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The Interview Issue

Xerox's Ursula Burns on Her Career Path and Changing Company Strategy

Burns at the company’s new New York officePhotograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg BusinessweekBurns at the company’s new New York office

How did you decide to go into engineering?
I went to an all-girls Catholic high school. The three things that they focused on were reading, writing, and arithmetic. My goodness, this is a novel idea in this modern society. I was really good at all three of these things. I was particularly good at math. And when I went to my guidance counselor, who was a nun, we talked about what do you do for a career. One was nursing. Another one was teaching. And the other one was to be a nun. I realized that I had to look at what I wanted to do for myself. I went to the library and looked in the Barron’s Guide to Colleges and books about careers.

So what did you choose?
I chose chemical engineering. Literally I had no idea what I was doing, except that it seemed like it was pretty cool and it had math in it. So the rest is history. I didn’t like chemical engineering, but I liked mechanical engineering. Flipped over to mechanical engineering. And then I picked a great company.

Some people have said you had three strikes against you: You are African American. You’re a woman. And you grew up poor.
My mother was amazing. I guess in our community, if you wanted to get by you had to work hard. So she cleaned offices. She did everything that you could imagine. We were really poor. But she would say, “Where you are is not who you are.” And, “Don’t get confused when you’re rich and famous.”

You’ve said Xerox (XRX) was a company where you could grow into yourself. What does that mean?
They didn’t try to spend a lot of time trying to make me into something else—kind of fit into whatever would have been a normal hire. When I first entered the company, they just thought I was smart and said, “You go do some stuff.” And they kept giving me things to do. And I never really felt—and this sounded like a cop-out when I said it in the beginning and I would get pushed on it from certain groups—they said, “Did you ever feel discrimination?” And of course there was discrimination. The question that they asked was, “Did I ever feel it?” And not at work, I didn’t.

Not at work?
There were not a lot of women, and there were hardly any black women, but the biggest push that I got at work was my age. It was that I was too young to have this kind of responsibility.

You went from being an engineer to becoming executive assistant to the president of marketing. How did that come about?
His name was Wayland Hicks—a good man and a good friend. And he was known to be a very tough guy. Our beginnings were not that harmonious. We actually met by having an argument about something in one of Xerox’s Quality of Work Life council meetings. The day after the meeting, he called me into his office. I remember calling my husband—he wasn’t my husband then—and he said, “You know who that guy was?” I said, “Yeah, he’s like some manager.” I had no clue.

Nowadays I go to Jamaica and people know that I’m the CEO. When I was growing up in the company, first of all they didn’t have Google (GOOG) or the Internet. If you wanted to know who the CEO was, you had to go to the library. So anyway, I went to see Hicks. And we got into a really good relationship based on differences. He’s from the Midwest, white, male, very conservative family. And he’s Republican. I’m a Democrat. He asked me to be his executive assistant. That was a risky job, because I was an engineer at the time. Going to work for Wayland, I was not required to be an engineer at all, actually.

What an education.
It was amazing. And we would fly to Europe—this is another thing I learned from him. And I do this today. If we’re on the road for a week, we’re working every single minute that you can be awake. You land. You go to the airport, take a quick washup. You start working. Because when you’re in these places—this is something that I have to be reminded continuously as the CEO today: The other day I was in Oregon. I visited one of our unbelievable services business sites, servicing some telecom customers. I go in, and I make a little speech, and I go around and meet everybody in their office. It’s amazing. It’s like I am Oprah or somebody really famous. And they want pictures, and “Can you sign this?” Even to this day, I minimize how much impact presence has. Right? Because I take myself for fairly normal. But when you go someplace, it actually validates for them their importance and their belonging in the company.

You have been leading a strategic transformation. When you came in as CEO, did you think about a company such as IBM, which did a very successful one?
We looked at IBM (IBM) primarily because its transformation, while different in the specifics, was very similar in the general theme—going from hardware and technology offerings only to expanding to higher engagement with clients. We had to be clear about what we were moving from and to. We had to make sure that we weren’t running away from something that we could do well to something that we weren’t sure that we could do well.

What did you stop doing?
One of the things is manufacturing small devices. I mean, Xerox was a fully vertically integrated company. If you go really far back, we even made turnings—like screws. We blew plastic bottles. The world changed. Right? You can’t reach everybody by having all of your people run around. So you have to kind of engage broader channels, including Internet-based selling. And that’s a change that is very uncomfortable. People thought we were a copier company and a printer company. And we had to go back to this guy, Chester Carlson, who invented xerography in 1938 and said, “What we are is a business process automation company.”

That’s what led you into business services?
Former CEO Anne Mulcahy was the miracle worker here. She realized that customers wanted us to do more than give them the machine and then fix it when it was broken. They actually wanted us to manage everything about it.

So how did your strategy change?
We’ve realized that in order to move up the chain you had to get fairly specific in a work process. So we’ve decided to go with what we call document-intensive businesses. We know more than anyone about documents, how to move them around in an office, how to store them, how to archive, how to retrieve them.

You’ve called yourself a “chief storyteller.”
Yeah, it’s a big deal here. It is all about having people understand and align and feel engaged, getting passionate about what they do.

Did you tell them, “We have to change. We won’t exist if we just stay with paper”?
There’s a little bit of that. I actually do believe that we could exist if all we did was our own business—the old business. But it’s not about what the downside would have been; it’s what the upside is.

What’s an example of a business you got using your technology? Because often when people think of business processing, all they think about is cutting costs.
One of the things I actually believe is to be truthful. Innovation is about cutting cost. People shouldn’t look at innovation and the association of cutting cost as a bad thing. Examples: E-ZPass. If you have an E-ZPass today, you go through this lane, and then you get a bill. That whole back-office process, that’s all Xerox. We also manage off-street parking and, particularly in large cities that are very congested, on-street parking. So you have those things you put the coins in …

Muni Meters.
Muni Meters. What cities kept telling us is while that’s an important thing, the collecting of the revenue, what they’re really interested in is increasing the efficiency of cars on the road. We work with a city in California, and they say, “You know, what would be really interesting to us is if we can connect knowledge about what’s free to people who need a space.” And so we said, “We can help you with that.” So we work out a solution that literally has road sensors or spot sensors or some kind of information transference to us, and we will impart it to somebody looking for a spot. This allows the city to actually charge variable pricing for parking spots. So when we bid for the parking deal in this city in California, we could have bid just a regular parking solution. And we probably would have won that. But we definitely won it because we told them, “By the way, we can also allow you to do this next phase in parking.”

What’s the biggest challenge you’re going to face in the next year?
There’s two different buckets. One is a set of structural, strategic challenges, and those are longer-term. And unfortunately, there are also a set of short-term challenges. We have two businesses that intersect. One business doesn’t have high revenue growth. On the services side, we can grow everywhere. We can go internationally. What we have to do is make sure that we make the right choices in the short term. Not consume too much cash as we grow. Not dilute margins too much. We’re in a position now where we have lots of choices, particularly on the services side. And the questions are, where and how and timing.

And you’ve said it takes a long time to recover from mistakes.
We’re going to make mistakes. We just try to make mistakes where you can make them fast, so you’re not five years into the damn thing and realize, “Oh my God, that was a bad move. And we just threw billions of dollars after it.” Fail fast and make sure that you fail early. So the challenge is this whole balance. But I tell you what, this is a rich man’s problem. You can also be in a place where you have very few choices. There was a time in our company when we literally were almost out of money.

So you have choices?
We have choices. Choices are a rich man’s problem. I prefer that problem to having no choices.

Hymowitz is an editor-at-large for Bloomberg News.

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