Wake-up Call | John Hill: Preparing a 129-year-old, family-owned company for the 21st century

By Dayna Sargen

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The CIO of Carhartt is revolutionizing a historic American clothing brand, one innovation at a time

As the chief information officer at Carhartt, John Hill is using technology to bring dependable clothes to workers. His work is partly fueled by a personal connection to the brand: His grandfather, who worked on an auto assembly line in Buffalo, often wore the company’s clothing. “He was a union man,” Hill says. “I remember him wearing Carhartt, a brand that stands to serve and protect hardworking people. And now we find ways to build on that mission even more.”

The first person in his family on his father’s side to attend college, Hill first learned about information technology in the Air Force. After studying economics at the Air Force Academy, he skipped flight school and became a procurement manager at military bases in Sacramento and Germany, where he oversaw outsourcing operations for everything from hospitals and aircraft maintenance to chartering Boeing 747s headed for the Middle East. 

An introvert, Hill learned to overcome this early in his career when he was unexpectedly called upon to deliver a speech to 300 people. “My boss got sick and said, ‘I need you to do it,’” Hill recalls. “I only had an hour to prepare. But it went great, and from that point on, I had confidence. It didn’t matter what was put in front of me — I could do it.”

Now, after a career in technology that took him around the world, Hill is at Carhartt helping to transform an iconic American brand into a 21st century powerhouse. He's streamlining production while spearheading how customers will use technologies like virtual and augmented reality to shop for clothes — all while staying true to the company’s roots, the same ones his grandfather admired. “Because of my grandfather, I know what Carhartt stands for,” Hill says. 

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John Hill

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John Hill, CIO at Carhartt / Photo: Cait Opperman

 

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

 

How did the Air Force Academy prepare you for a career in IT?

The Air Force Academy is designed for you to fail at some point. They throw so much work at you that you can’t finish everything. You’re going to have to leave something to the side and be okay with that. That kind of training is what shaped me more than anything — you know, being able to recognize you’re going to have some trials and then figure out how you’re going to keep progressing. I don’t think I would be where I am today if it hadn't been for the Academy.

 

How did you make the leap to IT?

I got a job at General Motors, running strategic planning and sourcing for their IT division. Essentially, this is when I started my path toward becoming an accidental CIO. I never intended that path, but I started that way with GM before being recruited by Roche, where I built out a global shared services organization. My team ran supplier management, quality, project management, and then application development and maintenance. I took a risk and ran an internal P&L having to win business from my peers, but we focused on hiring the best people, and the program was wildly successful.

 

Before you joined the Carhartt team, you were retired for a short time. And now you’re back hard at work. How did that happen?

A few years ago, after decades in the technology industry, I thought, “I'm done. Maybe I want to try something else.” My family and I moved to Ontario and bought a resort on a lake north of Toronto. I did renovation work on cabins, tearing them down and building them anew. After six months, I was bored. So, I joined the Government of Ontario and ultimately took my first CIO position for one of its ministries. After a stint at Grainger, I came on board at Carhartt in 2016. Carhartt is a fantastic brand with an enduring legacy supported by the fact that we have only had four CEOs in 129 years. I was impressed with the caliber and authenticity of the senior leadership team. The company had just gone through a couple of CIOs in recent years and while there was a lot that needed to be done, they had a fantastic team in place. That attracted me.

 

How is the work you’re doing helping to reinvent Carhartt for the 21st century economy? 

When I got to Carhartt, I found that many of the business process areas had not been digitized. For example, our customer service team was still using spreadsheets to manually manage phone calls. It was a wake-up call. Budgets were tight, and we needed to create capacity to drive the digitization. We decided to move our internal staff to new projects and move the support to another company. IBM was selected and helped us make that transition in a three-month period without losing any head count. If you ask IBM, they would probably say it was certainly among the best transitions they ever experienced. With the additional capacity and the move to agile delivery, we are moving much faster now. We’re releasing new capabilities and features on the website every two weeks and we're now using technologies like Watson™ and other innovations to help drive competitive advantage. 

To help us think about art of the possible, we run several Design Thinking sessions with IBM each year. For example, we’re developing a new business-to-business model; they’re helping us with a road map to build out our capability in that space and conducting daylong workshops to help us solidify our model. We are also tackling other subjects in the areas of data and supply chain. We pick the subjects, and they bring in their experts for the day, helping us think through it.

Carhartt is a midsize company. I think a lot of CIOs for companies our size think, “I can't work with the big guys. They're too expensive.” But I don't think they realize the intellectual capacity they’re missing out on. When I engage with IBM, they bring a ton of leadership from across a variety of industries. I'm not paying extra for that. That's part of the relationship, and I think it’s important for CIOs to make sure they're not just in a transactional relationship with key suppliers — that they're really treating them as partners.

 

There’s a lot of talk about luxury brands using technology to improve customers’ online shopping experience. Is Carhartt doing the same with things like AR and virtual reality?  

Two years ago, we created a Shark Tank-style program among our associates to foster innovation and to go after big topics like AI and virtual reality. There are some big things coming out of it. We’re trying to use VR and augmented reality to allow customers to create 3-D avatars tailored to their exact body size. Then, these models can try on clothes in virtual settings, allowing customers to see how they really fit before ordering. Online returns are a big expense for most retailers, so if we can find ways to ensure better fits, it can reduce costs dramatically. Also, we can get people to try clothes they maybe wouldn't have tried otherwise. At every step of the way, IBM is our lead partner — working with them has been fantastic. 

 

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