October 12, 2010 9:30 AM, EDT

iTECH: Connecting Technology to the Corporate Suite

By Dan Leone, Staff Writer

This article appears in the October/November issue of iTECH, published in the Oct. 11 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Considering the treatment that a budding chief information officer once might have gotten on the playground from a budding truck driver, it is no small thing in 2010 to hear that the successful trucking company desperately needs both of these people to move the freight and make a profit.

“Strategy-wise, especially for a company our size, it’s critical to have a very engaged CIO that understands your business,” said Max Fuller, co-chairman and vice president of truckload carrier U.S. Xpress Enterprises, Chattanooga, Tenn. “He can give you strategic advantages ahead of a lot of your competition by properly applying all of the technologies that maybe trucking or transportation hasn’t adopted but other industries have.”

U.S. Xpress Enterprises, a 25-year-old company, is one of the biggest truckload carriers in the nation. About 13 years ago, its information technology situation reached critical mass, and the company decided to bring on a full-time IT chief.

“The reason we did it — we were seeing such fast growth,” Fuller said. “Parts of the business were growing very fast, and parts of it were almost dying because they weren’t being tended to. We had a lot of disparate [information] systems with individual missions that could have been combined.”

There was, as Fuller saw it, only one solution to the intertwined problems of U.S. Xpress’ technology sprawl and growing pains: “We’ve got to have a person in that [CIO] position full time,” he told iTECH.

As iTECH went down the list of some of the largest trucking companies in the nation, not one carrier who called back failed to mention how crucial a chief information officer is to their operation.

The CIO, elbow-rubber in the board room, strategic decision- maker, manager of man and machine alike, stands on the shoulders of the custodial computer engineer of yore — the guy (or gal) whose job it once was to labor anonymously in the depths of the office, working diligently to keep the servers up and running, the workstations virus-free and the phones ringing.

A technical background is of paramount importance for any aspiring truck CIO, but business training, management experience and the ability to apply technology to a business process are must-haves for anyone who wants the job, trucking executives told iTECH.

The CIO position isn’t exactly new. Information chiefs at the trucking companies reached by iTECH said that dyed-in-the-wool technology companies always have had some individual in their ranks who styled himself as the “Chief Information Officer.”

Even within the confines of trucking, an industry whose public image is wrought in iron rather than silicon, the CIO phenomenon is not a late-breaking development.

Information chiefs polled by iTECH for this article dated the ascension of the trucking industry CIO to the mid-1990s: an era when the telegraph-like staccato of the dot-matrix printer still rang loud throughout the office, and the phrase “track and trace on your smart phone” amounted to so much incomprehensible gibberish.

Since their rise to prominence, CIOs have gone big places in trucking.

One need look no further than Schneider National Inc., the Green Bay, Wis., truckload titan, for proof.

“We have a seven-person executive team,” said Schneider CIO Judy Lemke. “Of the current executive team of seven, three of us either are or were the CIO.”

Asked to identify one of the significant CIOs for the company, Lemke went straight to the top. Current Chief Executive Officer “Chris Lofgren was the CIO two CIOs ago,” she said.

Not a bad curriculum vitae for a job post that Lemke called “one of the new C-level positions on the block.”

Lemke’s perspective on the CIO in trucking is about as fresh as it gets. Her only contact with the industry involved sharing the highways and byways of the Great Lakes region with big rigs.

“When I was recruited here, I had never even heard of Schneider,” Lemke told iTECH. Before she broke into the trucking industry, Lemke was the CIO of Capella University in Minneapolis. She was also vice president of information technology for Medtronic, a medical device maker.

Lemke has “been in technology,” as she put it, for 35 years, and she was a little surprised to see that the trucking industry was “in technology,” too.

“This is a fairly low-margin business with tens of thousands of tractors and trailers out on the road,” she said.

“And in a trucking company, you have all those ‘mobile offices,’ as well,” Lemke said, referring to the trucks themselves. “There’s a great deal of technology in and on the truck.”

The rise of the CIO, of course, has not been limited to carriers of Schneider and U.S. Xpress’ massive scale.

Small and medium-sized carriers also have empowered their own information chiefs.

“There continues to be a trend of smaller to midsized trucking companies adding roles for CIO/CTO-level candidates,” said Ben Becker, a former CIO in trucking who now makes a living as a consultant. “The companies that are doing this are the ones who realize that there are more aspects to IT than the ‘utility’ functions of IT.”

Pitt Ohio Express, which is a less-than-truckload carrier based in Pittsburgh, understands the concept. Like Lemke at Schneider, Pitt Ohio’s CIO was a transportation greenhorn when he joined the organization.

“I wasn’t in transportation before I came to Pitt Ohio,” said Scott Sullivan, the CIO who helped Pitt Ohio step into the light in 2001, when the company decided to go long on technology.

At the time, Sullivan said, “they were putting in a new core system, and they recognized that they needed someone with a business and technology background to move that forward.”

Pitt Ohio is properly wired today, from its truck drivers on the front lines to its cube dwellers in the back office. Sullivan has shepherded the spread of information throughout the Pitt Ohio organization.

The revamp of Pitt Ohio’s website, Sullivan told iTECH, typifies the sort of harmony between business processes and technical savvy that chief executives expect their CIOs to orchestrate.

“Our website now is fully interactive,” Sullivan said, “and that helps us keep our customer service calls down.”

If Pitt Ohio executives are happy with the work Sullivan’s department has done, they would not be the only ones.

As it happens, CIOs have an eponymous magazine dedicated to their profession — and Sullivan from Pitt Ohio graced its pages in 2009, when he was recognized as a CIO Magazine “CIO 100” honoree.

What’s more, he’s keeping familiar company; information chiefs from Con-way Inc., FedEx and Old Dominion Freight Line, to name a few, also made the magazine’s cut.

CIOs have become a permanent fixture in the trucking industry, and the trucking industry isn’t the only industry that’s noticed.