WE GO BEYOND THE HEADLINES
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation with a local leader as part of our commitment to bring you insightful coverage of metro Atlanta’s business scene.
A few key people can make all the difference. If it weren’t for them, Bill Nuti may not have made it from his humble beginnings to lead one of Georgia’s largest companies.
Nuti, chairman and CEO of Duluth-based NCR, is transforming the technology firm’s core business from hardware to software. Known for making ATMs and self-service kiosks, the company — $5.7 billion in revenue and 26,000 employees — is expanding into more industries and markets around the world with new software, including online services and mobile applications.
Since taking the helm in 2005, Nuti has bought, sold and spun off firms, set up an ATM manufacturing plant in Columbus, and relocated the company’s headquarters from Dayton, Ohio, to Duluth. No stranger to controversy, he’s currently dealing with allegations that NCR violated a U.S. anti-bribery law in the Middle East and China.
Earlier in his career, Nuti, 49, was called on to lead another tech firm through an accounting scandal he inherited. He talks about what he’s learned from tackling a variety of business challenges — an opportunity he might never have gotten if a few people hadn’t cared.
Q: What happened early in your life to shape who you are?
A: I grew up in a tough area in the Bronx. I was living in a housing project, with no elevators and lots of rats. When I was 14, the conditions in my neighborhood were worsening. Drugs were prolific and crime — not petty crime but serious crime — was worsening.
My parents were concerned. My dad was a truck driver and my mom was a bank teller. Both worked full-time. We made the decision that I would move to Long Island to live with my grandparents.
My grandmother had gotten married to a fairly wealthy man after her first husband died. It was the most important event in my life. My new grandfather opened up a completely new world to me that I never knew existed. He came from Italy to America with nothing, but he accomplished a great deal. He owned a bookbinding company.
He bought me my first stock when I was 15. He said, “We’re going to learn the stock market together.” We went on to build a portfolio. He opened up my first back account and taught me to be a saver.
He taught me the importance of a work ethic and having high expectations. He also taught me to dine out. Up until then, the biggest dining establishment I had been to was IHOP.
Q: You ended up going to college in Long Island while working for IBM. What happened?
A: That was the other most important part of my journey. I worked for IBM selling copiers during the day and went to college at night. I found out I could sell. In my first year, I was the No. 1 copier salesman.
I had two important mentors at IBM who took a special interest in me, went on sales calls with me and taught me to sell the right way:
— Genuinely focus on your customer’s business needs.
— Do the necessary homework to understand what their requirements are.
— Design a solution that solves their needs.
Selling is an anti-climatic end to being a great consultant to your customer.
Q: After graduating you worked for IBM and then Cisco, which was much smaller than it is now. What did you learn?
A: I joined Cisco to sell routers. At the time, they were selling for $18,000. Today, you can buy them for $50. I was the top salesman in New York, got promoted to regional manager and then operations director. I then was asked to run the Asia-Pacific business and build China as a marketplace.
China is not a horizontal business model like the U.S. It’s diagonal. To do well in China, you have to understand it’s not just about business. It’s culture, politics, social. There are so many different aspects to decision-making in that market. You have to be multidimensional in a way that stretches your imagination and makes you a better executive.
Remember, I came there from New York. It was culture shock. The one good thing was that I was the best basketball player in Beijing when I got there. I had a league that I would run. They thought I was Michael Jordan. It helped build relationships.
Q: After Cisco, you were tapped for your first CEO role in 2002 by Symbol Technologies, which was a troubled Long Island manufacturer of bar code scanners embroiled in an accounting scandal when you arrived. What did you learn there that has helped you at NCR — strategically and with the overseas allegations you’re dealing with now?
A: It was one of the greatest and most difficult experiences in my life. I found out that the scandal at Symbol was much worse than I was told. We had to gut the business and build it back up.
I learned three things:
— Always do the right thing when no one is looking. Repeatedly talk about the importance of doing that.
— You have to have a strong vision and an ability to operationalize it.
— You have to have a dedicated, strong team around you because you cannot do it alone.
The most important thing we did operationally was to reinvest in innovation and completely transform the product line into one that had more customer appeal.
Q: Then you took over NCR, making lots of changes since 2005. They included moving the company’s headquarters from Dayton to Duluth in 2009, but you’ve never moved from New York. Why not? What’s the most important thing you’ve learned at NCR?
A: The biggest thing I learned is that there is a humongous difference between a turnaround and a reinvention of a company.
A turnaround is quite simple. One can come in and cut a tremendous amount of costs in various areas, improve your profits, hence improve your earnings per share and stock price, and most people are happy. The problem is that it’s not sustainable. You eventually have to grow, because you cannot cut yourself to greatness.
In a reinvention, you have to figure out how to grow. I set out with the board to reinvent NCR. There wasn’t much more cost to take out. In fact, we took out too much cost. We cut things that we needed to reinvest in like training, development of people and customer service.
We developed a strategic, growth-oriented plan for the business and invested in areas that were cut that will enable us to grow over the long-term. We didn’t think this was a 3-year deal — but a 10-year deal, a steady march. We made mistakes along the way.
As for our move, it was clear to us that we needed to move to a place where we would have access to a greater number of talented people, like Georgia Tech engineers. In order to sustain our growth, it’s a talent game.
On a personal basis, I have a son in the 11th grade who is being highly recruited as a football player. I had moved my family so many times over the many years we were at Cisco that I thought it was important for him to have some stability when we came back, through high school at least. After high school, we have choices we can make as a family. It may involve moving here.
Nuti’s remarks were edited for length and style.