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Magazines > Information Today > June 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 6 — June 2003
INTERVIEW
Passionate About Customer Needs
By Paula Hane

In mid-March, ProQuest Co. announced the appointment of D&B veteran Ron Klausner as president of ProQuest Information and Learning. He started work in early April, and I caught up with him a few weeks later to chat about his experiences, the company, and the industry.

Q: Ron, I know you haven't been on the job at ProQuest very long, but I'd like to give Information Today readers a chance to find out who you are, what you've done, and what you believe in. Please give us a brief overview of your responsibilities and experiences at D&B. I know you were there for many years in increasingly more responsible management positions.

A: I was at D&B for 27 years and spent half of my time in finance—I was CFO of one of our major companies—and half of my time in various line responsibilities, including running our Asia Pacific and LatinAmerican operations. I ran data and operations for some years—this is the content business that is the heart and soul of the company. D&B has 80 million businessrecords, and this is the segment of D&B that acquires, compiles, and creates the content, and ultimately fabricates and disseminates it to customers.

Most recently, I had responsibility for North American sales, which was a little over $900 million. I was a member of D&B's executive leadership team, a body of about 12 people that ran the company.

Q: Was this a D&B style of management—moving executives around to different areas for experience?

A: No.Actually, I was the exception. I have a passion around a couple of things: a passion around customers and a passion for performance, and I think the two go together like hand and glove. I was generally asked to change positions predicated on a business need or issue. For example, I never consideredmyself as a sales executive, but I ran the sales organization because D&B felt it was our best opportunity to deliver results for shareholders and ensure we focused on the interests of customers first.

Q: It's amazing to see a person stay with one company for 27 years. They must have treated you well.

A: They treated me very well. I had a great run and I left with my head up high. I think a lot of people were very surprised I left, which incidentally was very amicable. I was making decisions right up until my last day. It was a totally positive experience.

Q: Of what accomplishment are you most proud from your years with D&B?

A: Three things. First, the customer relationships I established. Customers trusted that I had their interests first. I had a number of beautiful e-mails from customers when I left. Second, I'm very proud of the advocacy around the people within D&B, partly because I was there so long and partly because people believed they had an advocate in the executive team of D&B. It might sound trite, but when you have people committed to excellence and care, then loyalty is not an ugly word (though sometimes it is in the business literature). Third, I consistently delivered results.

Q: How did ProQuest scout you and why did they bring you in?

A: They did their homework on me and I was quite surprised. First and foremost, they found out that I have the ability to lead an organization to focus on a very few priorities, make sure those priorities map to the strategy of the company, and then execute with excellence. I think what I do exceedingly well is not get bogged down in distractions and lose sight of objectives. The challenge we have at ProQuest, and at all publicly traded companies, is managing the delicate balance among the three key constituencies: the shareholders, the customers, and the associates that work for the company. ProQuest believed that I would be able to help execute the strategy that's been articulated, and I have every intention of proving them right.

Q: Let's talk about this strategy. What mandate were you given by ProQuest leadership when you took this job?

A: To build on the company success in meeting customer needs. What I've observed in the DNA of the ProQuest people is customer advocacy. It is very special. The ProQuest people truly place the needs of customers first. That continued passion and commitment was clearly something that Alan Aldworth [president and CEO of ProQuest] wanted to build upon and sustain. What's a little different than what I'm used to is that the customer you speak with is not necessarily the end user. I've also been brought in to help execute on financial goals—top-line revenue growth, both organically and investments, and bottom-line EBITDA growth.

Q: I suspect you are still in discovery mode at ProQuest, especially since you are new to this market. Please talk about what you've learned so far and what else you need to know.

A: This is a relatively new experiencefor me. I'm going through discoverywith an eye on the three constituencies. I've been in the job a little over 3 weeks. I've spent a fair amount of time with customers—at the ACRL meeting and with our advisory board for a few days. I've alsomet a few customers on their premises. I'm learning what we are doing well, what we can do better, and what the competition is doing. I'm trying to understand from customers how our products and services meet needs in the marketplace. I believe if you focus on the customer, you will be rewarded.

At the same time, I'm spending a lot of time with the company's associates. I'm trying to understand if we have simple processes. For example, are we able to bring products to market quickly? Do we execute with excellence?

I'm also working to understand the company's critical priorities, making sure they map back with clarity to the strategy. Because of my background, the financials come very naturally to me. The two challenges are the processes and priorities, and understanding what the customer needs and wants. I have a defined discovery process for my first 90 days, with milestones along the way. At the end, I'll either say I need another 60 days or I'll be at a point where I'm ready to validate or modify the strategy. We will be very aggressive around a few priorities that are important to customers.

Q:You have an M.B.A. in accounting and have passed the C.P.A. exam. Do you think finance background is a special asset these days, when there have been so many corporate accounting scandals?

A: This is a biased opinion, but I'vefound that in general management, it is a huge advantage. There's a delicate balance among the three constituencies and you have to be knowledgeable enough about the financials to make the right trade-offs to benefit all three.

Q: From what you've seen so far, what do you think are ProQuest's biggest assets and where are its best chances for success?

A: I'll reiterate my feelings about the ProQuest people: They truly want to make a difference in the tools and content we provide for customers. Clearly, there are strengths in ProQuest's content—in business, in social sciences and humanities, in historical information, in general reference. From what I've observed, the competition has been trying to make inroads in content in the last few years. There's so much content out there that it's the ability to get at the right information. I'm not yet prepared to say if we have the right content or what we need to add, but we will be aggressive to ensure that ultimately we have the best products.

Q: ProQuest has always prided itself on its relationships with publishers. But there's been some turmoil in the relationships between publishers and aggregators, with some publishers pulling out of databases or trying to negotiate higher fees, and some exclusive deals being cut. Libraries are unhappy with changes in access. What do you think will happen in this unsettled space?

A: I have observed this, but to say I have a perspective would be premature. D&B did not experience this kind of turmoil since D&B is highly dependent on public-domain data. This has actually been the biggest surprise I've had in coming into this job. I tried to do my homework before coming here, but it wasn't as clear to me as it is now.

Q: Yes, two very different situations. D&B is a large global firm with about 9,000 employees and about $1.4 billion in revenue. Its customers are large financial institutions and major corporations. ProQuest Information and Learning is considerably smaller ($428 million in revenues for the company and $248 for Information and Learning) and serves the academic and library markets. How will you make the transition to this very different environment?

A: There are still the basics of business. Do you offer the right value proposition for your customers? Part of this is understanding what your customers want, need, and can afford. So this is similar even if the markets are completely different.At D&B, we did sell to some libraries also.

I am also a very big communicator internally. If people know where the organization is heading and what is expected of them, you will be successful. So my level of confidence after 3 weeks in the job is very high, even though I lack experience in this industry. ProQuest is a very trusted, respected brand in this marketplace. I'm very proud about that. Yes, there will be a learning curve, but there will be clarity sooner rather than later.

Q: We've been dealing with a very tough economy and challenging times for everyone. I know D&B had to cut costs and close its European headquarters. It also moved to focus more on Web delivery. What else did it do?

A: At D&B, we actually got ahead of the curve. D&B did not react to the bad economic times. The initiatives you referred to were planned—many of them under my direction—prior to the downturn. We started some of these back in 2000. You look at the costs around processes, and then you simplify, standardize, and consolidate to reduce costs. Companies that just react to economic downturns and have to do re-engineering generally lose.

Now, obviously, the economic conditions we are in are incredibly difficult. From my days running the sales organization at D&B, it was the worst I've seen in my career. There was volatility, erratic decision making, and unpredictable behavior.

I do intend to bring discipline around cost management at ProQuest. My early impressions, though, are that the content-manufacturing side of ProQuest is an asset and is done with efficiency. There seems to be a rigor around cost management and a relentless quest for quality. Nevertheless, we will make difficult choices to reduce our cost base.

Q: Some of the market conditions are out of your control, such as library budgets. Many are influenced by the city, state, federal, and academic organizations they report to. There are very tight conditions. It's hard to sell when customers are told they can't buy anything.

A: You're absolutely correct. While the economic conditions are severe, my philosophy is not to dwell on what we cannot control. Even in the worst of times, there's a basic need for ProQuest-type services. The challenge is to see what we can do within those constraints that is a win for our clients and for ProQuest. Focus on serving customers well and still give shareholders a fair return. It means the challenges are harder, productivity will have to increase, we'll have to be creative, and ... we'll have to take market share from the competition. All of these things are doable.

Q: I know that you worked on diversity-in-the-workplace initiatives at D&B. For several years, you were a corporate champion for the Gay & Lesbian Information Support Network. Tell us about these and whether you plan similar involvement at ProQuest.

A: It comes down to a basic philosophical belief that companies are better off with a diverse set of opinions. A customer base will be diverse, so at D&B we worked hard to have a diverse slate of candidates and to make the work environment safe for everyone. At D&B, we made a lot of progress, but it was a 160-year-old company, so we had to work really hard at it. My initial view is that ProQuest does not seem to have the same kind of ambience that would require this.

My philosophy, though, is not to have the "priority of the month." We will have a handful of priorities, clarity around them, and execute with excellence.

 

 


Paula J. Hane is Information Today, Inc.'s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks. Her e-mail address is phane@infotoday.com.
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