Jeff Kubacki, VP & CIO of Winnebago Industries, is the latest subject in our series, “How I Landed My CIO Job.”
Heller Search: What was going on in your career prior to Winnebago Industries?
Jeff Kubacki: I was the Vice President & CIO for Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh, PA, which builds and supports nuclear power plants. Previously, I was the Senior Vice President & CIO at ATK for five years.
ATK ended up spinning off its commercial sporting goods business, Vista Outdoor, and locating the headquarters in Utah. Then ATK merged its remaining aerospace and defense businesses with Orbital Sciences to form Orbital ATK, a global aerospace and defense company. To stay with either business would have required relocation, which I wasn’t willing to do at the time.
So I stayed in Minnesota and conducted a CIO job search, and that is when I landed at Westinghouse Electric. They were willing to have me commute from the Twin Cities to Pittsburgh, where I had an apartment. Westinghouse Electric provided another chance to lead a significant IT transformation, but I realized that I preferred to be in the Twin Cities area full time.
How did you hear about the CIO opportunity at Winnebago Industries?
Someone in my network had heard about the CIO opportunity at Winnebago Industries, and he brokered an introduction. Technically, the company is headquartered in Forest City, Iowa, but they were building a new location in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, where the new President & CEO and most of the executive team would sit.
What were you looking for in your next job or CIO role?
I enjoyed reporting to the CEO and collaborating with the Board of Directors and management team at ATK as we grew and transformed the company. I wanted to find a public company that needed an IT transformation and that recognized the role technology could play in gaining competitive advantage.
What were they looking for in their new CIO?
They were actually looking for their first ever IT leader with the Chief Information Officer title, and the responsibilities that come with it. They were looking for business acumen – someone to be a true business partner, capable of building strong working relationships with all the business unit leaders, help create the business strategy and then, from there, drive an IT strategy. My undergraduate degree is in computer science, but I also have an MBA.
They were also looking for someone to help turn Winnebago Industries into a data- and business intelligence-driven company and culture. They wanted executives to have access to data and to base their decisions on it. They also needed someone with ERP implementation experience—or, in this case, somebody who could assess and fix an ERP implementation that was coming off the rails. And, lastly, they wanted someone who could put a future state IT architecture in place, as well as the right people and skills on the team to deliver on the target architecture and IT strategy.
What was your interview strategy?
All through the interview process I focused on business acumen, communications skills and leadership experience. I took a business approach to everything and didn’t get hung up talking about speeds and feeds that no one cares about at the executive level. For example, I never asked about the IT budget. I wanted to keep the discussion all about their vision for how technology could be used to transform the business.
Who do you report to?
I report to the President & CEO, Mike Happe, who had recently come over from The Toro Company.
One of the things I loved about my CIO job at ATK was that I worked for a very, very supportive CEO. When I met Mike, I saw that I could again enjoy working for a CEO who is highly supportive of IT transformation, who understands how IT can be leveraged to gain competitive advantage and drive growth.
Mike has put together what I consider to be an outstanding leadership team. Many of us our new to Winnebago Industries and the recreational vehicle (RV) industry. We all get along wonderfully, and are marching toward the same goals.
Most people are familiar with the Winnebago brand, but can you briefly describe the company?
Winnebago Industries is a leading US manufacturer of recreation vehicles (RVs), which are used primarily in leisure travel and outdoor recreation activities. The Company builds quality motorhomes, travel trailers, fifth wheel products, and toy haulers under the Winnebago and Grand Design brand names. We help our customers explore the outdoor lifestyle, enabling extraordinary experiences as they travel, live, work and play.
What does the Winnebago Industries of the future look like?
Winnebago is an iconic brand that is synonymous with RVs, and over the next three years our goals are focused on expanding market share, improving operating income, and generating new business from RV market segments or businesses that we are not in today. We will also ask every employee to engage each year in an activity related to safety, quality, productivity, or giving.
What role, if any, will digital play?
Digital transformation is a top priority for the leadership team, and it was discussed at our investor day conference in New York this past November. An area I am focusing on, and that is embraced by the entire leadership team, is the use of technology to improve the customer experience. This includes personalization, social media management, customer sentiment analysis, and customer service management.
We will empower our employees using tools such as business intelligence, machine learning and personalized collaboration. We will transform our products by making them connected using IoT and predictive analytics. Lastly, we will optimize our operations by focusing on a connected factory and human-machine interfaces.
The RV market is robust and growing and the call of the outdoors remains strong. Campers are becoming younger and more ethnically diverse. Our product portfolio will continue to evolve to meet the needs of our customers.
Have you made changes to the IT organization?
I have installed a new leadership team here in Eden Prairie, MN, most of whom I have worked with in the past. My director of infrastructure and operations was someone I worked with at Ecolab and also ATK. On the applications side, I brought in a former colleague I had worked with at Ecolab. He is now leading solutions delivery, ERP, CRM, and social media. We didn’t have a head of information security, so I hired one pretty quickly. He had worked with me at ATK. We have expanded our BI capabilities with the addition of a BI Manager and recently we created a new IT business relationship executive role supporting the motor home business unit.
Is the ERP project back on the rails?
Yes, that is what came first. It is a new Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012 implementation. The business has been running on a custom-developed mainframe system developed decades ago. The people who wrote the application, many of whom are still with the company, are starting to retire, and there are no Cobol programmers available. So, we needed something new, something that could scale as our business grows.
The project had started, and was over budget and behind schedule when I arrived, which I knew about beforehand. In my third week, I went to the board and recommended that we put the project on hold. We executed a 90-day recovery plan to get the project back on track. That included replacing our implementation partner.
I felt that we needed to make sure we had complete alignment on the project with all the new executives; to make sure that we all knew and agreed on what success with the ERP system would look like before moving ahead. I feared that we could get something fully implemented that didn’t meet our needs.
At the end of the 90 days, with a new team and partner in place, we went back to the board with a revised schedule and budget and told them it was the last time we would be coming with these requests.
We are now on track for a completed implementation in 2018. It is ERP, but so much more. We removed all customizations and replaced them with ISVs who tie their software right into MS Dynamics AX. These are things like our dealer portal, sales configurator, and managing our very large and complex bill of materials. We are even implementing a ISV bolt-on that allows RV owners to schedule their own service appointments.
What new consumer technology do you find exciting personally?
When we remodeled our home, we put in a Savant Home Automation system that controls everything - security, TV, audio, thermostat, you name it, through an app on our phones. I can control everything from home or while I am away from home. We have really grown to rely on it.
What is your favorite place to travel on business?
I don’t travel internationally for Winnebago Industores, but earlier in my career I had the chance to travel all over the world. I have always loved going to London. Kroll’s headquarters was in London, and Westinghouse had operations outside London. I also really enjoyed the time I spent in the Philippines. But today, I love taking an RV out on the road and exploring the amazing outdoors with my family.
What advice do you have for an IT executive thinking about entering today’s job market?
I occasionally will attend a CIO conference when time permits, and I am still surprised to hear CIOs talking about very technical topics. My advice is to focus more on business acumen and leadership, and less on technical stuff. How about “what it takes to be successful in the board room”? The business leaders don’t care so much about the technical stuff unless it is a technology company. So, when you are interviewing for a job, focus more on the business problems that need to get solved, and how you believe you can solve them.
About Jeff Kubacki
Jeff Kubacki is VP & CIO of Winnebago Industries (NYSE: WGO), a $1.55 billion maker of recreational vehicles. Prior to Winnebago Industries, Kubacki held several CIO positions, including Westinghouse Electric, ATK, Kroll, and Essilor of America. He earned a Bachelor of Technology degree in computer science from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, and an Executive MBA with a finance and accounting concentration from the University of South Florida.