How I Landed My CIO Job - with Joseph Bruhin, SVP & CIO, Breakthru Beverage Group
Steve Rovniak: Can you provide a brief background on your career before joining Breakthru Beverage Group as CIO?
Joe Bruhin: I have been an IT professional for 30 plus years, 10 years in insurance, and then the rest in beverage alcohol, now for three different companies. I was with Diageo, one of the largest suppliers of beverage alcohol, for 15 years, and then six years with Constellation Brands.
When I left Constellation, I consulted for a couple of wineries and a food and beverage company, but I realized that consulting wasn't right for me. The CIO role is about shaping a strategy, developing a team, and creating leaders, and I was missing that as a consultant. I needed to be part of something larger, so I started looking for another CIO role.
What else were you looking for in your next CIO position?
For the first time in my life, I was very particular about where I wanted to go in the United States. So, physical geography was really important to me for some of my personal passions.
I always look at three things, whether I'm hiring somebody or whether I'm searching for a position myself, which I haven't done very often. I'm on just my fourth company. First, can I do the job? It's got to be something that's within my wheelhouse, and that I'm going to be comfortable with.
Then, I ask the question, do I really want to do the job? Is it something that's going to excite me, and get me up in the morning with energy and passion for what I'm doing?
And then the third question is, do I want to work with these people? And do they want to work with me? That's the cultural question. And by the way, companies should be asking the same questions of everybody that they're hiring. It was extremely important to find a company that had the right culture fit for me.
How can you tell that a potential new employer is a strong cultural fit?
When you ask them about their culture, if they answer in terms of tactical things that they do, then you know they're on a journey to create a new culture. If they answer the question in terms of how it feels to work there, and how people are engaged, then it tells you that they're living that culture, as opposed to creating it.
But the true test doesn't happen till you get in there and see for yourself. I don't think you can fully assess the real culture from an interview. You need to get on the ground and experience it.
Breakthru Beverage Group is one of the leading alcohol wholesalers in the United States and the largest broker in Canada, representing a full total beverage alcohol portfolio of spirits, wine and beer.
What was Breakthru looking for in their new CIO?
They recognized that they had to bring somebody in who could unite two disparate IT organizations that were legacies of a merger, and build one strong, high performing IT organization and leadership team. That was opportunity number one. Number two, they needed somebody who had led digital transformation, preferably in the beverage alcohol space.
What is an example of digital transformation you are working on?
Probably the single biggest transformation thing we’re doing right now is the creation of our B2B e-commerce solution that we're piloting right now. This is an essential investment area for our future. We have a robust ERP infrastructure in place which will enable us to act on real-time information.
Who do you report to?
The Chief Executive Officer, Greg Baird.
What is the headcount in IT?
Before you could start on the transformation, were there issues or problems you had to deal with when you first arrived?
Like most companies, we had a proliferation of disconnected data sources and reporting solutions that had been developed over many years. This created inconsistencies in our reporting that sometimes caused confusion or lack of trust in our data. The organization initiated a program of work to solve this issue in the past year, and that is now completed. It’s made a huge difference for us. We now have one single source for all of our reporting needs, and a single tool, SAP WEBI, for reporting. Our report creating efforts have been greatly simplified across the organization, and we now have complete consistency in all of our commercial, financial and operations data and reporting.
And like all companies, we face an ever-present cyber threat, and the biggest threat is phishing. So, one of the things we did right in the beginning was talk to the organization, both within IT and beyond, about the importance of hypervigilance. That was important.
Then COVID appeared about five months into this job.
Correct. I’d gotten my feet wet and had a good understanding of what I wanted to do then COVID came along. That put a hold on some things we were doing as a business, and rightfully so, but it also focused us and accelerated other areas, like our e-commerce initiative. In addition to that, we are in the final stages of our SAP implementation, with one more market remaining until the entire network is live.
What are you most proud of?
I believe the company is seeing IT as more of a strategic partner today than when I first joined the organization, and the IT team is on a very exciting journey toward true business partnering. We are affecting a shift from reactive to more proactive as IT becomes more strategic in our thinking, and therefore, IT is more influential.
As for the culture of the IT organization, I'm building empowerment constructs to show the team that, if we're at point A and need to get to point Z, I and my leadership team can articulate what Z looks like, but the broader team has the task of figuring out how we get there. Not only do we depend on them, but we trust them to define the journey because they are the experts.
That's new for some team members. They're used to a more prescriptive approach as to what they will work on and how they will deliver. To reach our full potential we need to be a proactive organization. Empowerment creates excitement. It breeds innovation. It creates pace. It creates engagement.
Has the COVID experience changed anything about your leadership style or the way you do your job?
I find I am more thoughtful about what I want out of a conversation. It’s kind of a funny thing, but I’ve had to learn not to multitask during virtual meetings. It might feel like you are being more efficient when you multitask, but you actually end up missing a lot. And people know when you’re not fully tuned into them.
We went to full remote literally overnight. I think we had one day to do remote testing and we only did it for one part of our company. The next day we made the decision to go fully remote. I confess to being more than a little bit nervous at the time, but the transition was seamless. We didn't miss a beat. IT really showed the strength of the IT team.
Some projects were pushed out as we thought it would be harder with everyone working remote. But we have learned that our ability to work as a remote organization is significantly better than anybody thought. And I'm not talking just IT – I'm talking about our entire business. We're moving our business. We're growing our business. We're shaping our business. We're engaging our people.
How do you know when your IT organization is succeeding?
There are a couple of key indicators for that. The most critical one is when the business is reaching out to you proactively and saying, "We need this, can you help us with it?" And the IT organization around you is able to respond to that in a way that is very productive to the business. That's a long journey when you're transitioning from a predominantly reactive way of operating to a proactive one. We want to inspire, and lead, and influence, and we are seeing it happen.
I think the most important thing is for the business to understand that IT doesn't make the call on what the company does, or doesn't do, with technology. This is why we refer to our technology strategy as a Business Technology Strategy, and why I’ve instituted a Business Technology Steering Team. The BTST is a team of C-level executives who work alongside me and my team to prioritize our investments in technology. That way we ensure we are deeply aligned to our broader business and that we are maximizing our investments in IT just as we do in every part of our organization.
Exactly who is on the BTST?
Our CFO, COO, Head of Operations, Chief Growth Officer (CGO), CHRO, Legal, and myself. We're all direct reports to the CEO. He does not join those meetings or decisions – I report back to him on what we decide and what we deliver. Each of those folks works with my team, and within their teams, to define their needs.
We are pushing hard to ensure we think long term, and we're getting there. It's not just, "Hey, I need my department’s project completed." Instead, leaders courageously recognize when other projects are more urgent than their initiative." Collectively, we are treating these as business decisions, as they should be. They are investments that are no different than any other investment an organization makes.
Are there other ways you know your IT organization is succeeding?
Every project has to have a stated return on investment equation. It could be cost savings or cost avoidance. Hopefully, it's increased revenue or gross profit, which are even better. It's got to have a stated ROI with metrics on how we're going to know whether that ROI was realized. That's been challenging for us because it’s new; we’ve never had to think that way before.
But the absence of that dictates the success or failure of a technology implementation. And if our united business does not own the ROI, it tends to sit on the back of IT. And that's the wrong place. We can build the best system in the world, but if our business is not prepared to use it and make the necessary changes, or if they don't know how to use it, who cares? So, that ownership of the success of the project – the “business technology project” – has now shifted from primarily IT and the CIO to the business itself through the BTST. It really works well.
What advice would you offer to a professional peer who has decided to enter the market and find a new CIO position?
Probably the most important thing to know is that your route to a CIO job is through an executive recruiter. Full stop. Very few companies go out and find a senior IT executive on LinkedIn or otherwise. So, understand who the recruiters are that match your needs, and foster a relationship with them. Let them know that you're available, and what you are passionate about.
If you're looking for something where you know you can make a difference, and you're hungry to make an impact, that is going to radiate from you in the interview process.
Remember also that an IT leader has to be much more of a business leader than a technology leader. If you have a bits and bytes conversation in a CIO interview, you probably won’t get the job. Talk about how innovation and technology are critical to deliver every business goal, to accelerate the ability to get to new customers or to increase mark share or dive revenue and gross profit. Talk about the value of IT in the same terms you would talk about the value of sales, marketing, finance or HR.
Look at the new and emerging technologies and be prepared to articulate how they might apply. If you're in manufacturing or you have any kind of a warehousing operation, look at the digital twin work that GE did with their engines. That's the kind of value that CEOs want to be talking about. Help them understand how you can help them deliver their goals, and how you can help them transition to a digital enterprise. Let them see your passion for data (the new oil). And of course, share your great accomplishments, and as you do, always tie them back to how those accomplishments would apply in your new CIO position.
About Joseph Bruhin
Joseph Bruhin serves as EVP, Chief Information Officer for Breakthru Beverage Group. In this role, Bruhin is responsible for overseeing the implementation and execution of a wholistic IT Strategic Plan, driving Breakthru’s increased focus on digital transformation and developing a world class IT organization. Prior to joining Breakthru, he served as the CIO of Constellation Brands.
Bruhin serves as Treasurer on the Society for Information Management National Board of Directors, the largest international network of senior IT leaders, and is a long-standing member of the SIM Advanced Practices Council which focuses on research related to emerging technologies and IT practices. He earned a BA in Mathematics and an MBA from the University of Connecticut.