Blake Holman, SVP and CIO of Ryan LLC, discusses solving myriad problems at breakneck speed.
Technology and its role in expanding businesses is evolving at an epic pace, making the job of information technology (IT) increasingly challenging. Fortunately, the “go, go, go” pace and the constant need to innovate and solve problems are right up Blake Holman’s alley.
As one of Ryan LLC’s Senior Vice Presidents and its first-ever Chief Information Officer (CIO), he has successfully implemented a number of changes to the IT Department, helping it climb the value chain. The department’s significance can be greatly attributed to Holman’s leadership and his team’s ability to bring stability and efficiency to the infrastructure while advancing systems, automation and integration of technology.
From Mechanical Engineer to IT Guru
IT wasn’t on Holman’s radar when he went to college. He studied Mechanical Engineering, and spent a summer in an internship focused on energy conservation engineering. As with IT, according to Holman, “engineering gives you the opportunity to take a bunch of stuff you know, or think you know, apply it to a problem and come up with a solution that makes life better for someone.”
So, when he heard there was an opening at Arthur Andersen, who had an energy consulting practice, he decided to go for it. The position ended up being more centered on management consulting, programming, technology and systems work than energy engineering, but it helped him build a strong IT foundation. His next position at Ericsson Telecommunications as a Systems Programmer was where he “really started getting into the core of IT,” and since then he hasn’t looked back. After working for a number of other companies, in 2005, Holman joined Ryan.
Both the business and its IT function were moving at a “very fast pace” when Holman came on board—one of the things that attracted Holman to the company. Likewise, there were plenty of problems to solve.
“By the time I joined Ryan, one thing I had learned about myself was that I am happiest and at my best when I am challenged, when I have lots of problems to solve and when things are perhaps moving at a faster-than-normal pace. [Ryan] was, and still is, energizing.”
Climbing the Value Chain
When Holman started at Ryan, he had a number of goals that he hoped to accomplish. First and foremost was stability. “A lot of areas in the infrastructure just weren’t stable,” he said. “My first order of business was to establish stability so that people could work, whether it was in the office or from outside the office.”
In the process, Holman also had an objective for improving customer service. It was important that his team “understood what their customers’ needs were, and then doing what they could to meet and exceed their customers’ expectations.” Holman and his team were focused on making sure the servers, laptops, printers, email system—all the key technology—was working.
And, when the server needed to be rebooted, Holman made sure that it was done when it was “convenient for [the customers], not necessarily convenient for us,” thus creating stability and strong customer approval ratings in annual reviews.
“I kept reinforcing those ideas: They know it, they get it, they understand it, they embrace it, they live it,” Holman said.
Improving efficiency at Ryan also helped Holman increase his value on the business side. “I looked for opportunities where we could automate their processes to somehow reduce the amount of time people spent executing those processes.”
He started with raise and promotion practices, which at the time comprised numerous steps and required a great deal of time in order to access data and copy. Holman, with his love for problem-solving, jumped right in and devised a tool to make the process more streamlined.
“My Chief Executive Officer [CEO] sat down to do his part of the process one evening,” Holman said. “He set aside six hours of his time because that is how long it normally took him to do it. Thirty minutes later, he was done.”
By developing that application, Holman and his team, “gave the CEO an extra five and a half hours to generate revenue for the firm. You spread that impact to hundreds of managers…” and clearly he and his team are adding value to the business. The IT Department has improved the efficiency of 30-some other processes, including invoicing and logging and analyzing revenue forecasts, since Holman’s stint as CIO began.
“Two tools of ours, the Forecast and Actuals Calculation Tool (FACT)—it is our real-time revenue forecasting tool—and Nagware – real-time pushing of key business information – helped the team win the Information Week 500 Awards in 2011 and 2012.”
Collaborate & Delegate
During Holman’s time at Ryan, the firm has increased its employee base and number of office locations by more than four times and its revenue by more than five times. Today Ryan has more than 1,800 employees across almost 70 office locations in twelve countries. Supporting such growth means that Holman’s leadership has to be top notch. Collaboration is a big part of his style.
“I encourage folks to work together,” he said. “When it comes to work tickets, for example, there is no passing the buck. In the past, technicians would pass the tickets back and forth like a hot potato. [At Ryan], if a ticket is dumped in your lap, it is incumbent on you to help find the person who can solve it, and engage them. It is a huge win in encouraging tech collaboration.”
Although he admits that as a leader he can sometimes be a bit of a control freak, Holman has learned to delegate—based on advice he received early on from mentor Lars Löfdahl. Other mentors have helped further shape his leadership development and execution. From his father, for example, Holman learned the value of having high standards and high expectations. “When you expect more, people deliver more”, Holman says.
Coaching & Cheerleading
Holman views himself as both coach and cheerleader of his team. “I give them guidance, help them break down barriers. It is my job to help them get things done.”
Equally important to Holman is having his team’s back. “It is my job to take the heat when something goes wrong,” he said. “If something doesn’t go right, I stand front and center to take responsibility for the issue.”
Although this fast-paced work life and constant problem-solving might cause many men and women to burn out, it just stokes Holman’s fire. And he doesn’t have any plans of slowing down.
Jill Yarberry-Laybourn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.