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Leadership : Diebold's New Chief Shows How to Lead
posted by admin on 22/06/06

The CFO jumped ship and late last year, the COO and CEO both were ousted. 

Thomas Swidarski was a senior vice president at Diebold, the Canton, Ohio, maker of automated teller machines last fall. Hardly anything was going smoothly. New ATMs had fancy features but also costly bugs. A supply chain quagmire in overseas plants slowed the flow of products. Earnings plummeted. Every C-level executive left: the chief financial officer jumped ship and late last year, the COO and CEO both were ousted. 

That's when directors named Mr. Swidarski, 47 years old, president and CEO. Before accepting the top job, he reminded Diebold's lead director that he didn't have any manufacturing expertise. What the 10-year veteran did have was experience overseeing marketing, global business development and acquisitions. And he hasn't lacked the ability to identify problems quickly and mobilize employees to work toward solutions. 

His moves since taking charge offer a road map to other executives who suddenly find themselves attempting a turnaround or taking on a bigger company role than they ever anticipated. 

Mr. Swidarski began his first day as CEO last December by asking himself what he'd want from a new top boss. His answer: candid communication. He sent an email to Diebold's 14,500 employees inviting comments and outlining his priorities, including building customer loyalty by speeding the flow of products through the supply chain, and "providing quality products and outstanding service." He told them that leading Diebold "does not rest with one person -- it rests with each and every one of us." 

He received more than 1,000 responses. Some employees simply said "thanks for writing," but others wrote about a problem they wanted to solve. "People cared and were passionate, which is what you always want and need" to make changes, says Mr. Swidarski. 

He then assembled a new senior team, relying mostly on insiders whose skills he knew and who complemented one another. "These are people I've witnessed in good and also bad times when they've been under fire," says Mr. Swidarski, a sports fan who likes reading football coaches' advice for management tips. 

A few key jobs were redesigned to focus on the greatest needs. Diebold gets 50% of its revenue from service contracts, requiring it to keep thousands of ATMs up and running world-wide 24/7. In the past, the executive in charge of service didn't have a say in product development. Mr. Swidarski combined jobs, naming a new senior vice president of global development and service. It was a small change, but has the potential to save millions of dollars. And instead of relying on service technicians only to fix problems in the field, they and customers now give feedback for future product designs. 

To tackle Diebold's supply-chain problems, Mr. Swidarski put one executive in charge of parts procurement and manufacturing. Until he took charge, the company's overseas plants received parts mostly from U.S. suppliers, running up shipping costs. Procurement managers, who reported to different bosses from the plant managers, focused too much on the cost of parts, rather than on how much inventory was needed, when and where. 

That's changing as Diebold seeks overseas suppliers close to overseas plants and links procurement directly to supply-chain logistics. 

Straightforward and unpretentious, Mr. Swidarski drops by employees' desks to ask about their work or invites them to lunch. He reminds executives to "make sure associates know the work they do is important, whatever their title," says Cassie Metzger, who oversees Diebold's global customer-satisfaction program. 

He's demanding, however, quick to tell a manager he or she hasn't prepared for a meeting -- not an easy thing to do with former peers. "I indicated that, make no mistake, this is a business not a fraternity, and I will be making tough business and personnel decisions in coming months," he says. 

He told Wall Street analysts in January he wanted to cut $100 million in costs over three years. Diebold recently announced plans to close its plant in France and move its European operation to Hungary. But Mr. Swidarski says most savings will come from more-efficient manufacturing and service processes, not job cuts. "Our head count will go up, not down," he says. "We need to make sure we have the right skills for us to compete." 

He no longer makes quarterly projections to Wall Street. Companies don't reach goals by checking results every quarter, he says, "You get there by saying, 'Here is where we are going over the next two- to three-year period.' " 

Mr. Swidarski also wants to separate himself from his predecessor, Walden O'Dell, who once wrote in a fund-raising letter for President Bush that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president." That commitment raised ethics questions because Diebold makes voting machines. 

A new policy forbids any Diebold officer or employee in the voting-machine business from making political contributions. As for his $2,000 contribution to President Bush's re-election, Mr. Swidarski says that was his last check. 

Email comments to inthelead@wsj.com1.

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