Executive Q&A: Murray Wright, CEO, Zones Inc.

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Murray Wright has worked for large multinationals like Sharp, Lenovo and Xerox. Now, as the CEO of Zones Inc., an Auburn-based IT solutions provider, he plans to double in a matter of years the sales of a business that already has 1,400 employees and generates revenues of more than $1 billion annually. 

EARLY YEARS: I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto. My father, a bank executive, was a hard worker and his values carried over to all of us. I delivered papers at a pretty young age. In my high school and college years, I took a lot of jobs that were tough but offered good financial rewards: I worked in a steel factory, at a meatpacking plant and even did a stint digging graves. I was also a good athlete and got a hockey scholarship to attend Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. Hockey was my first and second priority, so I had to be well-organized to get my studies done.

CAREER: I worked for 10 years at Xerox Canada, starting in sales. That was in the 1980s, when you had to bang on doors and sell to people who didn’t want to see you. To work your way up to the decision makers, you had to be relentless. You learned to balance wins and losses so you could deal with the personal rejection. It was a lot like sports. I also learned at Xerox how important it was to get momentum. It’s something that’s hard to get and tougher to keep. It’s about teamwork and having a winning culture so that everyone has a commitment and brings energy to the job.

JAPANESE-STYLE MANAGEMENT: I wanted experience as a general manager, so I worked for more than four years at [the Japanese electronics firm] Sharp. The Japanese way was to plan, plan, plan and execute a little. It was the mid-1990s. It seems crazy now, when things change so fast, to think they had 10-year plans. 

ZONES INC.: All of the choices and options and technology solutions are changing so rapidly, and I think customers need a trusted adviser like Zones to help them navigate through the options and technologies that are available in the marketplace. We’ve grown to well over $1 billion in annual sales by providing the resources and intellectual capital to help companies work their way through IT problems from a desktop refresh to helping you decide what you need in your data center. Some of our best customers are Fortune 500 companies. Our team can walk into just about any environment and help you with complex technology solutions. Or if you are doing a product refresh of a desktop or notebook, we can order it, configure it, package it and ship it [to your operations] all over the world. We’ll put our systems engineers on site, help with the solution and leave them on site as long as necessary. 

GROWTH: Under our chairman [Firoz Lalji], Zones has done an excellent job of expanding the business at mid-double-digit growth rates, so we know our value proposition works. But as you crash through several thresholds, the complexity of the business rises. Now we have to make sure we have smart, creative, dedicated people who are focused on providing creative solutions to customers and then executing on our commitment. In the simplicity of that, there is an awful lot of complexity in how you make sure that comes together. We’d like to double the size of the company over the next few years. It’s a lot about attracting the right talent and making sure we have the right value proposition. 

TALENT: This is the first time there has been three generations in the office place at the same time — Millennials, Gen X and Boomers. We can’t expect everyone to learn the same way. They are all motivated a little differently. We’re trying to adjust our culture to be able to attract smart, talented people to our company and offer the kind of challenges and movement they expect. We have to use technology to provide continuous skill improvement. We also want to ensure that we have career paths where we can take kids coming out of college, put them into assignments and then move them to something different so they have different experiences in a relatively short window of time. It’s also an opportunity to change the culture so we aren’t so “siloed.” This [Seattle setting] is a different environment from my last experience [as president of the Americas] at Tech Data in Clearwater, Florida. There is a lot of competition here for talented people.

PHILANTHROPY: There’s a lot of interest among the young in what is happening in the community, so we are ramping up our philanthropic initiatives and getting our team engaged in what we should be doing. That’s not focused on driving more business. But it’s part of creating the right environment and the right culture.

GLOBAL: Over the past couple of years, one of our initiatives has been to help support our U.S.-based companies in their operations around the world, which is very difficult to do. They want us to be able to deliver product in Japan, Mexico and Australia, and they want the same level of experience there as they have in the United States. To do that, we’ve expanded our global footprint through joint ventures and acquisitions and established [foreign] offices as beachheads. We’ll continue to keep our antennae up as we expand our global reach.  

EXTRACURRICULAR: Working is 24/7 these days. But since we just moved from Tampa in January, we are taking day trips and trying to get active in the community as well. I do a lot of skiing. I recently played my first game of golf here.

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