In this installment of My CIO Career, Michael Israel of The Kraft Group explains how he works to identify areas where IT innovations like artificial intelligence can bring the most benefit to the Group’s varied operating companies.
When Michael Israel joined The Kraft Group as CIO in 2019, he saw the opportunity to lead the IT organization at the parent company of the New England Patriots and the New England Revolution. But the role offered much more: not only the chance to be part of technological modernization efforts at the Gillette Stadium complex, but also to lead teams bringing innovations like artificial intelligence to both the entertainment and manufacturing operating companies.
In this interview as part of the My CIO Career series, Israel talks about what drew him to his current role, and how he uses successful problem-solving AI deployments in one operating company to inspire AI-enabled solutions in other areas.
Mary K. Pratt: What attracted you to the CIO position at The Kraft Group?
Michael Israel: The ability to run an IT environment that includes two professional sports teams, the New England Patriots and the New England Revolution. Six Super Bowl Wins. The overall support and engagement of the Kraft Family.
But outside of the obvious, my attraction to the position was twofold. It was a get-your-hands-dirty transformational role. It was also the diversity of the organization. People hear The Kraft Group and think Gillette Stadium, New England Patriots and New England Revolution, but there is a whole other side of our business which deals with paper products. We have paper recycling plants, box manufacturing plants and a commodities business that is moving paper-based products all over the world. That business diversity and the ability to take my entertainment experience and get into the manufacturing world were enticing. There is never a dull day.
How do you define transformation, and what does your definition of transformation require of the organization?
Transformation is helping the company change the way it does business and change the way it interacts with external and internal stakeholders.
That requires the organization to be willing to look forward, to be strategic, and to turn around and say, “We have been doing things a certain way for a long time, but even if we have been successful, we can leapfrog forward.”
Can you elaborate on what you mean by “get-your-hands-dirty transformational role?”
I get into the trenches and look at where my team and I can change the way the organization engages stakeholders. This requires getting in the front lines. I have probably sat through 15 minutes of a Patriots game over the past five years, because during an event, whether it is a football game, a soccer match or a concert, I am watching how guests get their tickets, get into the stadium and acquire food. I am watching how they engage with our applications and how they experience their interactions with the organization.
I took the same approach during my CIO tenure at Six Flags Entertainment. I was in the amusement parks watching how guests interacted with us, asking, for example, whether we had the right level of staff or whether we were overstaffed or understaffed.
Some might ask: How is this part of the CIO’s role? But I need to see where the pain points are to be able to think about how we can do better and to work with my team to deliver solutions.
Can you give me an example of where that front-line observation led to an innovation?
I took that same approach to our recycling plants. I was in a management meeting where we were evaluating how we could proactively monitor monthly manufacturing costs. To dig into this question, I went onto the plant floor and found that the forklift operators were not loading the materials onto the conveyor belts in the predefined order. So I used artificial intelligence technology to detect the raw material coming off trucks and to advise forklift operators where it should be dropped. The technology measures compliance to loading the raw materials onto the conveyor belts in the predefined order and sends alerts to the control room and to management if the operator is out of compliance.
The development of this AI solution goes back to my experience as a chief operating officer, to understanding the business, what the business is trying to achieve and how to use technology to achieve it.
Can you share more about your AI journey?
My staff and I started on this journey about three years ago by asking where we could use AI to identify out-of-place behaviors.
Take Gillette Stadium as an example. There are 500 cameras around the stadium, and they are streaming video watched by a couple of security guards on night watch. My staff and I asked how we could use AI to detect abnormal behavior in that video stream. We looked for a company that had a productized solution and found a small vendor that was doing something similar at ESPN. We were able to go to proof-of-concept rather quickly.
Now we have 12 different use cases in which we take that video stream and detect what is not supposed to be there. For example, if a camera is focused on a fence, the AI would detect a human climbing over that fence as abnormal and would bring that to the center screen in our operations control center so guards can send somebody out. Or if somebody leaves a bag in the stadium unattended, the solution not only detects that the bag is being dropped, but it can detail where that person came from all the way back to the parking lot.
Our AI journey started with the issue we were having at the manufacturing plant, trying to detect the type of raw materials coming in. That proved to be a hard one to solve. But I knew as a team we were on to something. We came back to the stadium and thought about where we could get some wins. We started with detecting people climbing over the fence, counting cars and detecting full trash cans. We learned the process of using AI on these easier cases and then went back to the manufacturing plant. That is how our AI use grew from one use case to another and to another.
You started your career outside of the IT function and served as COO. How did that lead to becoming CIO at Six Flags and The Kraft Group?
As senior vice president and then COO at a large systems integration firm, I focused on productizing solutions, managing sales teams and managing operations. I also focused on monitoring the effectiveness of contracts. However, I had been in technology sales and technology operations since I was 16 years old. So after the integration firm was sold, I decided that I wanted to do something different and I transitioned to the client side.
How does that prior experience inform your CIO work?
Everything that I had learned over the years was about implementing process controls, creating solutions, managing profitability and ensuring effectiveness. As a result, my approach to running an IT organization centered on the idea that IT is there to enable the company by understanding the metrics that my current COO is trying to work toward and understanding what the business is trying to accomplish.
What is a notable project you have undertaken?
My team just completed a construction project in Gillette Stadium, which included two new video boards and a new entertainment network. We built a broadcast control room to support game-day operations and bowl operations. It is now the largest outdoor video board in the United States.
As part of this, we will deploy upwards of several thousand Internet Protocol TVs (IPTVs) in the stadium. This is one of the largest projects Gillette Stadium has ever embarked upon. It was a challenge for me to build something in an area where I had very little knowledge. I have never worked in the broadcast environment before, and building a broadcast control room is very different than traditional CIO work. So I gave the experts in broadcast engineering the latitude to design it, and I then stepped in with our team when it entered the IP network world.
What has been the most important lesson you have learned, the one that shaped you as an executive?
The biggest lesson as leaders we all learn is to not make excuses. If something is going wrong, stand up, admit it, learn from it and retrain. Trying to push the blame somewhere else is not going to work.
I learned that as a teenager. I learned that if I am responsible for something, I own it and I need to see it through. I also learned to not be afraid to go into an area in which I may not be an expert, because the worst that could happen is that I make a mistake. Then I learn to fix it, and I learn not to make that mistake a second time.
I learned that from my father. My dad was a great mentor to me. He was probably my biggest mentor and he would push me out of my comfort zone. That is essentially how one learns to be a leader: by accepting responsibility and following through.