Glimmers of Hope?

 
 

 

The Sunday Seattle Times offers a page full of graphs to support a rather grim view of the state's economic future. But that pessimistic view isn't necessarily supported by the graphs on the page. Economics is all about trends, and if you look at the trendlines over the past year, conditions look substantially brighter. We are clearly beginning to emerge from that deep hole in which the financial crisis buried us.

  1. Leading economic indicators for Washington have climbed to 116.3 by September, up solidly from 110.3 a year ago, suggesting we should expect slow but steady economic growth ahead.
  2. There are 4.27 online adds for every 100 workers in our labor force. That's up about 30% from 3.26 jobs per 100 workers a year ago. Maybe not enough to quickly bring down state unemployment which remains stubbornly high at 9 percent. But unemployment in the state is significantly lower than that national rate of 9.6%. And the jobs available are much higher than the 2.79 average for the nation as a whole.
  3. Boeing employment has been on a steady climb since hitting a bottom in May. Recent increases are small, but with the new 787 beginning delivery in the first quarter of 2011 and the 747-8 soon afterward, hiring should start to pick up.  
  4. The purchasing managers' index is 59.2, up solidly from 52.6 a year ago, and substantially higher than 54.4 for the nation as a whole..
  5. Retail sales showed a year-to-year gain of 4.2% compared to a 6% decline the year before.
  6. Cargo volumes at the Port of Seattle were up about 20 percent.

The stubbornly persistent bad news is in housinig, where sales are down and inventories remain high. Housing problems are likely to plague us for a long time. But even here there is a glimmer of hope. Net new drivers licenses granted, which tends to be a good proxy for migration into the state, shot up to 12,100 in September, nearly twice the level of last September. New arrivals in the state help to create new demand for all that excess housing we built during the boom years.

CEO Adviser: Paving the Way to Digital

CEO Adviser: Paving the Way to Digital

How the Northwest’s leading asphalt company is embracing technology.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

“What’s the ROI on software?”

This is the question facing many leaders of traditional mid-market companies. For a well-established family-run business, there is often the temptation to invest in assets that can generate revenue faster in the short term instead of technology upgrades that don’t deliver immediate profit.

When I first met Mike Lee, president of Lakeside Industries, he asked an interesting question: “Are we doing the right things when it comes to technology?” Lee understood that his 600-person asphalt company in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood had to make technology a strategic objective in order to ensure the future of the business.

Here are a few ways Lee showed leadership in making ones and zeroes important in an industry focused on rock and oil.

Establish crystal clarity about how digital can support the overall vision.

Lee had a compelling “why” and vision for the company in place: to make a lasting impact on our community, our relationships and our people, and to be the low-cost supplier that provides an exceptional customer experience. The core values focused on safety, environmental responsibility, quality and profitability. But there was no solid technology vision to realize it, and IT didn’t have a presence at the business table, so Lee made a point to involve the CFO/acting CIO. The beauty of setting a digital vision is in its simplicity — not looking at every solution available, but only those that can further the company’s reason for being. In Lakeside’s case, how could new technologies bring it closer to its employees, its community and its customers? How could software make it improve efficiency, visibility and environmental commitments? When Lee looked closely at his vision, it became clear that technology could help bolster it, but that it couldn’t happen without tech being elevated.

Identify the gaps that technology can fill. 

“There is more to our business than asphalt and paving,” says Lee. “We have to keep up with plant and equipment management, communications, competitors, security and environmental regulations.” Lee met with his CIO and IT directors to determine how technology was going to add value inside and outside the business. The firm developed a digital roadmap that provided clarity around the technology initiatives people were going to work on; for each, it set accountabilities, timelines and goals. They used this roadmap to manage ongoing progress and to determine whether or not the new “shiny technology objects” matched the vision and strategy. The most important initiative was to replace Lakeside’s aging enterprise resource planning system. This would require modernizing processes and technology infrastructure to support collaboration with business management across the company — a broad impact to the business. Another key initiative was improving how it estimated projects and managed customer relationships. This new system would only be successful with buy-in from the people in the field using the software.

Communicate the importance of technology to the management team.

While its employees are part of a family, Lakeside Industries is also a distributed business run by a group of autonomous regional managers who needed to believe in the vision. Lee presented the specifics of the strategy to all managers: The message was “IT can no longer be just a department.” Business and technology leaders — who rarely interfaced — had the opportunity to discuss and debate what was at stake. Their conclusion? Software isn’t a gutsy gamble or a bold bet — it’s table stakes. The result was a set of guiding principles, alignment and excitement for what’s ahead. For the first time in the company’s history, business and technology people now have harmony around a shared digital vision — working together as one to contribute to healthier profitability and improved customer relations. In the end, Lakeside Industries’ road to the future has been paved with much more than good intentions. 

TIM GOGGIN is president of Sappington, a Seattle consulting firm that advises clients on digital change. Reach him at tim.goggin@sappington.co.