Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Business Leader Interview: Hugh Cathey

This week, I'm talking with one of our technology business leaders, Hugh Cathey.  I was introduced to Hugh by an attorney, Earl LeVere, now at Schottenstein Zox & Dunn.  Earl and I got to know each other through a few Technology Leaders Luncheon events run by TechColumbus.  Since then I have been able to work with Hugh on a couple of different fronts and have always found his insights to be helpful in establishing focus and ensuring movement in the right direction.

You're all over the place. What is the unifying theme of all of the work that you're doing now?
Working with SMB-size companies on growth strategy.  In other words, if the CEO is not satisfied with where they are in their growth trajectory, we probably have reason to talk. 

How did you get to where you are now?
I’ve served as president/CEO of five technology companies over the last 20 years.  The first three are where I learned how to lead a team and respond to stakeholders.  The last two were where I really learned how to drive hyper-growth.  Those lessons combined give me the background to help emerging-company CEOs with understanding how to ignite growth, profitably.

Tell us about a defining moment in your professional development that tested your fitness for the big leagues and how that moment has stayed with you.
Nothing very glamorous, but when I came to Columbus in 1996 to start XO Communications as its president, the primary investor in the company told me I needed to have some outside help in order to grow the company at the rate necessary to achieve our financial objectives.  He “encouraged” me to use an outside consultant who could help me understand the dynamics of exponential growth vs linear. 

I retained a consultant to help me in this regard, and his “over my shoulder” insights were invaluable to our success at XO. 

My take-away from that experience was that I really didn’t have all the answers, and to think otherwise was to invite trouble.  It made me realize that I had to find the answers from others, and to be open to help, and not let my “executive ego” get in the way of progress.

That same recognition is what I look for in a potential consulting client.  If they don’t “get” that, then it’s unlikely that I will be able to help them grow their company.

What is it about Columbus that anchors you here?
Aside from the palm trees and balmy weather?  Well, the thing I tell my left-and-right coast friends is that anyone in Columbus is accessible with no more than two or three phone calls.  I really like that kind of small-town-feel-within-a-big-town part of Columbus.  It has a growing and vital technology focus – which is where my business interests lay.

The weather is a non-issue for me – if nothing else it provides variety.  Warm and friendly people, a fairly cosmopolitan feel.  I consider it “home”. 

What grand opportunity do you see before us in the Columbus technology scene?  What about a challenge that we'll need to overcome to realize the opportunity?
There are a number of opportunities for technology in Columbus; the logistics scene, the Internet apps scene, the healthcare Infosys scene, etc.  The big challenge I see is that local large businesses are not ardent users of the services of the local tech companies – not like it is in my former home-ground of Los Angeles.

If the local big companies were myopically focused on making business relationships with local tech companies, we would see a lot more successes come about. 

I’m not saying there is none of this – but it’s just not as abundant as it could be.

What's in it for the big companies to do this work? Doesn't this mean that they're accepting greater risk if going with a “local” solution?
Yes, there's more possible risk there, but that's really a shortsighted view.  Working locally helps to spur employment growth and overall economic health in a substantial way.  If I'm a local company and I need a technology service, do I go to a local firm or do I go off to an east-coast firm that might be more well-known generally?  It's almost impossible for me to believe that when buying a typical technology service, you can't source it locally.  Sure there are times when you can't, but that's one out of a hundred; it's not the usual case.  Local big business leaders need to think broadly about how their companies are working.  They work with one another, but those executives need to look at how to develop relationships with the younger companies to help them to achieve local growth beyond their own businesses.  You see this happen all the time in Los Angeles.  You see it in Boston and Chicago.  It helps to perpetuate growth.  Austin does this very well.  Dell does business with companies with headquarters there.  Southwest Bell, too.  You see it everywhere.  Here I routinely see companies that I work with having a hard time getting into large companies based here.

What advice would you share with someone working in technology here?
To waste no time in getting deeply involved in the various tech organizations; get out, meet people, ask for introductions to other people – really focus on that from the get-go.  Most every need that someone is going to face can be helped by those connections.

How would you recommend that students—say, high school and college students—get connected to the community that they hope to work in?

It's difficult to get someone in high school to be able to reach out and connect to the community.  The community that will need to hire them a few years down the road really needs to reach out to the schools.  TechColumbus, the Chamber of Commerce, and large companies have programs for people to get involved.  They do that routinely in southern California where I'm from, sometimes through organizations like Junior Achievement.  The reality is that maybe ten percent of the student body would be a candidate for a program like that specifically in technology.  Programs that help students with the inclination to get grounded in early career development will help not just the students, but also the companies that will need people with those skills later.

Do you have any advice for teachers and guidance counselors who are helping younger students to understand their options and to pursue the ones that make sense for them?
Teachers  and all faculty need to know about real options.  Offshore sourcing isn't taking away all of the jobs, but it affects the skills that are needed locally.  Sourcing changes over time.  India isn't the hotspot that it once was.  South Vietnam is now hot.  It all goes in cycles.  Over time, wages in the areas that are hot will go up, and there will be a point of diminishing returns.  Someplace else will be hot and repeat the process.  It's like the manufacturing facilities in northern Mexico that worried people fifteen years ago.  There will be impact from sourcing that is done remotely, but it doesn't take away industries; it changes the way that industries do business.  Whatever the business, hands-on work needs to be done locally.  Anyone discouraging students from pursuing technology for fear of changes due to sourcing is really doing a disservice.

How should we think about Columbus and describe it to others?
Columbus is a phenomenal place.  The ability to get to people is tremendously valuable.  It's just a great place to work.

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Blogger Michael said...

Very familiar with Hugh and he does a great job advising companies. I did a business assessment on a company he works with. They have implemented his ideas and concepts and are doing great.

July 30, 2008 at 8:05 AM  

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