Profile in Perseverance: Rosalee Hermens, CIO of Timberland

As U.S. retailers continue to march on bankruptcy courts en mass, a few global players are banking their bets offshore. Although the Timberland brand is well-known in the U.S., most of the company’s current sales are in Europe and Asia. While those economies are suffering along with the U.S., IT has given Timberland the means to bob and weave according to a changing market.

“The U.S. is not the decider for us. It has an impact, sure. But most of our sales are outside the U.S. and we have high hopes for growing markets like China and India,” said Rosalee Hermens, CIO of Timberland, a $1.6B retailing giant. One of the most crucial IT improvements Timberland made was to move from batch processing to near-real time business intelligence. “We know what product is moving where with no more than a 20 minute lag of real-time,” said Hermens.

While this move seems incredibly timely given the current economic pressures, getting here was sluggish. “Timberland, like a lot of retailers, was relatively slow to embrace technology,” explains Hermens. “We tended to squeeze value out of older tech until there was nothing left to squeeze.”

When squeezing produced no more, Hermens pushed the company forward with a mid-stream business intelligence upgrade, a new data warehouse, and a modified architecture designed to create a global standardization of data.

“We had a tremendous snarl of technology,” she said. “We had to crawl before we could walk. With the BI upgrade we reduced interfaces by 75%, for example, and worked with our European counterparts to bring in franchise and distribution data.” Timberland has no wholly-owned stores in Russia, so they needed to extend the data again to bring in those franchisees. “Timelines are important. This is selling at its finest—the ability to find the product and ship to any customer anywhere is crucial.”

That is no small task, given global distribution, multiple currencies, and the diversity of cultures. There was far more to this IT upgrade than just buying hardware and software. “Getting people through the knothole, to learn and embrace the technologies has been very challenging and every bit as important to the company’s success as the technology itself is.”

Change management was among the more difficult undertakings because “it requires a different approach to business and different skill sets.” For example, “just sorting out who gets credit for the sale becomes a business process that must be sorted out and it can be quite complicated.”

The shortage of customers to be shared among retailers is adding to the crisis. “Retailers now have to confront channel blending and viewing our operations through the customers’ perspective. We have to rethink our systems and how we integrate.” And the turbulent economies around the globe haven’t helped her narrow her strategy.

“It’s hard to say whether I should be preparing for growth or retraction. There’s extreme uncertainty so I’m shooting for best flexibility.”

Another obstacle Hermens, like other CIOs, face is an extreme shortage of talent. “IT salaries are leveling out across the educated world,” she explained. “India is no longer the smashingly economic place to be. China is good but salaries are rising 10% a year. Trouble is, once we pass India and China, we’ve tapped out most of the educated world. Now what’s our labor strategy? We have to rethink it because there is no longer such a thing as cheap IT labor.”

Since the challenges are growing and the answers are hard to come by, this is what Hermens sees in Timberland’s future needs and on the IT horizon:

· SOA will continue to develop and will be broadly implemented;

· Product life-cycle technology will continue to develop in all industries over the next five to 10 years. “There will be increasing environmental health and safety regulations and we’ll eventually have to be able to answer what happens to our shoe after the sale and after disposal. All industries will have to do the same.”

· Wireless communications will become more important to retailers and so will the corollary security and privacy technologies.

· There will be an application of ethics to the use of all this technology, which will subsequently affect business processes across the board.

Although Hermens takes all these challenges seriously and works diligently to find workable solutions, she also knows some times you need to walk away from those problems for a bit in order to gain a fresh perspective. But even during “downtime”, Hermens is pushing the limits. She’s a tri-athlete.

“I’m not sure whether that creates or relieves stress,” she quipped. “But one thing’s for sure, you can’t worry about work while you’re swimming a mile in freezing water.”