CEO Interview: Michael Dell on shifting strategy

By Jessica Mintz

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 16 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

ROUND ROCK, Texas — Michael Dell is in a very good mood.

Companies are buying new computers, servers and other technology again. An improving economy helped push Dell Inc. to a record third quarter. The company's leadership team shook off a recent setback — losing data-storage maker 3Par to Hewlett-Packard Co. — and are relentlessly optimistic about the company's transformation from purveyor of commodity computers to provider of more profitable data center technology and consulting. And in his pocket is a slick-looking phone prototype even Steve Jobs might admire.

But Dell Inc. faces some daunting challenges. As it enters new categories, such as tablet PCs and smart phones, its products must hold their own against Apple's iPad and iPhone. Unlike Apple — a word Michael Dell didn't utter during a recent interview — Dell doesn't control the software that runs on its devices, and recent attempts to build brand lust for its products fell short.

To supply corporations with data center technology, Dell is up against HP and IBM Corp. Those seasoned rivals have more established reputations and a higher-end selection of servers and other gear.

At the same time, Dell is revamping the way it makes PCs, which still account for more than half its revenue. Dell's model enabling customers to pick features and have the PC shipped directly — cutting out the middleman — couldn't compete when other PC makers slashed costs by outsourcing.

In a rare interview, Mr. Dell sat down with The Associated Press to talk about the company he founded 26 years ago.

Q: In the last few years, Dell reorganized the structure of the business, laid off a tenth of its employees, scrambled to fend off competing PC makers and tried to reinvent itself as a data-center expert. What's the status of the turnaround?

A: I'd say we're really doing two things at Dell right now. One is a turnaround and the other, you'd sort of say, is a transformation. They're pretty distinctly different.

If I look at the turnaround side, there's actually some pretty nice progress. We had record profits in the third quarter, margins are on the rise. A number of the turnaround-type things are kind of going well — "Check. Check. Check."

On the transformation side, that's really about how companies change and evolve and renew themselves so that they can continue to thrive and be great. We're doing a lot of reinventing the business model and the strategies of the company.

Q: When the company was struggling, how did you keep employees focused?

A: The great thing is, we have fantastic people. They love to win. When they're not winning, it's like, "What happened? Who turned out the lights?" Nobody likes that. Especially when you've been winning for a long time, you get addicted to it. When you're not winning, it's not fun. It's not that hard to figure out.

So you come up with the strategy and you start communicating — aggressively and consistently and on a repeated basis. Then you have a series of determined actions and investments that reinforce the strategy. And what happens over a period of time — in our company, I'd say it's a relatively short period of time — is people start to believe that this change is real and they see it happening because they're a part of it and they're living the changes. And that's where it gets really exciting. That's where we are right now.

Q: Dell is entering the market for smart phones and modern tablet devices. What is it like to be launching those products when the bar has been set by longtime rival Apple? And what do you think about the iPad?

A: There are many great products out there and that's certainly one of them. And you've heard plenty of people talk about that.

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