It's one thing to say you have a "people-first" culture. It's another to actually create a workplace that attracts and retains talented, motivated employees. CDW is one of the rare corporations that has accomplished this feat. A specialist in IT products and services that recorded $8.1 billion in sales last year, CDW has consistently appeared on lists of the best places to work in the country.
Doug Eckrote, senior vice president of operations and a member of CDW's executive committee, has worked hard to make sure that this culture extends to all corners of the company's logistics and operations organization. As he'll tell you, creating a desirable workplace doesn't require installing flashy game rooms or espresso bars. All a company has to do is focus on the basics: open and honest communications, recognition for a job well done, and a chance to learn on the job and explore new challenges.
Eckrote's own career reflects this. He didn't start out in logistics or operations. Instead, Eckrote, who has a bachelor of science degree in agricultural sales and marketing from Purdue University, began his career at CDW as a sales account manager. After joining the company in 1989, he rose quickly through the ranks, serving in a variety of management roles of increasing responsibility. He was appointed vice president of operations in 1999, senior vice president of purchasing in 2001, and senior vice president of purchasing and operations later that year. He was promoted to his current role in 2006.
Eckrote met recently with Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald to discuss his career, what makes CDW a great place to work, and his thoughts on providing tech support to the surfer dude in the company's TV commercials.
Q: You began your career at CDW in sales and then migrated to logistics and operations. Has that sales background been a help or a hindrance to you in your current role?
A: Oh, it's been a huge help. No question about it. There was a big learning curve when I went into my current role with no operational background, but that's the way CDW does things.We like to promote from within and give people on-the-job experiences in a learn-as-you-go-type setup.
Q: So your background in sales has been a plus?
A: It has. I think it might be in most any company, but it is especially helpful here. CDW is such a sales-driven and sales-focused company. Our sales organization is nearly half of our total workforce. My background is a definite plus because I can relate whenever they have questions. If you haven't been in a sales organization and your account managers are calling up screaming that something didn't ship on time, you might not understand why they're making such a fuss about it. You don't know what it's like to talk to a customer who's upset that the product didn't get there, so you might just shrug it off. I have been on the other side of that phone call. I know that repeat sales are the account managers' livelihood. So I know it's a big deal.
Q: Can you describe your role with the company today?
A: In the broadest sense, I oversee operations. My areas of responsibility include the activities at our two DCs, one here in Vernon Hills, Ill., and one in North Las Vegas, Nev. Also under the CDW operations umbrella is our customer relations group, which basically takes care of customer inquiries after the sale. That group also has charge of our process improvement initiative, which is the department we call Operational Excellence. Then we have a retail sales operation that falls under that umbrella. Safety and security is also under our umbrella in operations and facilities.
Q: Who is responsible for handling the support and service for that "surfer dude" out in the South Pacific who appears in CDW's TV ads?
A: Well, the marketing group came up with that one, but I would be more than happy to make that service call.
Q: CDW has a reputation as a good employer based in part on the way you engage employees with incentive programs and empower them to focus on serving the customer. How do you approach that? How do you go about keeping everyone throughout the organization informed of the company's overall objectives as well as its customer service objectives?
A: It comes down to communication. You hear lots of talk about the importance of communication, but I think people in general fall short in that area. I think everybody realizes it's important to keep people informed but actually following through is a different story. There never seems to be enough time in the day, but I think that you've got to engage your co-workers at all levels through that communication.
We do that in several different ways. I meet with every one of the people within my operations once a quarter and give them updates on our initiatives, both the company initiatives and the operations group's initiatives. We try to make sure that our staff members not only understand them but also understand what we need to do to make them a success.We give them updates on what is happening.We give them updates on the financials so they know exactly what we are selling and how we are doing profit-wise and sales-wise, and all that good stuff.
We include in those quarterly sessions a question and answer period. I open it up to questions that anybody might have, wide open, anything they want to know about operations, anything they want to know about CDW in general. We either answer their question right there, or, if I don't know the answer, we write it down and get the answer for them.
The other thing we do to improve communication in each department is to establish and maintain a communications group. This is a group that I meet with every six weeks. The members of the group are the communications delegates. They wear special shirts so that people know who they are. We post their names and pictures. Their co-workers use them to pass their questions to. When the group meets, we just sit around and the delegates, one at a time, bring up the questions that have come to them. We put all the questions down. We post the answers to them, and everybody gets to see what's happening. We have found that people like this setup. We have explained to them that just because you're asking for something doesn't mean that you're always going to get it, but at least if the answer is no, you'll be getting an explanation why. It has been a huge plus because people appreciate the fact that their questions are being addressed. It has been a great way to improve communication.
Q: That has got to help morale in a day and age when everyone seems to be worried about recruiting and retaining talented members. It sounds like it helps make CDW a good place to work.
A: Yes, I think it helps our culture. We have a very, very strong culture here. We have low turnover rates. We have high morale. CDW has been on "best places to work" lists for several years. It definitely helps in recruiting, helps in retaining. When you come here, you can just feel that the people working here are excited to be here. They feel like they're part of the team and that they're making a genuine contribution.
We also have boxes set up so that staff members can submit ideas for improvement. If their idea is implemented, they get a $100 bonus. That may not sound like a lot, but it is! To a lot of people, $100 is nothing to sneeze at.
Q: You know, I could almost fill my car's gas tank with that!
Q: We spend a lot of time talking about the management, the processes, the enabling technologies, and so on that relate to successful logistics operations. But in large part, your approach and CDW's success in logistics are based on the team you have driving that operation, right?
A: Absolutely. It starts with a very strong management team, which in turn has a strong supervisor team, all the way down to a strong co-worker team. We all have got to be on the same page. You can come up with grand plans for change, but if you don't have your co-workers' buy-in, those plans are never going to succeed. You've got to get them involved at the very beginning of the process.
Q: Which of the skills in your personal skill set serve you best when you go to work each day?
A: I like to think I have a down-to-earth attitude about things. I have an open-door policy where people can come and talk to me. As for my management style, I like to empower people to make decisions. I look at myself as kind of a traffic cop. My job is to get things out of people's way as well as to be there to support them and make sure they have the resources that they need to be successful.
Q: What do you look for in a candidate when you go to hire someone for your operation?
A: First and foremost I ask myself, "Is this person somebody who can fit into the culture here? Is this somebody who would fit in with the team, and who is not going to be disruptive to the team? Will he or she help take us up to the next level?" So culture is the first thing I look at.
Q: What advice would you offer a young person interested in pursuing a career in logistics?
A: That's a good question. I never thought about it much, but based on what I have seen, I'm not sure that classes are going to have a big impact. I mean, I majored in agriculture. It is important to get your degree. I am not so sure it is important what that degree is in as long as you get the degree.
From a job experience standpoint, if they're aiming for an upper management or supply chain leadership position, I think it is good that they get some type of sales experience. I don't care what kind of sales it is, but when you have to sell and deal with the public at any level, getting that experience is a plus. I would suggest they get some solid experience at the entry level and work in a warehouse. I think it's important for them to have a feel for what all these people go through. I think if you can get those kinds of job experiences, it will help you relate better when you get into those leadership positions. You will know first hand what those people go through. It is going to make you a more wellrounded manager and leader.
Q: Any closing thoughts?
A: When you're looking at making changes, don't make changes just for change's sake. Look at the proposed change and ask, "Is this going to improve productivity? Is this going to improve the customer experience? And, at the end of the day, is it going to save money?" If the answer to all three questions is yes, then it's going to ultimately improve profitability, and it's going to lead to increased sales.