CIOs Becoming a Small-Business Staple

By David Haskin

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Like most chief information officers (CIOs), Rob Shoenfelt is responsible for setting his company's technology direction and making sure it aligns with the company's business goals.

But if you think Shoenfelt's position fits the classic CIO mold, consider this: Shoenfelt is CIO of Celina Insurance Group, an Ohio-based company with only 170 employees and sales of $65 million. In the past, CIOs have primarily walked the halls of Fortune 500 companies, but that is changing.

"We're seeing the CIO role increasingly being established in companies with between 100 and 499 employees," said Jim Browning, vice president and research director for Gartner's Small and Mid-sized Research Group.

Shoenfelt said he wasn't aware that he was part of a trend.

"I came here because the executive team intuited a problem, but not how to solve it," Shoenfelt said. "This was a company that needed to move forward in an industry where data is so important."

That was particularly true, Shoenfelt said, because customers and agents expected the same services from small property and casualty insurers like Celina Insurance Group as they received from big firms.

"When I got here, I saw that if we couldn't compete on the Web, there'd be a lot of trouble," Shoenfelt said.

Coming to Small Businesses

According to research done by Gartner's Browning, companies with fewer than 100 employees still have little formalized technology management. By contrast, many companies with between 500 and 1,000 employees already have CIOs or somebody acting in a similar function.

"In the 20 to 99 employee group, you see loose IT departments where the IT staffers wear multiple hats," Browning said. "That hasn't changed much. Companies in the 500 to 999 employee group operate more like larger enterprises where the CIO plays a significant role in the decision-making."

The action, he said, is in the middle group of small businesses. Like Shoenfelt's company, many of these enterprises must compete against larger firms. Even then, he said, CIOs are becoming more common only in certain types of industries.

"Some industries have more need for IT departments -- it's driven by the data intensiveness of the industry," Browning said. "For instance, insurance and financial services companies are reliant on the effective use of data. By contrast, the construction industry remains relatively independent of IT."

The Powerful CIO

Browning said that companies in the middle category of small businesses, where Shoenfelt's Celina Insurance Group resides, often don't give their CIOs sufficient power. However, that hasn't been a problem for Shoenfelt.

"Part of my responsibility is on the IT side, but it also was to change an organization that's been around since 1914," he said.

For instance, until several years ago, the company had only a rudimentary Web site offering little more than a picture of the company's headquarters building. That didn't suit the company's network for 500 independent agents who deal not only with Celina Insurance Group but also with much larger insurers.

"Since our distribution channel is independent, we have to offer the same things that the big boys offer," Shoenfelt said.

Now, agents can look up the status of specific customers online, make payments, change policies, get a quote on a new policy and turn that quote into an application. They also can order supplies and get copies of a variety of documents, Shoenfelt said.

In addition, his shop deployed the Lotus Sametime instant messaging product for enterprises. He said that, while Sametime is an excellent productivity enhancer for employees, it also will further expedite communications between employees and agents.

Meeting Resistance

While Shoenfelt said he was given a lot of power to initiate change, he still has encountered resistance at times from within in the company.

"Sure there has been some resistance," he said. "We've had to change businesses processes in order to make the changes. For instance, many people paid their agents with a cancellation notice in one hand and a check in the other. The old way was to say we'd make a note of it and, when we received the payment, we'd reinstate them. Now, if they make a payment on the Web, we won't cancel."

In addition, Shoenfelt said he and his staff worked hard to align Web to the sales process.

"When you get down to it, auto insurance is auto insurance," Shoenfelt said. The question is what we do to differentiate ourselves and, in our case, it's technology. We pride ourselves on making our site easy to use."

To do that, Shoenfelt oversees a staff of 15, meaning that, in his company, almost 10% of the workforce is involved in IT. But Shoenfelt said that investment in technology is essential to keeping the business profitable.

"When I got here, the company was waiting to see what the Web was going to do," he said. "Now we know that the Web has revolutionized our industry. We need to have everything (on the Web) that the big companies do. For a small company in the cornfields of Ohio, that can be a hard thing to do."