Illinois Tool Works IT Director of Business Solutions Mike Szafranski Talks Tools, Technology, and Constructing a Vision of the Future for a Century-Old Company
By Charlene Oldham
After spending more than two decades at Kraft Foods, in 2012 Mike Szafranski departed the multinational consumer products company; since then, the information technology (IT) executive has been eager to help a couple of other firms build stronger bonds between IT and the rest of the business.
In his newest role as IT Director for Business Solutions at Illinois Tool Works Inc. (ITW), which he joined in July 2014, that means he will oversee not only application solutions, data management and business intelligence, but also lead the company’s efforts to increase collaboration companywide through technology tools like Microsoft SharePoint.
“I’ll have a mix of responsibilities that are both corporate and enterprise-wide. ITW’s culture is heavily rooted in practical decision-making based on using the 80/20 principle and doing what’s absolutely right for the individual business unit versus what’s most important for corporate. So, my challenge, after understanding more of how this decentralized model works, will be to determine the best strategies to deploy for business solutions—be it applications, data or collaborative tools,” said Szafranski. “This leverages the combination of experiences that I had at Kraft over my 22 years there.”
Judging from his resume and hands-on approach to other positions, that means Szafranski will likely be spending a lot of time in ITW’s manufacturing facilities, which turn out everything from restaurant equipment to parts found in deep-sea oil rigs for the Glenview, Illinois-based diversified industrial manufacturing firm.
“In seeking different experiences, ITW is a highly decentralized organization—different than anything I have been exposed to before,” Szafranski said. The company has approximately 51,000 employees in eight business segments across North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America. “This falls in line with my interest, as a leader, of diversifying my experiences and skills. It’s all about learning something new and reinventing myself.”
Szafranski also expanded his skill set—and probably consumed his share of signature “squagels” and flatbread—in his last position as Vice President of IT for the restaurant chain Cosi Inc. When he joined the company, based in Deerfield, Illinois, in 2012, he made a point of visiting as many locations as he could in order to learn the business and its IT needs firsthand.
“During the first few months, I got out to see the stores,” he said. “I hit the streets and met with the General Managers.”
What he heard from those managers was a recurring technology wish list that requested faster Internet connections, newer hardware and more integration between in-store programs and systems. In response, Szafranski spearheaded a move from DSL to T1 lines, improving both store operations and public Wi-Fi access, and he is constantly working to merge information between everything from online ordering records to customer loyalty programs.
“It’s all built into the POS [point-of-sale] program, and it’s all being shared,” Szafranski said, hoping these efforts would help provide a seamless experience for customers.
Keeping Visible & Visionary
Information sharing wasn’t always easy at the restaurant chain given its 70 locations and that it prides itself on providing menu variety through frequently changing, limited-term offerings. When compared with Kraft Foods, his corporate alma mater, so much more of Cosi’s planning was done on the fly. Such a strategy is sometimes necessary to respond to consumer tastes and retain the restaurant company’s small, family-owned feel.
“That’s what made the job especially challenging,” Szafranski said. “It’s the constant change.”
To stay abreast, he held weekly meetings with the head of the Marketing Department and touched base regularly with other department leaders. Transparency at any company, whether it be Cosi, Kraft or ITW, helps executives understand the challenges faced by employees in different departments and ensures everyone is on the same page when it comes to project schedules and priorities, Szafranski noted.
“I can’t get everything done for everybody at the same time, so there needs to be a discussion around priorities,” he said. “The business drives the strategy and our IT strategy needs to be aligned with that of the business, so we have to be visible and open about our plans and visions.”
Szafranski is accustomed to freely sharing strategies after his time at Kraft, which fostered development of strong leadership skills using a program from the consulting firm Gap Intl. The program promoted open interaction through manager learning forums, for example. It also encouraged leaders to push ambitious possibilities and relentlessly pursue pledges once they were made.
“We often used the phrase, ‘Make a commitment, then chase your words,’” Szafranski said.
Evolving With Industry
Szafranski has committed and chased in his own career by constantly reinventing himself to stay current in the ever-changing field of IT, no matter how long his tenure at a company. He earned his first degree, a bachelor’s in Computer Science from Bradley University, in 1984, and has seen the IT landscape evolve from the earliest personal computers to the Internet to cloud-based technology and beyond. Today, he says his children introduce him to new apps all of the time.
“If there is one thing we know about IT or technology itself, it is that it is constantly changing,” said Szafranski, who went on to earn an MBA from Loyola University of Chicago in 2001. “You need to maintain your own skills and experiences to match that change.”
He feels he’s found the ideal arena in which to build skills and experiences at ITW, both for himself and the company’s young, growing IT team.
“IT at ITW is evolving, having been outsourced for a period of time,” Szafranski said. “Many IT employees are new to the organization. There’s a ‘greenfield’ feel to the IT team. It’s fun coming in now with the opportunity to help set the vision and build the function into a trusted partner for the business and business units.”
Priority & Pace Setting
Building professional skills and relationships, though, doesn’t mean neglecting personal priorities. When Szafranski was recruiting IT Interns for Kraft and when he makes new hires today, he follows iconic investor Warren Buffet’s lead. Buffett has said he looks for integrity, intelligence and energy, and Szafranski emphasizes that not all of a young person’s energy should be focused on school and their first jobs out of college. When looking at a new college graduate’s resume, he weighs activities, honors and leadership roles just as heavily as GPA.
“I want a well-balanced person who is smart, social and can get things done,” Szafranski said.
But young professionals shouldn’t spend every waking hour getting things done at work. Szafranski advises his son, who just finished college and is set to start his first job later this year, that he is not only building a career but also crafting a life outside the office.
“You can’t set a pace where you focus entirely on work and you burn yourself out in five years,” the elder Szafranski advised. “That becomes a lifestyle that’s tough to break.”
In his own personal time, Szafranski tackles complex home improvement tasks that allow him to learn new skills. One project he is most proud of is introducing radiant heating in two sections of his home. He researched and mastered the art of sweating copper pipe while installing the system in the master bedroom and bath. And while the first phase took several weekends of work, it gave him the hands-on satisfaction he sometimes has to wait months or years to see in the work world.
“In the role that I’m in, we have a lot of strategic conversations. We talk about visions and we talk about long-term plans,” Szafranski said. “A lot of times in our roles, you can’t always see the work in progress, and completing something tangible that I can put my hands on gives a lot of satisfaction.”
Mike's Key Partners:CDW (Technology Solutions Provider) | Brink Software (Cloud Point of Sale) | HALOCK (Information Security Consulting) | Windstream Communications (Data, Network, Cloud)
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