Neelu Sethi, CIO of Reddy Ice, is the latest subject in our career series, “How I Landed My CIO Job.”
Heller Search: What was going on in your career prior to Reddy Ice?
Neelu Sethi: I have had the privilege to work for several excellent companies in the CPG, healthcare, hospitality, and textile industries. These have primarily been large companies, including McKesson and Cadbury. Most recently, I was at Dr Pepper Snapple Group as VP of IT, the number two in technology. I learned a great deal there, and I feel I expanded and grew personally and professionally.
What made me successful over the years is my core mantra which is to take risk, and raise your hand for a new challenge whenever you start to get comfortable in your role. I feel I have done that every two years or so during my entire career.
However, I reached the point where I felt I was ready for my first CIO role, and I figured that it would not be at one of these large Fortune 500 companies. Rather, my first CIO opportunity would be with a midcap company. I thought, “If I don’t do this now, then when? If not me, then who?”
Is this about the time you started looking?
Yes, after Dr Pepper Snapple, I decided first to do some consulting while I prepared myself to find and win my first CIO job. I chose consulting so that I could get some direct experience in smaller and midcap companies. And at the same time, consulting gave me more control over my time, which I would need for the job search. I could say no to things I didn’t want to do, and be available to do the work required to expand my network and learn other industries.
What were some of the specific steps you took after you left Dr Pepper Snapple to work toward your CIO role?
One of my mentors once said, if you do not allow your dreams to become realities, you will never unleash your true potential. So don’t be afraid to fail, and certainly don’t be afraid to succeed.
As a result, I had a very focused agenda and goals. For example, I networked quite a bit with other CIOs in Dallas, especially midcap CIOs, to learn about their priorities and what their jobs were like on a day to day basis.
I was consulting for a CIO, leading IT turnaround efforts and structuring a multibillion dollar outsourcing agreement for his organization while he was focused on driving transformational change. I was candid with my CIO about my aspirations, and asked him to become my mentor. He was very generous and helpful. I learned so much from him in a short period of time, and I am grateful to him. One of the key learnings I gained from him is how to present to the board.
And lastly, I had the time to attend and speak at the professional conferences, and gained wider knowledge through industry peers.
What were the topics you presented at conferences?
My key topic was around successful ERP implementations, or how to fix an ERP project that had “gone South.” I delivered that to audiences made up of CFOs. I also presented to CIOs on how to drive business transformation by leveraging major end-to-end outsourcing arrangements. Other topics were the change management that comes with digital transformation, managing teams through mentorship and diversity, and taking STEM to the next level - which is very near and dear to my heart.
What is Reddy Ice?
We are the largest manufacturer of packaged ice products in the United States. We distribute approximately 1.8 million tons of ice every year to 82,000 customer locations. We are everywhere – in front of your drug stores, supermarkets, gas stations and convenience stores. There is seasonality to our business, as you might expect. As a result, Memorial Day to Labor Day defines our peak season, when our workforce swells from 1,600 to 2,300.
How did you hear about the CIO opportunity at Reddy Ice?
Interestingly, I did not know there was a CIO opening at Reddy Ice. One of the executives at Reddy Ice, whom I had worked with 10 years ago at Dr Pepper Snapple Group, invited me to have lunch, and we “talked shop” quite a bit, but I had no idea they were interested in me for their CIO opening until the end of our conversation! Before I knew it, I was meeting with the CEO and CFO, and soon after, there was an offer on the table. It happened very fast.
I think of this as the “hidden job market.” The impression I had made all those years ago - how I was to work with, the quality of what I was delivering – it left a mark with this leader. I am still amazed by that.
If you think about it, in some ways you are being interviewed every day for future job opportunities. With everything that you do, you don’t know how it might affect you negatively or positively down the road. So make sure, no matter where you are, you do your best because you just never know who may call you even 10 years later.
But it only works if you keep your network connected. We all talk about the importance of professional networking. But I am a walking example of that.
What piqued your interest in CIO opportunity at Reddy Ice?
I was looking for an opportunity to turn around a difficult situation, influence significant change, build an environment of IT innovation, and enable significant future growth. I wanted to be a turnaround CIO versus the one who keeps the operational lights on and wants to be forgotten.
Reddy Ice is a CPG business, which is consistent with my background, and it was midcap, which was my target. I was also very intrigued by the fact that Reddy Ice was owned by private equity. I hadn’t thought a lot about that before, but I realized it would be very interesting to learn how PE works and how business decisions are made. For sure, I would be adding PE to my career portfolio. Moreover, the executive team members were highly regarded in the industry and they all had proven records of accomplishment and came highly recommended by several people in the PE network. Most of them are recognized turnaround leaders, which matched with what I wanted to grow into.
Based on what I was hearing from their executives about what they needed from IT, and their new IT leader, I knew that I could put into action everything that I had learned over the last years at Dr Pepper Snapple. At the same time, I would be able to keep my skills topical, contribute to the strategic direction, and, quite frankly, stay current as a professional. I am all about getting results, and putting things into action, and this was an exciting turnaround opportunity.
What kind of turnaround?
Reddy Ice was seeking a candidate with a successful background in progressive high transaction volume organizations coupled with the ability to influence change. In a nutshell, they wanted the new CIO to take the organization to the next level. Not just the IT org, but the company. They wanted someone to take a seat at the table. There was a large gap between IT and the business - they were on two different wavelengths, and there had been virtually no alignment.
They were dealing with several major issues, and they were in a tough spot. Mainly, they had gone live on a new ERP and it had “gone South.” It was poorly implemented and there was a lot of work needed to stabilize it.
It sounds like you really had to hit the ground running.
My first inclination was to follow my 30-60-90 plan, but on the second day I attended a board meeting where Board Directors passionately expressed the urgency of the ERP problems. So I threw my 30-60-90 plan into the drawer, rolled up my sleeves, and started figuring this out.
I had to learn all about what exactly was going wrong, what changes in talent and structure had to be made. I had to pretty much rebuild the plane while I was flying it. It took four full months to stabilize the ERP system and we got it done right before the start of peak season. It wasn’t easy or pleasant, but in retrospect, it may have been a blessing in disguise because it forced me to learn this business and the company culture quickly, while drinking from a fire hose.
Also, once we had achieved that ERP stability, it gave me and my IT organization the credibility to start getting closer to the business.
What came next?
There were several challenges across the board with data, with legacy systems, including our AS400, and with talent. I realized that there was really no IT architecture or strategy to speak of. It was clear I would have to understand what state we were in, where we could go, and what would be the path to take us there.
I started by spending time learning from my predecessor, who was here and available to me for a brief period. Additionally, I also took route rides, met the customers, and engaged in planning meetings with senior leadership. During that time, I learned further about historical decisions and the current technology gaps that were the greatest hindering factors of growth.
I created a visionary IT roadmap, without any dates, because I first wanted to get buy-in. I used this to lay out a conceptual strategy with everything tied back to current business initiatives. Then I shared this with the entire management team which helped shape my conversations.
Next, I got business executives to champion the IT roadmap, firmed up the program and started mobilizing the team to execute it.
Who do you report to at ReddyIce?
In addition to the ERP stabilization, what have you accomplished in your first year?
I kicked off a transformational program with focus on four major areas: IT service delivery management, Data – One Source of Truth, Mobility (because in the field is where rubber meets the road), and retirement of dated legacy systems.
Streamlining IT management has involved building an environment that leverages economies of scale, streamlining our vast list of vendors and partners, and mostly, turning my talent into a well-oiled machine which is able to keep business-as-usual running so that IT could start driving business growth. We established a new off shore outsourcing model, put the right SLAs in place – started with the basics.
Next my focus was on master data to enable a single source of truth across the enterprise. We have moved away from multiple pockets of unintegrated, unsecure data, and streamlined master data as one source of truth across customers, products and pricing so that we can become a data-driven business.
We are in the midst of replacing multiple handheld systems for people in the field with a new unified system across the company using Samsung Android smartphones. On the old systems, which were very dated and producing paper invoices, it was taking weeks, or even months, to set up new customers. This has required a lot of work including heavy change management, and I am proud of the entire team’s undertaking.
Lastly, we are on a path to remove or replace all of our legacy systems, like multiple CRMs that exist, and most importantly, a very dated AS400. The plan is to be ready and geared up for next Memorial Day.
What changes have you made to the IT organization?
When I arrived, all of IT was primarily outsourced to vendors. There were multiple vendors and too many overlaps. They were all good people but there were no economies of scale.
Two things were missing as a result: First, the vendors were not close enough to our business teams. Some hadn’t been in the building for over three years. Second, accountability was “after the fact.” Our vendors only responded when someone opened a ticket, or sent an email. Everything was reactive and none of them were proactively bringing new ideas and solutions to Reddy Ice business leaders.
What new digital technology do you find most exciting?
IoT (Internet of Things), for sure. The way everything is getting connected - devices, cars, homes - and eventually connecting these to retailers who are mastering the logistics, like Amazon is doing.
We have a service called the Ice Factory™, a standalone system that can live right inside a business, producing, packaging and displaying ice products 24 hours a day. That is a big IoT opportunity for the future. It will be game changing.
What does digital transformation mean at this company?
Primarily, digital transformation means obsession for the customer. How quickly can we get our product into the hands of customers? How quickly can we set up new customers? How quickly can we add another business line without technology being a hindrance?
For Reddy Ice, the ultimate digital transformation will have happened when our customers can place an order with us with just a few taps on their smartphone; when we can get them any product they want within couple of hours, and instantly bill them.
What is your favorite place to travel on business?
India is home, so that is still my favorite place to travel. The kind of diversity that exist in India is unparalleled. And travel makes me modest. You realize how tiny a place you occupy in this world once you get out of the box.
Do you have an airport vice?
My husband and I collect things, and my game room is actually full of shot glasses that we buy whenever and wherever we travel.
What advice do you have for an IT executive thinking about entering the job market?
I would say stop calling yourself an IT executive, and transform how you think of yourself. You are a business executive who uses technology as an enabler. Throw your heart over the wall into the business, and your body will follow. Before you know it, you will become a business executive who can use technology to drive business results.
About Neelu Sethi
Neelu Sethi is the Chief Information Officer of Reddy Ice, the largest manufacturer of packaged ice products in the United States. Sethi has over 23 years of experience in the CPG, hospitality, healthcare and textile industries. Prior to joining Reddy Ice, she held executive positions in IT with ClubCorp and Dr Pepper Snapple Group. She has recently been recognized as ‘Top 15 Business Women’ in Dallas. Sethi holds a Master’s Degree in Computer Applications from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in India, and a Master’s degree in Mathematics from Delhi University in India.