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The wizard of ConAgra.

Upon her arrival at the Emerald City in the 1939 movie, "The Wizard Of Oz," Dorothy encounters an apparition of the Wizard--a hairless, alien, translucent image hovering amid fireballs and clouds of smoke. The real Wizard--an amiable, bookish man--is hidden behind a nearby curtain, frantically spinning wheels and pushing buttons on a control board.

Several years ago, ConAgra executives also encountered a technological thunderclap. Many offices were outfitted with terminals linked to a global, companywide executive information system. In this case, however, the jocular, bald-headed man pulling the levers was CEO Mike Harper.

Best-known as a hard-charging acquisitions champion who etched the ConAgra logo on every link of the food chain, Harper is also praised among the company's senior executives for his early embrace of information technology, including EIS. Through ConAgra's system, company officials access vital data on personnel, plants, performance, competitors, stock-price and interest-rate trends, and online databases. Every Monday morning, heads of the company's operating units use the system to confer in real time about profits, sales targets, and accounts receivable. Until stepping down as CEO, Harper directed the weekly show from his control center in Omaha. Sitting atop a desk in his office, it comprises a keyboard and 16-inch VGA color monitor, a wall phone, and a series of clocks set to the local times of ConAgra's far-flung units. Company officials declined to reveal the system's costs.

Asked whether he will inherit Harper's EIS upon the former CEO's move from ConAgra's executive offices, Phil Fletcher feigns indignation and triumphantly unveils his own EIS. "I don't want a lot of junk on my desk," he says, pointing to a video screen recessed under a glass cover. "This is much better, although Mike'll never come out and admit it." Fletcher flicks a button, and across the room a 27-inch multi-screen monitor pops out from an eight-seat, oval conference table in his office.

Clearly at ConAgra, the benefits of technology trickle down from the top. CE editors peeked over Mike Harper's shoulder and peppered him with questions as he tinkered with his creation.

Your executive information system is much-renowned. How does it enhance your ability to manage?

This EIS is a hell of a good communications device. Today, 5,360 of our people are hooked into the network, which transmits inbound mail, phone calls, internal news, and financial and market data.

Let me call up a mail screen. Inbound mail I haven't read yet is flagged with double yellow dots. A green asterisk means I saved a piece of mail I have seen. Say I had a letter from someone who agreed to do something in two weeks. At that time, the reminder note comes back, and I can check to see if the action has been taken.

To facilitate communications between ConAgra's operating units, we have a location file. If an executive is going to our plant in Dalton, GA, he can find out who's in charge there, the facility's size, its distance from a major city, labor contracts in effect, and the politicians responsible for that district.

We also keep personnel data on computer rather than on cards. At the touch of a button, information is available on employee compensation, position, incentives paid in the past, stock options, and stock ownership.

On any company, a financial database spits out data on accounts receivable, inventory, pre-tax profits, sales, gross margins, and advertising.

In addition, we track market share, an important measure of how we stack up against our competition.

At Monday morning meetings with your operating chiefs, what performance benchmarks do you analyze?

At one time, I had a room lined with cork board, where I pinned up charts on each of the businesses we owned. I got a long phone cord and talked to the operating heads about their business' profits while walking around the office and looking at the charts.

Now, computers have replaced cork board. They drive the screen in the boardroom. They also power the screens of eight members of the Office of the President, who are scattered around the country, so everyone sees the same information simultaneously. For each individual business, we check out a profit estimate for that month or that accounting period.

Those figures can be presented in graphic form. Here's another wrinkle: In any profit projection, we discovered there are sandbaggers, and there are optimists. So we can weight their estimates based on our knowledge of their predictive tendencies.

Do your employees take advantage of this system?

Yes, indeed. For example, because we borrow a lot of money in the short term, interest rates are an integral part of many of our businesses, such as grain trading. So this system lists our pool rate and line costs. Right now, the computer shows total short-term costs are 4.17 percent.

What about video conferencing?

We're experimenting with that. Under one option, I can look at four different people via a conference call, because the picture comes in a grid. Or, I can have financial information in EIS on the same screen as a caller.

What drives your information system?

All sorts of mini computers, but each feeds into the mainframe in our computer center, about a mile from here. The minis are linked by dedicated telecommunications lines throughout the U.S.

Do you have a disaster protection system in case of a blow-out?

Once a day someone pulls off a file and backs it up.

So many people invest in technology and don't know what to do with it. It's gratifying to see someone who has set up a system that gives core value.

EIS really facilitates communications. But if the situation is urgent or confidential, we still use the telephone or meet in person. The system is great, but it'll never completely take the place of personal contact.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:former CEO Mike Harper
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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