by Jerry Gregoire

Feld Draws the Big Picture

Jun 01, 20013 mins
IT Leadership

Charlie Feld is always walking into trouble. Purposefully. “It’s kind of fun!” he says.

Fun. Of course he would say that. In solving the world’s IT problems, Charlie Feld’s positive attitude has been as important to his success as his systems knowledge and management savvy. “I like to go into places where the chairman and CEO know they’ve got a problem and are ready to put energy and money and people behind fixing it,” he says.

Since 1992, Charlie has run the Feld Group, a Dallas-based CIO-for-hire outfit. What has attracted clients such as Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Delta Air Lines, First Data Resources, Hewlett-Packard and Westinghouse-CBS is that Feld’s guys are primarily operators, not consultants. They’re a team with real-life experience and a real track record. Feld was CIO at Frito-Lay for 11 years and served as CIO at BNSF and then Delta before going full-time with the Feld Group in 2000.

Another compelling sell is the presence of Charlie himself. In the 15 or so years I’ve known him, I’ve never heard anyone call him Charles or Chuck, and only desk clerks and the occasional stranger call him Mr. Feld. Charlie is one of those very rare individuals who are so engaging and charismatic he seems to have his own gravitational field.

Charlie’s consulting MO is a high-wire act. He is famous for concocting turnaround strategies on a whiteboard as senior management looks on. One might suspect that he had the strategy worked out ahead of time, but I’ve seen him do it and it seems spontaneous enough. The effect is to draw everyone in as a “coconspirator,” as he calls it.

But why are some very smart CIOs with capable IT teams unable to formulate and execute a coherent strategy without help? “The problem is that CEOs and the heads of manufacturing or distribution tend to be very tactical, very gimmicky-oriented, very functionally driven,” Charlie says. By contrast, IT is best done at the enterprise level. “One key to a great strategy is a well-behaved infrastructure. That means base platforms, which are narrowly specified for cost reasons, messaging services that are platform-independent and well-designed databases. Now in almost every case, when I walk into a place, the current CIO has been trying in vain to explain this to senior management, and he just can’t. [The CIOs] are not graphical enough; they can’t draw a picture.”

In the ongoing economic slowdown and the strain it’s putting on budgets and strategies, Charlie sees only good news. “We all realize that everything that’s come along in the last few years is here to stay. The Internet, wireless, ERP. What we’ve got now is a reprieve of maybe two or three years.

“This is a wonderful time for the CIO to go in with the right infrastructure story and get it installed,” he declares. “This is the time to get healthy underneath.” Coming from Charlie Feld, how could you not believe it?