by Martha Heller

The Power of a Healthy CFO-CIO Partnership

Mar 19, 20144 mins
CIOIT Leadership

For CFO Jim Lusk, IT is essential to ABM’s smooth operations and happy customers.

For CFO Jim Lusk, IT is essential to ABM’s smooth operations and happy customers.

What impact is technology having on ABM?

One of the key ways we drive ABM’s results is through great operations. We’re a company with more than 100,000 employees, and we perform our services in more than 45,000 buildings in the U.S. and internationally. Since employees are our cost of goods sold, workforce management is a huge part of our operations.

We recently embarked on a plan to get our employees on a common time-reporting system–many use thumbprints to punch in and out of biometric clocks. Now, if we run a lot of overtime the first week of a month, we can use simple algorithms to project those costs. Rather than wait to get reports at the end of the month, we can start attacking labor costs as soon as we know there’s an issue.

How do you ensure that a great idea like biometric clocks turns into a real application?

We always start with strategy and how much risk we are willing to take. Then our process management organization (PMO), which includes representatives from the entire company, prioritizes the big projects. If there is an issue like time reporting and the PMO thinks we have a good technology solution, we’ll do a pilot.

As CFO, how can you be assured that IT resources are being focused on the right thing?

First, I need to know that our CIO understands the business problem as well as anyone in operations. Second, I want to see a great IT expense-to-revenue ratio while delivering value. I also need to understand what capital dollars we need to spend. If I have that, I don’t need to see much of anything else. In the end, it is the boundaries that free you.

Clearly you really value your CIO, Doug Gilbert. What advice can you give CIOs who want to attain the same level of credibility?

I think about a CIO’s role as a triangle with four layers [like the food pyramid]. The bottom layer is table stakes: Do you have the best people and processes in your IT organization? The second layer is business knowledge: Do you know enough about the business to start recognizing patterns in what you see? The third layer is synthesis: What options are you teeing up to the business to solve those problems? Many CIOs never make it to the third layer.

The top layer is being a strategic partner, where you use your unique view of the company to solve business problems every day. The higher you are in that triangle, the more value you create. Those are people that I want around me.

Will the CIO role at ABM be different in five years?

Doug and I have spent the past few years focusing on common processes and common systems. But going forward, more of his focus will be on the customer. It will be simple things like when a customer tells a branch manager he didn’t receive a bill, the branch manager can pull the bill up on his iPad and then email it or provide a link for online access. Or when a manager can say to a customer, “We have these three different uniforms your janitor can wear; which one do you like? By the way, I noticed as we were cleaning that your lights were flickering. We do lighting and energy retrofits, which I can demo for you right here on my iPad.” I see our CIO working on solutions that give us a more direct strategic relationship with our customers.

Martha Heller is president of executive recruiting firm Heller Search Associates and author of The CIO Paradox. Follow her on Twitter: @marthaheller.