IBM’s Steve Laughlin works on the front lines of retail reinvention

By | 3 minute read | November 29, 2018

This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

Early in his career, Steve Laughlin sold grills at a department store in Florida. By his account, he was pretty good at it. Problem was, the grills came in more than 300 pieces, and the store didn’t offer a service for assembling them. So, for a bit of extra cash, Laughlin regularly assembled the products for customers himself.

“I think that was just always me. I always had this service orientation,” he said.

Today, as the VP and General Manager for IBM’s Global Consumer Industry, Laughlin is still in the habit of going above and beyond to solve business problems. But his job has gotten vastly more complex over the years, as he’s moved from store management to consulting to helping big retailers adopt groundbreaking technologies to better serve their customers.

“The bug was in me from the get-go to help clients transform and change how they engage with customers. Whatever my job has been, that theme has always sort of been woven into it,” he said.

Transforming a large organization, of course, isn’t easy. From the very beginning of his career, Laughlin has had a front row seat to the kind of stubborn conservatism that keeps companies from making big, necessary changes. As a manager of appliances and home electronics at a large retailer, for instance, he recalls the frustration he felt when he once tried to convince a district manager to reduce the amount of time required to get refrigerators from a Jacksonville, Florida distribution center to customers in Fort Lauderdale.

When a refrigerator breaks, Laughlin argued, customers don’t have five days to wait for a new one. With fast-moving competitors at its heels, he said, the retailer needed to rethink its supply chain logistics. “I said to my district manager, ‘Can’t we fax up orders at night, have them load the truck, and drive it five hours from Jacksonville?’ My district manager looked at me as serious and certain as anyone could be and said, ‘Customers don’t mind waiting.’”

Today, as Laughlin crisscrosses the globe meeting with prospects, clients, and business partners, the transformations he advocates for are much grander in scale. He asks retailers to rethink their assortment and inventory, for instance, by integrating hyperlocal data and AI into their decision-making. He asks them to personalize their mobile marketing messages by targeting customers based on their geolocation. He asks them to think about how to use AR and VR to radically change their store experience.

Sometimes, he said, it’s a hard sell.

“The pace of competitive attack and technological possibilities makes it challenging for many organizations to determine what will make a difference in their business,” he said.

In some ways, Laughlin said, the challenges retailers face—the emergence of new competitors and new industry-shaking technologies—are the same ones they encountered in 1995 when he first started working at IBM and was advising companies on how to deal with the growth of category killers boasting new, advantageous supply chain models. But in other ways, he said, the challenges retailers face are more daunting than they’ve ever been.

“Technology is moving so fast that it enables competitors to move quickly and spring up from nowhere. It changes the playing field,” he said. “The perfect is the enemy of the fast. So many clients spend so much time trying to get to a decision, when they could have already been launching pilots and learning what moves the needle.”

Inevitably, not every business sees the landscape the same way Laughlin does. But when he meets with clients, he said, he doesn’t seek to sell them on his point of view. First and foremost, he said, he seeks merely to speak with them sincerely—and to bring the same spirit of service and customer-centricity to his suggestions as he brought to assembling grills decades ago.

“If you do what’s right for the client first, what’s right for your company second, and for yourself last, 99 percent of the time things will end up well for us,” he said.