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CIO to CEO: One man's journey

It doesn't happen often, but Hyundai Motor America picked a CIO with a knack for finance to drive a new spin-off business.

The business knowledge that came in handy when Richard W. Hoffman started his IT career almost three decades ago...

is now a prerequisite for top technology executives.

But a proven track record of using technology to solve business problems enabled Hoffman to make that rarest of leaps for IT executives -- from CIO to CEO. Hoffman took the reins on March 1 of the newly formed of Hyundai Information Systems North America (HISNA).

"My knee-jerk reaction is surprise," said Mark Smith, CEO and senior vice president of research at Ventana Research Inc., in San Mateo, Calif. "We're seeing more finance operation people taking more control as CIO. I would say this is not necessarily the norm."

Starting up

Shortly after joining the automotive giant two and a half years ago, Hoffman spearheaded a five-year plan for the North American business. A year's worth of planning resulted in the IT services being spun out into a new shared services company, serving Hyundai Motor America, Kia Motors America, Hyundai Motor Finance Co., Kia Motor Finance Co. and their affiliates, with Hoffman tapped to lead the new group.

The last 90 days for him have consisted of the nuts-and-bolts work of starting a new company -- drafting service level agreements, establishing new client relationships and hiring new personnel.

"We didn't have service level agreements before," Hoffman said. "That may not be sexy, but it's what works. It's hard to sell a strategy if the system is not reliable."

One noticeably blank box in the organizational chart is reserved for the CIO. It's a position Hoffman is in no rush to fill. For now, department technology directors will report directly to him -- when the number of direct reports grows too large, he'll hire a CIO as a go-between.

What will he be looking for when the time comes to hire a top tech guy?

"Somebody with passion, in that there's a sense of urgency," Hoffman said. "A team player who can work with administrators and developers, can work well with everyone and has a good solid business background. I like people who have had the tech background at one time -- it's still integral to what we do and so they know how to interact with external suppliers -- but the focus has to be on the business. They really have to understand this industry so they have credibility."

Hitting a wall

Most CIOs get stuck running the systems that execute the strategies set by other executives, said Dan Gingras, a partner with Tatum Partners' technology leadership practice. The technical expertise that helps IT professionals advance can also pigeonhole them later on, unless they work some non-IT experience or education into the mix, like earning an MBA, Gingras said.

"It's a totally unusual situation, [for a CIO to make the jump to CEO]," he said. "You can probably count the number of times it happens on one hand. Finding CIOs who have multidimensional careers is more the exception than the rule."

Hoffman started his career as a programmer at DePaul University in Chicago and rose through the IT ranks at companies, including Embassy Entertainment, Digitial Equipment Corp., Dole Food Co. Inc. and Yamaha Corp. of America. Along the way, Hoffman relied more on his finance degree than on his tech skills.

"My forte is understanding the business side," Hoffman said. "Yes, I came from the tech side, but my leanings have been on the business side for a long time." Throughout his career, Hoffman said, "I always got moved to the division that was screwed up. For some reason I like that, and I think it would make you attractive."

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At Yamaha, Hoffman served as vice president of IT and corporate affairs. There, corporate affairs was shorthand for whatever "broken departments" needed fixing. Issues ranging from corporate policy to indirect procurement procedures were bundled into his responsibility. Hoffman believes having the reputation and experience as a problem solver creates opportunities for executives.

"My philosophy is that the good jobs are all taken," Hoffman said. "The good, comfortable ones people aren't leaving. When you're looking for a job the probability is people are looking for a CIO because there's a problem. … I truly feel in most of the opportunities there's a problem, so they're looking for someone who can fix things. Most of my jobs have been turnarounds."

"Sounds like he's done the CIO role right and how he's getting his chance," Ventana Research's Smith said.

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