Belinda Watkins' collaborative management style creates the kind of IT infrastructure a complex company like FedEx needs. As VP of network computing and operating companies' IT operations for FedEx Services (Collierville, TN), she works with exec-level IT pros at five major businesses serving clients around the globe.
"Our customers see us as one company, but they're looking for a portfolio of solutions," she says. "The network should be transparent; the information about the package is as important as the package itself."
FedEx Express is the original airline transportation company. FedEx Ground is the former Roadway Package System (RPS). The company acquired American Freightways and Viking and combined them into FedEx Freight.
FedEx Trade Networks is the result of acquiring a customs clearance brokerage company. FedEx Custom Critical provides door-to-door service for urgent freight, valuable items and hazardous goods. In addition to the five base companies, FedEx recently acquired Kinko's. Together, the companies earn $29 billion in revenues each year.
FedEx Services, where Watkins is VP, is the common services support arm for the companies, providing sales, marketing and IT.
The core network
As VP, Watkins is responsible for the core backbone network. Located on the FedEx World Tech Center campus in Collierville, TN, the core network supports the networks of all the businesses.
Watkins also works on strategic planning and design of the networks. She collaborates with IT leaders at the individual companies and regions for the tertiary networks that integrate or interface with the backbone.
In all, she's involved with 376 regular employees, fifty contract employees and several hundred others. Some staff are located in Pittsburgh, PA and Akron, OH, where she frequently travels.
She also visits the data centers in Toronto, Singapore and Brussels. "I don't tell them what to do, but I do work with them on what should be done and the strategic direction for FedEx's networking as a whole," she says.
Driving the change
Those networks are moving from packet switching, ATM and frame technologies to total IP and VoIP, which Watkins sees as the next evolution of networking technology. She's adding to her staff to support IT folks in the various companies and regions.
"I'm driving that change from here," she says. "I have to decide the resources I need to support the guys out there."
The complexity and sheer number of transactions, supporting an average of six million shipments a day, requires new ways to manage. To align the IT infrastructure worldwide, Watkins formed the global network and global IT operations councils.
Each council includes reps from the IT operations and network sides of each region of each operating company. The technical architecture subgroups specialize in voice, networks or electronic mail.
"Regional and operating company IT officers are my colleagues and also my customers," Watkins says. "Even though infrastructure people report to them directly, my role is to provide leadership on strategic direction."
Geographic locations also play an important role, with great variations in language, customs, culture and applications. FedEx regions include Canada; Asia/Pacific; Europe, Middle East and Africa; and Latin America and the Caribbean.
Planning and purchasing
Watkins is also directly responsible for data center operations at FedEx Ground, and has collaborative responsibility for the other operating companies, each of which has its own data center. Jimmy Sowell, a peer IT VP, has responsibility for the two major data centers that support the original FedEx.
By planning and purchasing together, the two managers achieve important economies of scale for the company.
BellSouth was a turning point
Watkins started out as a high school math teacher with a 1975 BS in math from Millsaps College in her hometown of Jackson, MS. BellSouth (Atlanta, GA) had been interested in her in her senior year, and the company tried again after she completed her MA in education at Mississippi College in 1979.
She joined BellSouth as a communications consultant, doing small-scale design and making sure larger solutions were implemented. "BellSouth was a turning point for me," she says.
She was promoted to account manager with a territory in northern Mississippi, where she earned industry certification for her market. But in 1982 divestiture changed the telecom picture. Watkins decided to join an unregulated company, even though she had to leave Mississippi to do it.
More turning points
She chose AT&T;'s Memphis location where she continued as an account exec. One year later she moved to First Tennessee Bank (Memphis, TN) as communications coordinator for the data side.
In six years at the bank she advanced to manager with responsibility for all of western Tennessee. Then she went back to school, working on a 1992 MS in telecom and IS management at Christian Brothers University (Memphis, TN).
Watkins met several FedEx employees at school. She liked what they told her, and joined the company after she received her degree.
As a technical advisor in the international network engineering department, Watkins was responsible for deploying and supporting international networking. Her work with regional networking and international customers marked another turning point in her life. "It was absolutely fantastic," she says.
VP at Sara Lee
Her experience at FedEx prepared her to be VP and CIO at Jimmy Dean Foods, an operating division of Sara Lee (Chicago, IL). "I'd grown up in infrastructure on the network and communications side, but I didn't have a lot of experience on the apps development side," she says. "I went to Sara Lee for growth purposes."
And grow she did, applying what she'd learned at FedEx to integrating Sara Lee divisions: Bryan Foods, Hillshire Farms, Ball Park Franks and State Fair Corn Dogs as well as Jimmy Dean. She advanced to VP for infrastructure support for Sara Lee Foods and moved to division HQ, then in Cincinnati, OH.
The manufacturing facilities remained separate, but distribution centers, marketing and sales and IT were unified. "Then it became too large," she says. "So I kept the network side and the data center side and my counterparts became responsible for application."
Diversity at FedEx
Watkins met Denise Wood, currently FedEx's chief information security officer, at AT&T; in 1983, when Wood was engineering manager there. Working with Wood, Watkins established a desktop computing department for the company. She considers Wood a mentor. "Denise and I are joined at the hip," Watkins says.
Watkins had stayed in touch with Wood and with SVP Winn Stephenson, another FedEx manager. When the company needed a chief info security officer they contacted her. The MBA in finance she'd earned at Christian Brothers increased her attractiveness, and so did the fact that she was black.
"I appreciated that they were taking a look at the diversity of the management team," she says. Watkins has usually been the only woman and certainly the only African American woman in the positions she's held.
FedEx has a diversity council, on which Watkins has served. The company participates in minority professional organizations and attends conferences for NSBE, Black MBA, Hispanic MBA and others. There are also ethnic celebrations at the company.
Watkins' own staff includes three women directors. She stays in touch with other black employees through an informal network and is often approached to mentor women, African Americans and other minorities. "They're relationships that just develop," she says.
Watkins is a 2000 graduate of Leadership Memphis, a nonprofit community improvement program. She serves on the Christian Brothers University technology advisory board and is active in Partners in Public Education.
She credits her staff with making it possible for her to have time for her own life, and to play tennis and golf.
"I definitely surround myself with people who are good managers and good leaders, more knowledgeable than me," she says. "If they aren't, I find somebody else."
Things are looking good at FedEx, and in the IT industry in general. "But the lines are still too short at the ladies' room when I go to a convention," Watkins declares. "There is still a fraternity."