E-Business -- E-Mail And The CEO

Electronic messaging proves to be both a boon and a bane for today's manufacturing executives.

Michael S. Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Computer Corp., e-mails his wife during the workday. Thomas C. Sullivan, chairman and CEO, and his son, Frank C. Sullivan, president of specialty-coatings manufacturer RPM Inc., use e-mail but prefer personal contact. Satish Ramachandran, chairman and CEO of Mirapoint Inc., a manufacturer of electronic-messaging equipment, scans his e-mail 24/7. Neal Rabin, chairman and CEO of Miramar Systems Inc., a networking software firm, uses e-mail 50 times a day. In fact, there are as many e-mail styles as there are CEOs. But when it comes to managing their voluminous mail, most agree that it's a task that easily can become a 'round-the-clock chore. The Sullivans represent two generations of e-mail users, but both still prefer face-to-face communications. An executive team at the $1.95 billion, Medina, Ohio-based RPM, which manufactures products such as Rust-Oleum rust-preventive coating, DAP sealants, and Bondo for auto repairs, Thomas, 63, and son Frank, 40, have different approaches to using e-mail. While Frank Sullivan was quick to jump on the technology bandwagon, Tom Sullivan finally got his own computer within the last year. Now they are electronically connected. "E-mail might be efficient, but it lacks the personal interface I prefer," says Tom Sullivan. "I'd rather conduct business in person than over the phone or the Internet." The absence until recently of a personal computer in the CEO's office did not hurt RPM's business. When the senior Sullivan took over the leadership of the company in 1971 following the death of his father, Frank C. Sullivan Sr., the company's founder, sales were just $11 million. Tom Sullivan gets or sends just five to 10 messages a day, while the younger Sullivan's volume is between 40 and 50. They even have different online-writing styles. The father replies with all lower-case letters and no punctuation. The son punctuates, but freely admits to a "short-and-sweet" response strategy to the growing e-mail load. "I may use e-mail more than Tom, just to get everything accomplished that needs to be done in the course of the day, but I prefer human interaction whenever possible," says Frank Sullivan. When traveling, the senior Sullivan has his secretary check his e-mails daily and then notify him if anything requires immediate attention. The younger Sullivan will retrieve e-mail from remote locations. He also led the charge for a corporate Website and establishment of an intranet to link the company's operations in 17 countries, as well as the formation of an e-commerce group to assist the company's 36 operating units in the electronic marketplace. Always Connected Mirapoint's Ramachandran scans e-mails around the clock. He receives up to 250 e-mails a day and sorts his messages by folders. "Because of the way I use e-mails," Ramachandran explains, "there is no getting off, there is no getting on. I can leave work, go home, and for 10 minutes I may be [offline], then pick up where I left off at work." On a recent trip to Europe for the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Mirapoint, Ramachandran did not take a laptop. He checked his e-mails at a computer kiosk. "No matter where I am in the world, I can check my mail. It's like using a pay phone," he says. Will video e-mail be next? "Here is what I'm seeing in Silicon Valley," says Ramachandran. "[E-mailers] record themselves on video. Instead of typing a message, they just turn on the camera and record the message and then hit send. The message goes to a recipient with a video attachment." At Dell Computer in Austin, Michael Dell receives roughly 200 e-mails daily from customers, business partners, employees, and relatives. "I'm constantly checking my e-mail, and getting behind on it can be overwhelming," he admits. Clearly no slouch when it comes to using sophisticated technology, Dell uses software filters to clear the electronic-mail clutter. "I use filters to get rid of an obvious spam," he says. "It's great to know that I'm approved for a home mortgage loan, but I don't need to read an e-mail about it." Dell protects the privacy of his messages. "I read every e-mail I receive, but I don't have time to respond to all of them. No one else has access to my e-mail." The CEO also prefers clear, concise responses to his messages: "When I ask a specific question on e-mail, I want to know exactly when and how an action is going to take place, particularly where customers are concerned." Dell also will use e-mail to send "high-fives" when someone has done a particularly good job or one of Dell's products gets a great review. On the personal side, Dell keeps in touch with his brother, a venture capitalist in New York, by e-mail. Also, "My wife Susan and I e-mail each other during the workday to keep in touch on nonpressing personal matters, schedules and such. It only takes a minute and makes our personal lives a lot less hectic." Some executives use e-mail but prefer to make contact with employees and customers in other ways. Mark V. Hurd, executive vice president and COO of NCR Corp.'s Teradata Div., for example, averages about 60 e-mails a day but prefers to communicate by voice mail. "I try to limit it," Hurd says. "I'm not a big e-mail fan. What I like e-mail for is short, clear messages." E-mail, he says, lacks emotion. "I would much rather hear a person's voice. If I had a choice, I would rather it be voice-to-voice." Hurd gets twice as many voice-mail messages as e-mails. "While there are many traits similar to e-mail, I find people less willing to waste time on voice mail," Hurd observes. "For some reason, people think nothing about sending you an e-mail. They think twice about sending you a voice mail." When Hurd is on the run to catch a flight out of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, his secretary will monitor his e-mails at NCR's world headquarters in Dayton. He does not have a pager, but carries a cell phone for urgent messages and to check voice mail. On vacations, Hurd will use a laptop to scan e-mail messages. Vital Link Some CEOs find e-mail to be a vital link to their internal and external businesses. "I use e-mail every day, 50 times a day," says Neal Rabin of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Miramar Systems. "It's an ongoing conversation with a vast number of people inside and outside the company. [E-mails] fly in from all over." When Rabin checked his e-mail at 9 a.m. recently, 89 messages were awaiting his response. "I don't have anyone screen my e-mails," he notes. "I don't think that is appropriate." Rabin does not check his e-mail at home. "If it can't wait 24 hours, then something is wrong. Someone is not doing their work. There is nothing that urgent unless you are acquiring [a company] or something is going down." He also usually suspends checking e-mail when he is on vacation. "The definition of vacation is zero e-mails," says Rabin. But he admits he has started to peek at them. "I started . . . going to cyber cafes. They are everywhere." While there are advantages to e-mail, it is impersonal and inappropriate for some occasions, believes Rodney A. Hedeen, president and CEO of Relizon Co., a provider of business-communications software and customer-relationship-management services. For example, "If I have a message I want to send to every employee, I use voice mail because I think it's important that they hear my voice and my tone." Likewise, to praise an employee he sends a handwritten note. The Relizon e-mail directory lists his e-mail address so that anyone at the company's 50 manufacturing and distribution centers can contact him at his office in Dayton. "For example, just this week an employee in another state, somebody who works on the line in a printing facility, had a question," Hedeen says. "He sent me an e-mail and within an hour we had the issue settled. Had he gone through the chain of command, it may have been days before we got it settled." Hedeen reads and replies to his messages. "The only time I have someone pull [e-mail] for me is if I know I'm going to be out of the office for an extended period of time," he says.

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