With a familiar team and technological updates, Charles Hunsinger, Harry & David’s SVP and CIO, helped bring the company from bankruptcy back to the black
Charles Hunsinger is Senior Vice President (SVP) and Chief Information Officer at Harry & David, the leading gourmet gift company and top 150 Internet retailer. For 80 years, Harry & David has been famous for its hand-packed gift baskets and towers, gourmet treats, and Royal Riviera pears.
But things at Harry & David have not always been bright. In early 2011, the company was going through a bankruptcy filing. Enter Hunsinger, joining Pam Turay (SVP of Human Resources) and Michael Schwindle (Chief Financial Officer). Together the trio—along with Chief Executive Officer Craig Johnson, whom all three had worked with previously—sought to turn the company around.
Hunsinger explained why being in an organization as part of a team that had operated together previously worked so well: “When you get a chance to work with someone you’ve worked with before, you have a built-in level of trust,” he said. “You know their style and priorities. That makes a huge difference. It accelerates the process of building the team’s effectiveness. It’s also interesting to see people in different environments. They may approach the new role a little differently, so you get to see how people evolve in each environment.”
One of Hunsinger’s biggest challenges when he came on board at Harry & David was to update the organization’s technology. “Joining a company in bankruptcy was an interesting career decision,” Hunsinger joked.
Because of the company’s financial challenges, much of its technology had come to be greatly outdated. “When I went through the process to join the company, I realized they had not kept up with their technology investments. The company had deferred maintenance and stopped investing in strategic projects,” Hunsinger recalled. “There was not much money to go around, and technology got the short end of the stick. There were issues with upgrades. The hardware was too old to support new applications and operating systems.”
For example, the customer contact center’s phone switch had been installed 17 years prior. “I joked that I had a lot of systems that were old enough to drive and others old enough to drink,” Hunsinger said, “and I had to keep them from drinking and driving.”
Slowly but surely, Hunsinger got the technology updated. “I’ve been here over three years now,” he noted. “We’ve tackled system upgrades and replacements, and made great progress. The company has supported us with investments to replace the aging platforms.”
Beyond updating technology, Hunsinger also took on the challenging task of evaluating the talent of his team and cross-training staff to prepare them for new roles and responsibilities. “When I joined, I found we had a lot of experienced people with Harry & David. The average tenure on our team was 17 years. You don’t find that in many tech organizations,” Hunsinger said.
He found that while his team had been using dated technology, they had vast business and process knowledge that was a valuable asset.
Hunsinger discovered that one of the immediate needs in Information Technology (IT) was to implement portfolio and project management processes. “That was one gap we had to close quickly,” he said. “We had to build that discipline into the team to tackle the large projects ahead, to clearly communicate our capacity to take on projects and their status once started.”
“This team had been through a lot before I arrived, including staff reductions and other challenges,” Hunsinger said. “[I] had to really work with them to rebuild the process and principles of good governance and good transparency. People weren’t being fully transparent because they were afraid they would put their job at risk. We had to make sure everyone was communicating clearly again.”
Forging Relationships Across Functions
Hunsinger also sought to improve IT’s relationship with other business functions. “We provide a service to the company. It’s important to partner with other business functions to deliver the best solution,” he said. “Communication and transparency play a big role in my management style. As part of that, I want to make sure my team is well aware of what’s going on with all the other business functions.”
In fact, Hunsinger holds “all-team” meetings four or five times a year, sharing critical information on key topics. Regularly, too, he conveys information to his direct reports that he has brought back from executive leadership meetings. He then expects these individuals to share the information with their respective teams.
“We’ve worked to get that organizational communication in place and make sure people are up to date within the company,” Hunsinger said. “I think it’s helped with the trust factor. We’ve established that trust and followed through so that people now believe what they’re hearing.”
In It Together
In addition to focusing on improving technology, workflow and organizational communication, Hunsinger has made adjustments to his own leadership approach at Harry & David. Because many team members have seen the organization through some dark times, changing their perspective has proved to be a challenge.
“I know many of our team members have experienced seven, eight or more senior leaders of IT during their career here. Sometimes I think they wonder, ‘How long is this guy going to be here? Why should I care what he says?’ I had to change my approach and style. You want people to invest in the ongoing success of the company,” Hunsinger said. “They had stayed many years and gone through very challenging times leading up to bankruptcy. [I had to share with them], ‘This is what we’re doing to make the company successful again, to bring it back to profitability and growth.”
Hilary Sutton is a freelance writer and Principal of HSL Creative based in Lynchburg, Virginia.