On the move

FRAMINGHAM (03/02/2004) - After vendor stint, it's back to CIO role for Brownell

When I spoke with Jim Brownell back in July 2003, he was frustrated with the CIO role and by the way many companies were treating IT. He saw them putting the CIO and the IT team in a general contractor's role, solely responsible for a project's outcome, with business managers reluctant to share any credit or blame -- a bad approach, he lamented.

"We can't be the project owners because we often don't have the authority to effect change in the business," he said then. "By making IT the project owner, the business puts IT in a role (where) it can't succeed."

Brownell had other complaints. Cost pressures forced CIOs to make shortsighted IT investments. More CIOs reported to COOs and CFOs. Many executives didn't see the CIO's complex role.

Those perceptions directed Brownell's job search last spring. After leaving Williams-Sonoma Inc., he received offers from companies looking for CIOs but found them unappealing. Instead, he became senior vice president and general manager at retail software vendor Escalate Inc. "As I looked at my options, I felt that Escalate was the best thing for me to do at the time," he told me.

Then, about six weeks after he started at Escalate, Brownell got a call from a friend at Coldwater Creek Inc., a women's clothing retailer. Would he be interested in the CIO job there?

Four months later, Brownell went to work for Coldwater Creek. And not only is he back in the role he criticized, but he's reporting to the company's CFO.

Brownell, 46, cites four reasons for his turnaround:

-- The ability to drive results. Getting away from the CIO position helped Brownell realize that despite its frustrations, the CIO role is gratifying. As a CIO, he feels that he can add value to a company and see his work's results. "When you're on the software side," says Brownell, "you don't get to enjoy the benefits because you're (always) onto the next thing." Not only that, but the CIO role is easier than selling software in a down economy, Brownell notes.

Brownell's experience is not unusual. "Folks can think that in moving to a company that's more technology-minded, they're going to escape from the toughness of the CIO role, but the technology stuff is the easy part," says H. Michael Burgett, president of CIO Partners, an Atlanta recruiter. "Building influence and leading organizational change is where most folks are lacking. That's what he may be discovering."

-- Familiar turf. Before joining Escalate, Brownell spent 24 years in retail IT management. The new job meant he wouldn't have to learn a new business model -- and he had a lot of experience that a growing company would need.

-- Upward indicators. During his talks with Coldwater CFO Mel Dick and CEO Dennis Pence, Brownell says he learned that the retailer supports an IT strategy that fits a growing enterprise. (The onetime catalog-only merchant plans to open more than 40 stores in fiscal 2004.)

-- A CFO on the same page. Before accepting the job, Brownell says he told Dick that CIOs who report to CFOs often lack authority. Dick, who was acting CIO, told Brownell he understood that view. Dick says his time in IT "gave me a better appreciation of the day-to-day activities on the operations side of IT. It's much easier for me to understand some of the challenges that (Brownell) faces."

Brownell says that he has the CEO's ear as an executive committee member.

Burgett says Brownell's career turn indicates a new understanding about the CIO role: "The problem is not so much the job but how the company views it."

News of other moves

Patricia Morrison, CIO of Office Depot Inc., was made a director at fabric and craft retailer Jo-Ann Stores Inc. Sheila Beauchesne left her position as SVP and CIO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. to be CIO at Bluegreen Corp., a Florida-based real estate developer (Beauchesne is on CIO's editorial advisory board). Furniture retailer The Bombay Co. Inc. hired former Accenture Ltd. partner Lucretia Doblado as senior VP and CIO.

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