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Chiefs' passion for technology drives business success

published on November 19, 2002

When Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairman and CEO of Minneapolis-based Carlson Companies, was interviewing CIO candidates two years ago, she asked Steve Brown a unique question: How would you like to be the best CIO in the country? Brown ultimately accepted the role and also serves as senior VP at the conglomerate. What he likely didn't realize at that time was that Carlson Nelson was extremely serious about making it happen.

"That's what I want him to be. Anything I do that stands in the way of that is reneging on a promise and an expectation," explained Carlson Nelson, who clearly hasn't reneged or slowed in her quest to have the best CIO in the country.

The privately held company— top among the international travel, hospitality, and relationship marketing industries with brands such as Radisson Hotels & Resorts, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, and T.G.I. Friday's— was recognized this year for being one of the nation's top five innovative users of information technology. The company received the honor from InformationWeek magazine in its annual recognition of technology achievement in the nation's 500 largest companies. Cutting-edge projects, including a system that lets management teams across all Carlson enterprises review and coordinate data on consumer behavior, have clearly helped Carlson Companies earn the honor.

The driving force comes from the company's CEO and CIO, who both strive to leverage technology to its fullest potential. Carlson Companies made a $1 billion investment in IT from 1999 to 2002 alone. The two say the key to their successful, and innovative, working relationship is a mutual passion for technology; strong tech leaders in every business unit; and a continued pursuit of business goals, competitive advantage, and customer satisfaction. They also maintain a strong commitment to honest, focused communication.

Passionate for communication and technology

For her part, Marilyn Carlson Nelson not only talks and pursues technology; she's an avid fan. She describes herself as a heavy user of electronic communications— she gives her Samsung PDA/phone and Microsoft Office scheduling and e-mail software a hefty daily workout. Yet she's no geek, notes Brown, who points to her business drive and passion for excellence.

"She gets the numbers and she's creative," said Brown, explaining that it's the creativity and inquisitiveness that make her such a good partner for technology initiatives.

Carlson Nelson said she picks up her technology knowledge, and its possibilities, by talking with clients, serving on corporate boards, and talking with Brown and others within the operating group. She's also a self-described perennial student— constantly scanning newspapers, magazines, and technology ads.

"I often clip the items and share them with others, including Steve," said the CEO. "Sometimes they're a perfect match, sometimes they're only concepts that we need to fit to our needs. I definitely have strong opinions about what technology needs to do, but I leave it to others to determine the actual best solutions."

The office door is always open

When it comes to hashing over the latest technology initiative concept, Carlson Nelson keeps her door open, said Brown. Although the two executives work on different floors at the Carlson Companies complex, Brown gets plenty of face time with his chief.

When she's not on business trips, the pair meets for strategic decisions or problem-solving sessions on an as-needed basis. Other conversations take place over the phone, when meetings aren't possible. The duo reserves e-mail for reports and project updates and meets more formally with the full executive committee in biweekly sessions.

Neither Carlson Nelson nor Brown has a preferred communication method. "After all, good use of technology is about fitting the solution to the need," said Carlson Nelson. "So that's how we communicate."

A unifying goal

Carlson Nelson demands that communications stay focused and relevant— a key element of keeping projects on track. When she and Brown talk, they're constantly zeroing in on the strategic direction for various business units, immediate and long-term goals, the best interests of customers, and ways of achieving competitive advantage.

"Steve's entire organization is focused on being partners in the business, not just technoids," explained the CEO.

In any exchange, the topics can be as narrow as a project update or as broad as what Carlson Companies is doing to increase its global market share. Recently, Carlson Nelson and Brown discussed a new system to help manage HR information, licensing and capital arrangements pertaining to an outsourcing project, and how Six Sigma process improvements would improve project outcome.

In the meetings, Brown said he orients his work, conversations, and ideas around the company's core strategic objectives "because that's what [Carlson Nelson] lives."

A relationship built on trust and respect

Surprisingly, in their two years of serious, high-level discussions, the two have not been at loggerheads. That's due, in part, to the mutual respect the executives have for each other.

"I know it sounds weird, but I've never had an issue that I couldn't work or we couldn't work together," said Brown.

Brown describes Carlson Nelson as a tough mentor— one who demands the best from her team, allowing people to fail with grace, but ultimately holding them to high standards of achievement and integrity.

It's obvious that Carlson Nelson not only sets strong values for her staff, but she lives them too. When she asked Brown if he wanted to be the best CIO in the country, it was because she wants her company to have the best CIO in the country.

The CEO-CIO relationship is one reason Carlson Companies has been able to steer its way through the business challenges facing travel and hospitality businesses. The CEO admits that one challenge is keeping financial pace with her CIO's vision for technology.

"But that's good," said Carlson Nelson. "We're goal-oriented around here."

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david southgate
writing for living.