The recent news that Sears named 46-year-old Louis D’Ambrosio, a former IT executive at IBM and Avaya, as its new CEO strikes me as a big deal. Just a few weeks ago, Peter Breunig, who oversees IT architecture at Chevron, was telling me that chances are “slim” that an IT leader would become CEO of a nontechnology company like Chevron. Companies tend to look for people with domain expertise to fill that top spot, he said.
Certainly the business cognoscenti were taken aback by the news that one of America’s largest retailers had put an IT executive at its helm. Echoing others, Douglas McIntyre of AOL’s Daily Finance called the move a long shot: “The board may eventually come to regret not bringing in a seasoned executive from a firm like Macy’s or Wal-Mart,” he warned.
Or not. Maybe technology is changing how business gets done, so fast and so fundamentally that nontechnology companies are starting to feel that having an IT executive at the helm is not a long shot but a matter of survival.
Of course, Sears didn’t exactly go hunting in a basement data center for its new CEO. D’Ambrosio comes from technology with a lot of business savvy: He capped his 16-year stint at IBM in Big Blue’s marketing and sales division, where he reportedly was known as the billion-dollar man because he oversaw more than $1 billion in investments in programs for IBM’s software partners. As CEO at Avaya, he was in charge of taking it private — lucratively, as it turned out — and it’s rumored that Sears might want to go the same route. D’Ambrosio also has an MBA from Harvard and was valedictorian at Penn State.
But the reason this appointment strikes me as a big deal is how Sears Chairman Edward Lampert talked about it in his annual letter to shareholders:
“From the beginning of our CEO search, we were determined to find a leader with information and technology experience who could catalyze the transformation of our portfolio of businesses in the context of the evolution of the retail industry that is occurring more broadly. … Lou knows what it is like to be the 800-pound gorilla from his days at IBM, and he knows what it is like to compete against 800-pound gorillas from his days at Avaya. He also understands how technology can shape and change companies and industries. The profound changes that many industries, including retail, are currently experiencing require new thinking, new leadership and new business models. Information and technology have always been an important part of the supply chain in retail, but more and more it is becoming critical that we use information and technology in a much more profound way to deliver great customer experiences.”
“Determined to find a leader with information and technology experience” — wow! What will be interesting is to see what effect an IT executive as CEO will have on the job and life of Sears’ CIO.