by Peter Fabris

CIO Hall of Fame: Ron J. Ponder

Sep 15, 19974 mins
CIOIT Leadership

Ron Ponder has consistently tackled large, high-risk projects that would spell doom for many CIOs.

Career Highlights

Today: Executive vice president and CIO, AT&T Corp., Basking Ridge, N.J.
1993-97: AT&T’s first corporate CIO
1991-93: Executive vice president of systems and operations, Sprint Corp.
1981-91: Senior vice president and CIO, Federal Express Corp.
1978-81: Vice president of operations and planning, Federal Express
1976-78: Director of operations and research, Federal Express
Education: Bachelor’s degree in industrial management from the University of Southern Arkansas; MBA in management science from Louisiana Polytechnic University; PhD in operations research and management information systems from Mississippi State University

Ron Ponder has consistently tackled large, high-risk projects that would spell doom for many CIOs, including an innovative package-tracking system at Federal Express, an ambitious universal billing system at Sprint and a critical customer billing and marketing system at AT&T. Yet he has never been dazzled by technology itself, always focusing on integrating IT tightly with business functions to a point where the line between the two blurs.


Indeed, Ponder recalls an occasion at Federal Express when a journalist visited the company and requested a tour of its systems. The journalist expected to see mainframes in a clean room atmosphere, separated from normal business operations. But, that’s not the way Ponder and IS operated at FedEx. “In the course of the interview, the journalist learned that the technology systems were the business,” Ponder says.

His devotion to creating IT/business synergies has been particularly evident in the realm of what Ponder calls “end-to-end customer care”-nurturing the customer relationship from the time of sale until billing or even afterward in a maintenance call. For example, under Ponder’s direction, Federal Express’s IS team beefed up Cosmos–the package-tracking system that informs customers of their packages’ whereabouts in the FedEx transportation network–so that it became a powerful competitive weapon, says James Barksdale, president and CEO of Netscape Communications Corp. and former executive vice president and chief operating officer at Federal Express. “It caused the whole industry to build [similar systems],” Barksdale says.

At Sprint, Ponder guided the development of the company’s universal billing project, a system that gives the long-distance carrier a wealth of customer data. “Today, that gives Sprint one of the more advanced ordering and billing customer databases in the entire telecommunications industry,” Ponder says. “Of course, I don’t like that now, because I’m competing against it.” Today, he’s trying to leap ahead of Sprint with sophisticated database marketing technology “that eventually lets you target down to individual customers.” Such projects are no easy feat at AT&T, because Ponder inherited a collection of disparate, incompatible computer and communications systems.

But large, risky projects are a Ponder trademark. “He has done some of the largest and most forefront projects ever,” says Naomi Seligman, senior partner of The Research Board Inc., an elite New York-based group of CIOs focused on business best practices and technology research. “Ron’s completed projects so big that most companies wouldn’t be courageous enough to attempt them.”

This time, Ponder won’t be the one to complete the monster project because responsibility for the AT&T billing system project was passed this spring to Frank Ianna, executive vice president of network and computing services and chief quality officer. Instead, Ponder will focus on another tough challenge: creating a blueprint for making AT&T’s global network and computer operations compatible with the networks of its business partners.

In this new assignment, Ponder will no doubt draw on what Barksdale calls his singular talent for project management. “I was always impressed with his ability to plan projects down to a fine level of granularity,” Barksdale says. Ponder is a wizard at understanding the interrelationships of multiple processes and devising systems to serve them, a knack that’s increasingly necessary for CIO success today, he adds.

“Ron has the ability to take a bad idea and make it into a good one during process implementation,” says James I. Cash Jr., a professor at the Harvard Business School. Cash has observed Ponder’s work since his FedEx days. “He walked into some terrible situations at Sprint and AT&T and inherited some projects that were not necessarily strategically smart, but he was able to make them into a big deal.”