's called incubation, experimentation, etc. But you can't lose track of the fact that we don't need everyone with a BlackBerry on their belt. What we need is everybody communicating better.

Are you seen as the bad guy?

Kamins: Yes, I'm always the bad guy; that's my role. I'm the discipline process that makes sure we keep it all in check. But I am more the guide than anything else. The easiest way I can say it to you is I have the license to ask all the dumb questions, and when I understand it, then I'm confident that we're going in the right direction.

What's a good example of that technology?

Kamins: We have something on the computer side we call Channel Connection. Channel Connection really is a set of computerized tools, Web-based, that allow our customers to have access to easier quoting, faster delivery of information, transportation, product data -- you name it and they've got access to it on their desktop, through a Web-based interface. It's a very, very, powerful tool.

Are you able to communicate with your CTO? Are you speaking the same language?

Kamins: No, it's funny. I say to [CTO Bill Chapman] all the time, 'OK, now say that in English.' We do communicate very well. But obviously, he's four layers deep in the details beyond which I either am interested in or understand, take your pick. But the bottom line is that at the end of the day, he completely not only understands but buys into the notion that it has to be an ROI, it has to be a solution. I want to give Bill a lot of credit for that.

What would your IT department say was its biggest headache or challenge this year? A lot of CIOs I've spoken with recently have named business intelligence projects, for example.

Kamins: I'm going to put it in a different perspective. From my point of view, I think business intelligence is critical, but it's had a lot more hype than delivery. So we've ended up with all kinds of tools, some of which we've bought and then ultimately threw away. I don't want that kind of BI. CRM, same thing. When I ran the business, the salesforce yelled, 'CRM, CRM, we've got to have CRM.' So we built CRM. They didn't put the data in the system. If you don't put the data in the system, you've wasted everybody's time and money. So I don't want that kind of CRM. What I really want is practical solutions to the business problems that people face every day.

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