Online Extra: Q&A: Moen Technology Chief Tim Baker

He explains how going online enabled the faucet maker to get new designs to market more quickly and strengthen its relationships with customers

Moen Inc. started out small on the Web. Really small. In 1997, company tech chief Tim Baker and two colleagues formed "Tim's Tiny Team" to brainstorm about how the faucet maker could use the Web to churn out more and better faucets faster. On average, the company is now able to deliver new styles to store shelves within 18 months, down from 24. Baker discussed Moen's steady adoption of Net capabilities with BusinessWeek Technology Strategies Editor Faith Keenan. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: When and how did it occur to you that the Web could benefit Moen?

A: It started with my experience with GE, where I managed the EDI [electronic data interchange] area. But when I came here, there was a whole segment of the customer base -- the small and medium-size wholesalers and retailers -- that EDI was not good for. The Web offered the opportunity to get to all customers, not just the big ones who do EDI. That was the big aha for me: the Web as an enabler of how to go to market and strengthen relationships with customers.

Q: From there, was it a matter of on-the-job training to build Web expertise?

A: Within IT, it was a small group of three that enabled the technology. That group is where the Internet embryo started. They got proficient and built the internal skill sets and programming components that we needed to be linking back to the data. In 1999, the number jumped to 10 programmers who were trained internally, so we had a core competency inside Moen. We got buy-in from the executive team. The Web was viewed as an enabler for all other strategic initiatives.

Q: In what ways?

A: It would support our growth strategy, business improvements, and organizational excellence. For the growth strategy, we tend to think about the entire supply chain -- how do we go to market and how do we deal with our suppliers? In large part, that's where the Internet provides the biggest opportunity for Moen. In terms of business improvements, it starts with product development, taking the new product to market, marketing and selling those products, order management and fulfillment -- which is a huge opportunity -- sourcing and manufacturing, logistics, and then post-sales service. These are the major internal processes.

Q: How does the Web specifically apply?

A: When we translate that to how do you extend market leadership via the Internet, there are three sub-bullets: One is to provide a higher level of interactivity on your Web site. So, instead of just having brochureware and information on your Web site, you allow the consumer, the trade, and the customer to interact with the site.

We wanted to create targeted content, so when you look at the supply chain, we wanted to be targeted to builders, plumbers, and consumers, instead of generic content. It's trying to accomplish some level of personalization so when they come to your site, you want them feeling that they're getting the white-glove treatment.

Thirdly is to provide the capability to transact on your Web site -- allowing customers to do order entry.

Q: Did you look outside the industry for inspiration?

A: We do a fair amount of benchmarking outside the industry. The design center, where the consumer can come in and design their faucet more or less -- we got that concept from the computer industry, where they do product configuration, the Dell site.

The beauty of the Web is that you don't have to sit down with people face-to-face to come up with a good idea and say it's applicable to our product line. But on the other hand, we do sit down with people face-to-face and talk to them about what they're doing. We have this [20-member] Internet Program Office that helps guide the strategy and our priorities. All those people are bringing back benchmarking, [education], and observations.

Q: Did you ever consider joining an online exchange to procure parts or sell products?

A: We've spent a fair amount of time looking at those and evaluating those and looking for the value proposition.... We raised the question at the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute [of] whether there was any value to us as an organization [in] doing anything together. We didn't see any [on the sell side].

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