The Grill: Guess CIO Michael Relich takes on his dream job: COO

As executive vice president and CIO at Guess Inc., Michael Relich oversaw the retailer's global IT strategy and a worldwide IT staff of more than 100 people. His nine-year tenure in the position earned him a spot as one of four finalists for the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium's CIO Leadership Award for 2013. Relich's work also earned him a nod from Guess CEO and co-founder Paul Marciano, who in August named him the company's new COO. In announcing Relich's appointment, Marciano cited his strong operational skills, strategic vision and leadership in retail technology.

Did your IT background prepare you for the COO job in ways that experience in other areas couldn't? The CIO job is a little bit of a barrier. I wanted to have this role, this was my ultimate aspiration, but it's such an untypical path that it seemed really difficult. But now that I've got the COO job, I think being CIO uniquely prepared me and it's a huge benefit. If you come in as a CFO, you understand the numbers. But business is getting more complex, and the CIO is putting in systems to solve problems. And how can you solve a problem if you don't understand what it is? I was part of the team that built the systems infrastructure, and I had a good grip on how the company works. If didn't have that experience, it would be difficult to take on this position.

Were there disadvantages in moving from CIO to COO? A big part of the COO role is financial. Because the traditional path has been via the CFO route, people [might think I] lack the finance acumen. That's probably the disadvantage. But still, it's different. If you worked as a CFO, I can't compete with that. But I don't think CFOs can compete with me on the operations side.

Did you aspire to the COO job? I started out my career as a programmer, so I was pretty technical. I'd have managers come in and say, "Program this, program that," but I wanted to understand why I was doing a particular task. Nothing bothered me more than someone giving me a task without giving me context.

As a CIO, I was getting frustrated because a lot of times you were treated as if you didn't know the business, so people wouldn't be open to all the possibilities. As a CIO, I was highly respected, but you don't have that same pull. You're trying to convince people. As COO, I know the systems, I know how the process works, and it's amazing how that little title change can change people's perspective.

What does that say about the CIO role in business today? You can recommend solutions, but adoption still takes place on the business side. So you're still a salesperson. But as a COO, it's much easier to ensure adoption.

Is that the CIO's fault? It depends. You have two [types of] CIOs. You have some guys who are tech heads -- they love the technology. They're going to use acronyms that confuse business people, and they're the last guys to get called into meetings. And you have CIOs who are more business-oriented. If you're more technically oriented, you need to change or become extinct.

So what makes a strong IT leader today? It's somebody who has a very good grasp of business, who understands the business problems, who makes partnerships with their team, with their colleagues, and who is also able to build a good team to actually implement their vision.

How did you handle the transition to COO? I met with all of the business leaders, and because I had worked here so long, I had the relationships and that helped. I was able to sit down and speak with them and find out what their pain points and challenges were. And the reception I got was pretty good. It was, "You understand my problems."

Half the challenge is to say you really understand what the problems are, and the second half was to put together a road map on how to deal with their challenges.

Did you make any missteps that you'd advise others to try to avoid? I've only been in this job two months, so there haven't been any huge missteps. But being in IT, you have to get into detail, there's no way around it. Sometimes, I think, in the COO role you have to be a little more broad. [You have] to keep it at a higher level. And in projects in IT, you're dealing with one area. But in the COO job there's so much that has to be dealt with at one time, so prioritizing of time is a little bit of a challenge.

The CIO's role has evolved to include more business responsibilities, and other executive positions include technology responsibilities. So what does the future of the CIO role look like? I've been in other companies where you have people in management who fancy themselves as technologists, and they're the ones bringing the technology and the solutions into the company and the CIO is more of an executor -- he's not developing strategy. I hated that.

If you're going to bring in, [for example], 10 solutions with 10 databases, you're going to end up with problems. Business people can't always see that. And as CIO, you end up getting blamed for the problems. CIOs get fired for that.

On the other hand, you have CIOs who are very business-savvy and understand the problems and go off and solve them in the best way. Here at this company, no technology happens until IT is involved, and all deals are negotiated by IT. I'm pretty adamant that IT needs to own this because there's this whole architecture component and cost component. At the end of the day, someone has to make sure everything under the hood works. That's why we have technology specialists.

You recently participated in a panel discussion about analytics. What are you doing that involves big data? There's a lot of data to harvest to figure out your customer, so I think there are huge opportunities. I can't say we've done huge things, but we've gone down the path.

You have to put in the infrastructure, and you need to figure out how to deal with structured and unstructured data. We put in Vertica, a columnar database, so we made sure we could handle large volumes of data. And we were able to increase performance by 50 to 100 times, so we were able to look at analytics.

Now we're able to run queries that used to take a day -- if they even ran, if they didn't fail -- now we can do these in minutes. Right now, we're doing market-basket analysis, looking in detail at what people are buying online together and in the store together, and using analytics, we actually make suggestions.

You've also talked about a generational change coming. What do you see? There's going to be a revolution in retail when the next generation comes in. They grew up with smartphones and technology. The guys running it now are in their 50s and they're not tech-savvy. But when the next generation comes in, I think you're going to have huge, huge changes. Right now, they say omnichannel: It's mobile devices, computers and in-store. I think they're all going to get merged together.

We're experimenting with some technology. We put some sensors in the store, so when I walk in, [the system] might not know that it's Mike Relich, but it knows my phone and it can see how many times I've been in the store and my path in the store.

And now it can track were you go. Do you go first to the sales rack, and how long do you spend in accessories versus denim? Right now, I know how long they stay and their browsing patterns. But if I get you to opt in on our mobile app, now I know it's you.So the next time I can pop you up on an iPad, and all the history you have, and basically know you.

Think about it: In the store, especially during a busy time, you have to allocate resources. Now I can see this is Rachel. She spent $5,000 last year, and I know she's a denim buyer and I can show her denim. And Mike buys only watches, and I can market to him that much better. I can take that same data on the Web and change the landing page and change the entire browse and dynamically generate pages tailored to you.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (marykpratt@verizon.net)

Dossier

Michael Relich

What's your favorite tech toy? "My storage area network and Mac Mini. I can stream music and movies to every device in the house. I have about 1,000 albums."

What music do you like? "I don't like rap, but I have everything from opera to blues to reggae to classic rock to alternative to jazz."

If you weren't in IT, what would you do for work? "I'd probably be a lawyer. I like to argue."

Do you have any hobbies? Riding motorcycles.

What's on your reading list? The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria

Hometown: Hacienda Heights, Calif.

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