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GE CIO says IT leaders need to focus on customers’ revenue

Brian Watson | June 16, 2016
Understanding how GE’s customers make money has shaped CIO Jim Fowler’s leadership philosophy — and helped him carve out big goals as GE transforms into a digital industrial company.

When Jim Fowler served as CIO of GE's power-generation services unit he understood the business well. But in a meeting with the division's sales team, he realized he didn't fully understand its customers.

For example, Fowler had not realized that producing software that helped customers in certain municipalities save fuel wasn't driving any great returns. It wasn't a priority for customers, he learned - they would just pass the cost of fuel onto its own customers. Then there were customers who sold into the spot market, who cared most about producing as much power as possible in peak seasons. Little else mattered.

The lesson from that meeting, in fall 2013, according to Fowler, "blew my mind." He learned one of the most important guiding principles for his leadership roles: Not only do CIOs have to understand their business, they have to understand their customers' business.

ge jimfowler
GE's CIO Jim Fowler. 

The IT leaders real mission:  Know how your business makes money

Most IT leaders will characterize their mission as enabling business, transforming their companies or driving innovation. Fowler agrees with those aims, but he frames his objective as CIO in simpler terms. "I tell everybody who works for me: Start your job every day by understanding how your business makes money, and how customers of your business make money," he says. "Build your strategy and vision for what IT should look like around that."

Fowler was already years into leadership roles at GE when that mindset hit him. "And it stuck with me," he adds. As Fowler tells it, he carried that thinking to his next job, as CIO of GE Power and Water, then as CIO of GE Capital, to his role today as global CIO for the storied $117 billion company. Since that epiphany, he has framed conversations with business and corporate leaders around making money for GE or its customers - or, ideally, both.

When he moved to GE Capital in June 2014, he spent the first 30 days visiting leaders from each product line. He wanted to know how they drove revenue, and why customers chose GE Capital over traditional banks.

People in the leasing division said GE was more willing to take on risk to lend to companies the banks wouldn't touch. But the cost of capital had dropped in the subsequent years, and interest rates were at historically low levels. So, Fowler asked, if GE had cheap money, and the banks had cheap money,why were customers choosing GE? What really was the differentiator?

At the time, Fowler inherited an initiative to implement an out-of-the-box software product from a large vendor to replace its existing leasing platform. The project was taking too long and costing too much money, partially because the solution had to be customized significantly. While other banks issued the same exact lease types - which were covered by the solution - GE offered more flexibility.


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