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Can new CEO drive suppliers to auto hub?

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Ending the most closely watched executive search in b-to-b exchange history, Covisint L.L.C. this month selected Kevin English as its chairman-CEO.

With his background in publishing and investment banking, English was an unexpected choice to run Covisint, the year-old exchange created by the Big 3 automakers to link with their suppliers. Some analysts questioned whether English, who most recently was CEO of Credit Suisse First Boston Corp.'s e-commerce division, was an appropriate choice. His perceived lack of experience in dealing with auto industry suppliers—a group not wholly convinced of Covisint's value—was routinely cited as a detriment.

Convincing suppliers that they need Covisint is English's biggest challenge. So far, only 40 of the auto industry's 30,000 suppliers have signed on. English, whom some analysts praised as a brilliant diplomat and technologist, must focus on bringing aboard more suppliers from his first day on the job—tomorrow.

In a wide-ranging interview with BtoB, English, who brought financial news company TheStreet.com Inc. public in 1999 as CEO, said that making Covisint a supplier-focused company will be his top priority. He also answered his critics, noting his years spent working with auto suppliers and the Big 3 as a technology vendor.

BtoB: Some analysts question whether you are the right person for the job. What would you say to them?

English: Having done start-ups and having been in financial services and having been in publishing as well as high-tech companies, both dealing in the auto industry and a wide range of other industries, it's given me a broad perspective on how to build companies successfully.

I bring a high sense of urgency to get things done quickly and to really jump start Covisint into being a very successful company in the short term.

Way back when, I worked in the industry, lived in Detroit and ran the local office for a company called Computer Vision. We sold extensively to General Motors, Ford and, to a limited extent, Chrysler. We also sold to a number of very important suppliers to the auto companies as well. That was back in the early and mid-80s.

Then, toward the late 80s, I was VP of sales at a company called Aries Technology. It was an advanced mechanical engineering company. It was heavily oriented toward Detroit.

I spent a fair amount of time in Detroit working with the supply chain and with the automotive companies directly.

BtoB: What are your goals? What type of leadership tone do you intend to set at Covisint?

English: I want to focus the entire organization, from every aspect, from sales and marketing to technology, around customers. I think what you'll find is that based on my strong general management and sales and marketing background, I'll bring a customer focus to the Covisint community.

In respect to my leadership style, first of all, I've lived in Detroit. I've had a fairly large amount of experience dealing with the auto companies and the supplier chain. And so I have a reasonable understanding of the issues. I've got a good grounding in technology, and after all, Covisint is primarily a technology company. p> I should mention that I'm taking over a team of spectacular management that comes out of DaimlerChrysler, General Motors and Ford, that also have industry experience and will be complementing that with people that come from outside the auto industry.

BtoB: What's your message to suppliers and potential new Covisint partners?

English: I can't wait to begin. In fact, I just scheduled my first customer appointment this morning, with a large supplier to the auto companies.

My message is that I'm going to be out there, visible to them, accessible to them. I'm going to take the entire organization of Covisint and wrap it around customers. We'll do everything in our power not only to acquire customers, but also retain customers.

By retaining customers, I mean treating them with the respect and TLC that they deserve, making sure they're getting trained properly and receiving a level of integration services and technology support they need.

Covisint's a win for suppliers, because they're closer to OEMs [original equipment manufacturers]. It's a win for OEMs because they're closer to suppliers.

BtoB: How important is marketing to Covisint?

English: I think marketing's very important, particularly as it relates to the auto industry initially and then how it relates to other transportation industries, like marine, trucking, aerospace and so forth. I wouldn't say that we're planning to go out in a business-to-consumer sense. I want people in the supply chain to recognize Covisint and appreciate it is an important aspect of building their business.

BtoB: Some industry watchers question the value of b-to-b exchanges and doubt most will ever gain significant traction. Plus, many exchanges have failed or are failing. What will make Covisint different?

English: I think a lot of things will make it different, and I think you need to differentiate between industry-sponsored exchanges and guys starting out in their garage and saying, 'Let's build a b-to-b exchange for an XYZ industry.' The difference is at Covisint, because of the sponsorship that we have and the funding that we have and because of the scale of the size of the auto industry, it's a tremendous opportunity. Though, I should add, that I'm not taking industry sponsorship, or size and scale, for granted.

We have to, as a young, aggressive, hungry company, demand a lot of ourselves with respect to treating our customers with the best possible service that we can. We need to have a high sense of urgency in how we manage our business, and we have to flawlessly execute with respect to every piece of business, with every department of Covisint, including sales and marketing.

BtoB: What's your biggest challenge?

English: Any time you build a company from scratch, there are hundreds of moving parts, and that's what's going on at Covisint. p> What it's going to take at this point is some discipline, leadership and decisiveness at the top to bring this all together. So, when we face the customer as an organization, we appear united, so that the customer can see we are an integrated company, that we're focused on them and their success and that we've got our act together.

I don't think we're all the way there yet. But no company after six months of operating experience is there yet. We won't be there in another 30 or 60 days. But I hope that when BtoB and I talk maybe six months or a year from now, that we'll be able to point to very tangible progress in terms of bringing Covisint together and being an extremely viable company.

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