Xerox CEO Ursula Burns: Full interview
Kai Ryssdal: Ursula Burns, good to have you with us.
Ursula Burns: Very pleased to be here.
Ryssdal: We had your predecessor Anne Mulcahy on the broadcast about five or so years ago and the thing she was all about was getting the company out of its peril and answering the complaints that Xerox had spread itself too thin, that you guys had to make up your minds about what you wanted to be. How have you done that in the past 18 months? How have you picked up on that thread?
Burns: Well, I mean, the good news is that I didn’t have to make some of the most basic decisions about what we wanted to be when we grew up, and myself and the leadership team did that well before she left. And we knew that we had some amazing strengths that we wanted to parlay into continued growth for the company. One was our brand. People knew who we were, they actually liked it. Customers who actually had Xerox technology and who didn’t said, “Yeah, I know that company. I kind of like them and I want them to be successful.” Really interesting attribute to have as a company. We didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. Very helpful. We have an amazing innovation engine. We have been able to — through the history of this company — invent things, solve complex, technical problems. And that’s a strength that we didn’t always use as a strength, but it’s one that we had. And we started to use a lot better. And third is that we were everywhere. If you go to Norway, Finland, Russia or Australia, you’ll see Xerox or Fuji-Xerox people, not just the name on the door. We have human beings who live and work and serve customers everywhere around the globe. And so the question that we had, even when Anne was here, how do you take those three things and take this great company and use them in a broader way? And so the strength that I had was that I actually said, “We should be able to use them in a broader way. Let’s get back to real basics. What do we do?” What we do is business process transformation. If you think…
Ryssdal: All right, wait. Business process transformation. You’ve got to speak English, right?
Burns: Business process transformation. I’m going to tell you what a business process is. Long time ago people would make the Bible, right? The guy said it, somebody wrote it down. And then if you wanted another copy of it, another human being wrote another one. It took a long, long time. Somebody created this thing called mimeograph paper and so you said, “OK, we’ll do it that way.” And so you could get three of them. A guy, our guy… said a business process is reproducing an important set of content. And the business process that has to be transformed is we have people sitting around writing these things over. You’ve got to erase if you make a mistake, it’s not the same writing. Why can’t I have that one thing be recreated over and over again? And I’ll apply technology to that problem, that business process bottleneck, which is the reproduction bottleneck. That’s where this company started. So the business process was disseminating written information and we said, “Well, the limiter was not the dissemination, it was the actual writing of it.” We’re going to apply technology to that problem and we are going to create a machine, in this case a machine, that literally took away that bottleneck. That’s what we do for a living. People said that what we did was copying. Yeah, the output of the look of the business process problem was copying. So we had to step way back and say, “What did we get into?” What we got into was working with enterprises, workplaces around the world, and figuring out where are they stuck? Where are they, where is the value being clogged?
Ryssdal: So give me an example now of how Xerox under Ursula Burns is doing that business process transformation. It’s not copiers and machines.
Burns: Right. That’s not copiers and machines. For example, there is a large part of the world that’s litigation.
Ryssdal: Yeah, large part.
Burns: Yeah, large part. Huge part of the United States that’s litigation, and one of the major things that’s a bottleneck in litigation is discovery. So you say, “I’m suing you and I want to find all of the documents that have anything to do with you.” And what happens now, literally, is someone goes through — a human being, a legal clerk, actually fairly highly-paid — goes through it all and looks. They go page to page, look at e-mails, print them all out. I want to see them. They do some discovery, some word recognition, but it’s still very rudimentary. So discovery today is done literally by human beings viewing images. I know that, for a fact, there is a set of technology that you should be able to apply to not actually have human beings do this relatively low value-added task. Right? So what we do is we have research labs in Grenoble, research labs in Palo Alto, we have research labs in Webster, research labs in Canada, that are all focused around imaging and recognizing imaging and making sure that images from one page to the other look exactly the same and look beautiful. Why can’t you apply that to discovery? The ability to look at an image and recognize it, and recognize it for what it is. Why can’t you provide, do that for discovery? Why can’t you do E-discovery?
Ryssdal: This process of learning what the other guy knows and finding all this legal information.
Burns: All this legal information. That’s applying our basic technology to an industry, a business process, discovery. And how do you overlay technology to that so that you can make it significantly more efficient, less costly, etc., etc.?
Ryssdal: What’s so bad, though, about just being a copier company? You guys did pretty well with that for like a hundred years.
Burns: There’s nothing really so bad about it, but I think there are two things that you have to think about. Why would we only be one when we have the ability to be significantly more? That’s one. The second thing is why would you only be one if people don’t need that anymore, only? If the customers continue to say to you, “You know, you do the copying, you do the printing, you do the filling of the copiers and printers, how about filing this stuff for me? How about figuring out a way for me to get it easily when I want it?” They ask us every day to do more and more and more.
Ryssdal: So give me another example.
Burns: So for example, I’ll use legal offices again — many, many, many papers. All of these things have been now — we’ve actually imaged them all. We took the papers. Still the court systems around the world still want papers. Right? So we take all of these papers and we scan them and we archive them. So you still have this original document, and it’s stored in some basement somewhere. When you want it, what happens is we send somebody downstairs to parse through all of this stuff and get it. Why wouldn’t you — you have a PC on your desk and all of this stuff is already stored digitally — why don’t you apply technology to be able to not only archive, but retrieve, to redact, to remove certain important information? So I want your data, but you don’t want me to have your birth date and your Social Security number because it’s not really germane. I want to remove all of this stuff that has to do with you except for your address, your phone number, etc. So we in our E-discovery business, we do a couple of things. Not only do we archive and allow people to scan and image and archive. And a lot of people get back and actually organize it so you can type in a simple word: Kai and everything that has to do with Kai will come up. We also allow, we also have software that removes anything that has to do with Kai’s personal information. Instead of — literally what happened in the past, you took a black marker and you blackened it out. So applying technology to take a business process, which is the process called discovery in the litigation phase or in health care, it would be your record. I’d like to scan this hospital, the pharmacy, the optics guy, the heart guy, all that stuff that has to do with you. I just want to have agents that are in the IT infrastructure that pulls as much of this data as possible, removes as much of the personal information as possible, so that the people who actually act on it don’t have to do that. That’s all done for them.
Ryssdal: You can fairly say that Xerox is moving from sort of the front end of the office with the machines and the Xeroxes to the back end. Right?
Burns: Yes and it’s an amazing characterization, Kai. It’s perfect!
Ryssdal: Am I hired?
Burns: Yeah, you’re hired. What we did in the past is we got at the output end, and we kept being dragged further and further into the process. Now we’re all the way back. So if you run an organization — and every organization does the caring for clients, customer care. So if you have customers and they call and they have questions, they are angry, they are happy, whatever it is, what happens today is your industry would hire somewhere in your building on one of these floors, the customer care department. Imagine how much scale you have. Zero. You’re hiring customer care people, you are training them, you’re managing the turnover of them and this platform that you put in place — you are using only you. By the way, customer care is pretty standard. I understand all those calls and why not go to an expert who does customer care that does it like you, that looks and feels like you, that understands how you operate and why not have someone provide that service for you that will have it up 24/7, that will have the most modern technology work processes, all of the modern natures of this new industry called customer care at your disposal that you don’t have to do it yourself? And that’s intimate with you so that you don’t — It’s not like you calling, and the guy says “Ford, oh I’m sorry. I didn’t mean Ford. I meant…” No, we’re actually talking about the right client, that we actually understand the client’s lingo, what’s important to them and in our customer care infrastructure, we make you present.
Ryssdal: Not cheap, though, to take a company from the front end to the back end. A year ago you spent $6.5 billion to buy basically a data company, Affiliated Computer Services, that does this kind of thing for you. Analysts said, “Wow! Ursula’s really going out on a limb here. She’s been in the job for a year here and she’s spending $6.5 billion.” Risky move, no?
Ryssdal: So how is it working out for you?
Burns: It’s working out well. It’s not a data company by the way, it’s a business processing company.
Ryssdal: A business processing company, you’re right. Sorry.
Burns: It turns out it was risky only from the ability to execute. So the risk was, could we execute? The strategic risk was almost nonexistent, right?
Ryssdal: Because why? Because you had to do it?
Burns: No, because it was a natural progression of what a company like Xerox would move to and we were on his path. What we did is we accelerated it. We accelerated both in scale and in pace. So what we did a couple of years before we bought Affiliated Computer Services, ACS, we bought a company called Advectus, which was a mortgage processing company, another document-intensive business process. If you’ve ever had a mortgage you realize you’re going to the place, it’s insanity. You don’t even know what you are signing, but you are signing it and you’re signing it — not even in triplicate. I don’t even know, up to eight times.
Ryssdal: I’m just signing it. When I get a mortgage, I’m just signing.
Burns: Exactly. Imagine where all these papers go. If you lose one page, the whole package is…
Ryssdal: Well that’s kind of the crisis now, right? Nobody knows.
Burns: Right. Nobody knows. So mortgage processing company and the other one is litigation, an E-discovery company. So our strategy is to continue buying these document-intensive business transformation companies and we kept running across this business called ACS. Now what they had done, interestingly enough, was bought up a whole series of BPO companies. So we had a choice: We could either keep buying the little ones and the integration risk, the execution risk of a small one is equal to the execution risk of a big one. It’s just bigger. You have the same problems, does the team fit, etc., etc. So we bought ACS which already had seven lines of business. They had a transportation intensive BPO back office line in the business. So if you look in…
Ryssdal: BPO? Business Process Optimization?
Burns: Business Process Outsourcing. So if you’re in New York or New Jersey and you are traveling in your car and you use anything to get into Manhattan, you realize that you have to pay a toll.
Ryssdal: Yes, you do. Big ones!
Burns: Big ones, right? And so if you ride right up to the toll booth, you realize that you can stay in a very, very, long line that actually requires you to take out cash and give it to a human being and get the change, which is an insane processing in and of itself. Or you get this little transponder thing that’s stuck in your car…
Ryssdal: Yeah, Fast Pass or Easy Pass.
Burns: Easy Pass. So we don’t do the transponder, but the entire process to know that your car is connected to that transponder and the bill that you get, the entire closed-loop process to make sure that the state of New York and you settle each other between all the communication is done by Xerox Corporation. Now, why would you say Easy Pass? What is an Easy Pass? It is a business process. It is a business process of managing the collection of the fares and closing the loop to make sure that we don’t do the money collection, we’re not that interested in that. But we assure that this process actually is completed. And it’s all taking a set of information, doing some work on it and transferring it to the next guy, to the next guy, to the next guy. That’s a business process — that’s what we do.
Ryssdal: All right, so there’s a branding question I have to ask you. You guys had, and I imagine you will say have, one of the world’s great brands, right? You say Xerox and people know exactly what you guys do, which is… oh wait. It’s copy machines. How do you now change that brand image to let people know that you do Easy Pass and you do E-discovery and all that?
Burns: A lot of work, a lot of work and a lot of money. What we have to do is two things: One is hold onto the greatness that the Xerox brand means to people. It means not only copy machines or document machines. It also means, in its essence, reliability — a long-standing company, an innovative company, a global company. It means those things as well around, applied to document companies. What we are trying to do is not change any of those brand attributes that are really powerful for us. We are trying to add to those associated with those brand attributes another set of functions. And it’s hard work. What you do is you literally show, and I believe the best way to change it is to do it. Right? And then after a while you become it, and it’s easy. But we’re still in the best way to change it, is to do it. So we have Affiliated Computer Services, a Xerox company. That’s the first step. We have to make sure that ACS continues with its greatness that it had that made it a great company in the first place. But we have to make it global, we have to apply technology, we have to keep associating the brand with it. Over time we will remove the ACS brand, the ACS words and just call it Xerox. And it’s all hard work and time that makes that perception move, but you can’t do it only by just talking about it — saying to people that now we are a BPO company, a business process outsourcing company or an information technology outsourcing company. We are a document management and BPO company because I’ll show you all of the companies we do it for. So if you look at our advertisements, our print, our web advertising and television. Interesting what we did with our last ad campaign. We actually didn’t say, “Here is what we do.” We didn’t do that at all. So we said, “Mr. Clean, P&G, Ducatti — you tell us, you tell the world what Xerox does for you.” And that has been the most effective way for us to explain the new Xerox. Some of those ads are about document technologies: printing, reproducing documents. Many of those ads are about the fact that we manage the finance and account infrastructure for clients. We manage the HR, you know the people hiring, the tracking of the employees in your organization and the closed-loop process around those people for key clients. Those clients were the most effective people to actually start to say what we did because, who would believe us? You know there’s a little bit of skepticism in the world so we said, “Have the world say it.” The ad campaigns have been powerful in helping the brand transition because we are not selling, our clients are telling. Clients are saying, I’m willing to put my guy, my Ducatti, my motorcycle, Mr.Clean… Target uses the little dog, I mean this is the most precious little thing in the world is this little dog.” I’m willing to have that dog in a print ad. And that says that Xerox manages this key infrastructure for me. They do it so well with such perfection and leveraged so well around the world that we are standing behind them.” That’s the way that we transition the brand.
Ryssdal: I wanted to touch on your management style a little bit. You have been called hard-charging. You have encouraged your employees to be more frank and impatient with each other, that’s your phrase, as a way to spur innovation and get this company where it needs to be. If you encourage frankness and impatience at a lot of companies, people just get cranky and discouraged and it just doesn’t work out so well. Is there a risk in doing it that way?
Burns: Of course, of course. By the way, there is a fair amount of crankiness here.
Ryssdal: Yeah, even if people aren’t frank.
Burns: Yeah, that’s right. So crankiness is a human attribute that when people walk in the door of Xerox, they remain human. So they bring all of the goods, the bads and the uglies to work, and I like all of those things because I think we spend a lot of time here — wherever here is, here it could be anywhere, at home — but around this set of things that we do that we call work. We spend a lot of energy and a lot of time in it and I think that the best way to get the best out of people is to not force them to be something other than they naturally are. Now what do they have to be? They have to be respectful. You can’t be ridiculously disrespectful. You can’t, you know, use bad language. There’s certain things that you have to have kind of reasonably good moods. Besides that, you have to have a very strong opinion with some facts and data to stand it up, you have to prove that you are right more times than you are wrong, and then you better walk into the room with something to say because otherwise you don’t really add a whole lot of value to the group. So if you are going to be in the group, I want you to actually come in, and the crankiness and stuff makes it a little bit rough, but come in and have an opinion. And I don’t mean just opinion like, “I like blue or I don’t like blue.” This is, “We have this problem. Here is my take on the problem, here’s what I’ve learned. My experience is telling me this and this is how I would approach it.”
Ryssdal: See I love that, but it takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude on managements’ part to be encouraging of that kind of idea.
Burns: I don’t know. What else do you do though?
Ryssdal: I don’t know.
Burns: It’s not clear to me how you would run the place if you said, “Have some great ideas, but don’t express them, don’t…”
Ryssdal: I’m with you. I think it’s interesting.
Burns: I think, you know, what I’ve found out in my career is that I tried. When I joined Xerox, the benefit I had in my career was that I had…
Ryssdal: Which, we should say was 30-something years ago. You’ve been here your whole career.
Burns: Yeah, I’ve been here my entire career from senior year in college until this day, I worked nowhere else. I worked the Xerox Corporation, good, bad, you know everything. I loved it. So when I walked into this company, one of the things that really surprised me — this is in hindsight — when I walked in I was 20 years old. I had a huge afro, I dressed the times and looked the times. I listened to the same music I listen to today, unfortunately, but The Temptations you know, I was a Motown person and whatever else the hip music was of the times. I didn’t quite dress like business attire because I grew up on the lower East side of Manhattan and the closest thing I saw to business attire was the guy who ran Safeway. You know, he wore a tie. So all this stuff was new to me. When I walked in, Xerox didn’t say to me, “By the way, you know there’s something that you should really know, this hair thing isn’t going to work here. That attire thing, you’re going to have to figure out a way to change this. You speak really fast and you don’t use all the exact, right words. This is not going to work.” They said nothing about it. It was kind of stunning. What they said was, “We hired you because you’re pretty smart.” I was a really good mechanical engineer. “We have this problem and could you go work on it?” That was it! And then I did that problem and they came back and said, “Oh by the way, you did that problem really great. Can you go work on this one?” And they gave me a little bit more money, and they gave me a lab and they said, “Go work on this thing.” After about three of these little interventions I said, “Wow! This place actually thinks. They keep giving me stuff to do. They must think I’m pretty smart.” And they never thought about, they never said, “By the way, part of the thing you really got to worry about in your day when you are coming here is how you dress.” They actually had expectations that you could speak English, you know in a fairly refined way, that you work as a team, but they never got into the rest of the stuff. As I got up in the career, obviously there are things that you could polish off and they helped me with that, but it was all about content. It was all about, “I’m going to give you an opportunity and if you can work hard enough and learn fast enough and really be driven and focused, you are going to go a long way.” And it was amazing! So I said, “Why would you ever leave this place?”
Ryssdal: So as I was sitting down coming up with a list of questions I wanted to talk to you about, obviously there was one that went — OK, let’s see, first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, first woman-to-woman transition from Anne Mulcahy to you on Fortune 500 company, and then I read this line in an interview where you were talking about this issue of you being black and in this leadership position and you said, “You know, I’ve been here three-and-a-half days and I’m on every list of impressive CEOs everywhere and, you know, award-winning that and I haven’t done anything.” Are people paying too much attention to that stuff?
Burns: I think less now than before, which is a little bit better. It is important that — and this is something that I did learn — that it is important to be an example because it does inspire and spur people who may not have been included before into space of inspiration and spurring. So if I can help that, I’m more than willing to do it and I know that it is part of the responsibility I have. So I have no problem with it and so if you look at me and say, “Oh my goodness, I would have never thought that I could have been, I could be,” I’d say fine. But when you look at accomplishments, I actually think it’s important that we actually measure accomplishments for accomplishments, for the actual content. So I am pleased that I’ve gotten this far. I did that, I think, by working hard, by gaining respect, by making mistakes and recovering from them, but also not making mistakes and doing things fairly well, by being able to communicate effectively, so all the things that you do when you are a leader of a company — by taking risks, by being fearless. This is one of my things, not irresponsible risks, but yeah, you have to decide today between A and B and some of it is just up to you. So doing that. But I also know that just because I was the first woman-to-woman in black, if that moved me up the list, I say to myself, “I’m really nervous here” because in day three I had done nothing in this new role that would have caused a movement to go up except for actually be there. So I know how the world works and one thing being my young 52 is I know that when you are really, really high that there is a long way to go down and so I would prefer to be measured on the last two years of work in this role and the previous 29 years of work getting to this role than having gotten there, if you know what I mean. And that’s the whole thing I am trying to keep people’s focus on.
Ryssdal: Since you brought it up, you are a young 52. This can’t be the last up for Ursula Burns. I mean, you’ve been here your whole life, what’s next?
Burns: Staying here and making this into this absolutely great company. We are a good company today. We are far from a great company. I mean, really far from a great company and so what I want to do is become a great company. I want every client — when I go to customers’ who are not our customers yet, I look around their offices and I say oh my goodness, what the hell, they should be using our stuff! We can help them so much. And this is not, “We can make them so much more money.” That comes after you help them so much. There are institutions around the world that literally have clogged, inefficient, ineffective business processes. They are spending money with all these distributed printing devices all over their offices. I walk in there and go, “Why aren’t we helping you?” By the way, we can help you. I’m not trying to sell you a thing. If there was a way for me to impart what we do for clients for free, I would do it for free because we are wasting energy, real energy. We are wasting paper, we are wasting time, we’re wasting talent by people doing things that are in a value range that can be automated and we have all these people around with bigger heads, big minds — why aren’t they applied to the big problems? We need to have clean energy needs. Why aren’t we doing that? We are still wrapped up into all that other stuff. The world has moved back, moved past where most offices operate today. Most offices still operate like they are in the decade 10 years ago. All we’re about is, we’ll get you up to the 21st century, and we’ll do it and we’ll save you money for sure. You’ll make significantly less errors, which also contributes to saving you money. We’ll make your people significantly more productive, saving you money over and over and over again. So whenever I go places I just look and say, “My goodness, I can sell them something,” but that’s not it. I just look around and go my goodness, my gracious. All we had to do was provide the simplest set of services that makes their business run more effectively. Imagine what they could do in creating the new Tide or the new toothpaste or the new fighter bomber or whatever. Whatever it is that they do, if they don’t wrap themselves up into filing their papers and then going to find it when you want to file it, and what’s the latest version of this drawing, and building to building. Does everybody have the latest version? Version control — huge thing. People, doctors, oh my goodness I’ve got to find a prescription! What’s the last thing we gave to this person? Is there anything else that they’ve been prescribed? All of this stuff, does that help you? No! You should be able to — with all the technology that’s within the world — you should be able to pick up on your PDA and have all this unstructured written stuff presented to you. And that’s what we do. If we can do that better, then you can be really great.
Ryssdal: Ursula Burns, thanks so much.
Burns: You’re welcome.
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