Top in technology 2005: Maureen Kelly, Russel Metals Inc.

Honorable mention: Luc Desjardins, Transcontinental Inc.

The Boss report: 2006 | 2005

Intro | Top CEO | Top CFO | Top in sales | CEOs to watch | Top COO | Top in technology | Most innovative CEO

Maureen Kelly
Russel Metals Inc. (TSX: RUS)

Date of birth: July 9, 1955
Years at company: 7
Last position: Director of Applications
Education: MBA, Rutgers University

A company like Russel Metals can't afford waste. As a metals distributor–it acts as middleman between mills and end-users, like contractors, for all kinds of steel products–Russel faces constant pressures to manage inventories, meet just-in-time delivery demands, and provide customized processing of steel for its customers. The Mississauga-based company traces its heritage back to a one-man iron-trading operation in Montreal in 1866; it doesn't get much more old-school. And if something ain't broke, don't fix it.

Such a lean operation sets a very high bar for information technology projects. There is no patience with bells and whistles, no room for cost overruns. And yet, Maureen Kelly has thrived as Russel's vice-president of information systems, overseeing the IT requirements for 58 metals service centres across Canada, and four more in the U.S.

Lured to Russel in 1998 by CFO Brian Hedges from an Ottawa-based data communications company where she had previously worked for him, Kelly jumped straight into the deep end, setting about replacing a 20-year-old home-grown Enterprise Resource Planning system (which tracks orders from when they're made to when payment is received), with one that was Y2K-compliant. She got it done by July 1, 1999.

Since then, the pace has not let up. Over the course of three years, beginning in 2001, Russel Metals made three acquisitions, which forced Kelly to rationalize disparate IT systems. She and her staff of 29 (only four predate her) have digitized the company's paper systems with central document management (mill test certificates no longer follow inventory around the continent), electronic funds transfers and e-mailing documents. A purchasing portal now provides branches with instant access to inventory data. A secure website for employees and suppliers is in the works, as well as other web-based applications. At the same time as all those investments, however, Kelly has reduced IT costs every year of her tenure–both as a percentage of revenue, and in absolute terms.

“I don't believe in being on the bleeding edge,” says Kelly. A lot of new applications might do wonders in a larger company or in a different industry, but Kelly is a hard sell. “If the technology is not going to provide value for this company, then we don't go with it,” she says. “We'd have great technology that nobody uses.” It's an attitude that is as pragmatic and unbending as the cold steel her company distributes. A.W.

Honourable mention

Luc Desjardins
Transcontinental Inc. (TSX: TCL.SV.A)

Date of birth: March 29, 1952
Years at company: 5
Last position: President & COO, Transcontinental
Education: MBA, UniversitY of Quebec at Montreal

It would be easy for chief executive Luc Desjardins to get distracted from day-to-day operations. After all, in the 13 months since he succeeded founder Rémi Marcoux as president and CEO, the printing and media company has undertaken a major U.S. expansion that helped push its annual revenues past $2 billion. But according to Desjardins, the key to making those new businesses run as smoothly as its old ones is an unwavering focus on operational details. “The Transcontinental culture is very entrepreneurial,” he says. “We are hands-on managers who work hard not to become bureaucrats.”

And there are plenty of those new businesses to deal with as Montreal-based Transcontinental expands its empire into the United States. In March, the company announced it had inked a 10-year deal to print the prestigious New York Times–a Canadian first, although the outsourced newspaper printing model is old hat for Transcontinental, which it's used in Canada since 1997. (It currently handles much of The Globe and Mail's print run, all of La Presse and some editions of the National Post.) With the purchases of Pennsylvania-based CC3 and JDM Inc., Transcontinental is now also one of the largest direct marketing suppliers in the United States, with approximately 3,000 U.S. employees. Twenty-nine percent of the company's revenue already comes from America, and Desjardins says the company is continuing to look for more southern exposure.

But even as Transcontinental grows, Desjardins keeps in mind what a Harvard professor of his once warned: no matter how large companies get, they have to learn to dance like a small company. “We don't consider ourselves a big company,” says Desjardins. “But I can assure you, no matter how large we grow, we will continue to dance like the small ones.” J.G.