Over three decades, Linda Fitzgerald has accumulated a broad arsenal of skills in Canada's technology industry – as technician, marketer, senior manager, and industry leader. It's all been a rehearsal for her current job – as the first female president of NCR Canada Ltd., an old-line subsidiary with new-line attitudes about innovation and research. She explains her career path and what she's found out in her first year on the job.
Did you always plan to be a technology company president?
I had no clue of what I would be. How did I pick marketing and computer science at McGill? Marketing certainly looked like the fun stuff, but who would pick computer science? I can't think of why I picked that. Yet that combination led me into information technology – and I did love math and sciences.
So I started on the technical-engineer side, and I did it for about a year, and I was helping out the sales teams. I thought, 'I can sell,' so that's how I ended up in sales – and I kept moving upward.
You have worked for seven employers. Is that unusual?
Not so much in this business, and I was with the same company for 17 years, a large [IT]reseller which in the end was part of GE Capital. When I was a reseller, I felt I was missing a couple of things to round out my expertise. I hadn't done software, so I did that. I hadn't done services only, so I did that. I hadn't worked for a manufacturer so I did that. I chose one [manufacturer] and then a larger one – and then I figured, 'Okay, now I've got what I need.' It was calculated in a sense.
So you didn't have a clue on graduation but you soon decided you wanted to rise?
Absolutely, I knew that pretty early.
When you set out in the computer industry, did you see many women?
There were very few. I remember in my early 20s, going to a meeting and there were 400 people in the room – and 10 were women. I noticed it, but then I put it aside forever. I was pretty used to working with men – I was in McGill commerce on the IT side and there weren't that many women. Also, I am an avid athlete, and in those days I played a lot of squash, but I never played against girls. So I never thought about it again and, along the way, I had a number of role models who were women. And I had a few mentors in the business.
So what is the role of your 'women's network' inside NCR?
I'm trying to promote a way for women to expand their networks and to understand where they want to go and help them get on that route. We get together and I help by sharing my own experiences, or anybody else's, around the table. We talk about leadership books, or somebody may have taken some training and we share these things among about 30 people.
You run a Canadian sales and distribution organization for a U.S. parent, but is there a research component?
In Canada, we have an R & D group of over 100 people. They're located in Waterloo, Ont., which is a great area to get talent. It's very strategic location for that reason. The plan is to have this research expertise spread out around the world.
In Waterloo they are focused on innovation and they recently invented something called the scalable deposit module, which is something you put on a bank ATM. Today, if you go to an ATM, you put the cheques in an envelope; then if you are depositing cash, you put your dollars in separately. But with the scalable deposit module, you can take your cheques and you don't put them in an envelope, You can mix them with dollars and put it all in the same slot. The technology has been very important to our growth in the U.S. this year.
There is regulation in the U.S. that permits this technology, and it will probably come to Canada in the latter half of 2012. When you deposit your cheque, there will be an image taken. You will get a copy of your cheque at the ATM, and then it gets deposited with the image automatically. That kind of innovation is one of the reasons I wanted to join NCR.
So NCR is operating in the same payment-technology niche as when it was founded 126 years ago?
It was National Cash Register then, and it started with a cash register. Money went into that machine, and now it has evolved into point-of- sale systems on the retail side, as well as ATMs. Money is still going into the machines and so there is that legacy.
Can an old-economy company innovate to survive?
Look at how we've evolved. We used to have payment systems with an attendant on the other end; now we have evolved to customer self-service. We keep the side of the business with an attendant, but with today's ATMs, you serve yourself. There is self-service in airports and self-checkouts in retail. That is really our focus.
See what's happened over the years. There have been big advances in [technology]packages for human resources and financial departments, and the increased productivity in the back office has been huge. But in the back office, we've now squeezed that lemon about as far as it can go.
The new wave is increased productivity on the front end. If you get people to check out themselves, the stores can use their personnel to sell more. Today, everybody, from retail to finance, is talking about how to sell more.
Isn't it another case of automation being a job-killer?
If it were a job-killer it would be easier to sell [to companies]from a financial point of view. But what they are looking at is this: They want [consumers]to use the new technology because they want to use the employees in their stores to increase the basket size.
There is so much competition now with the American retail giants coming to Canada. Canadian retailers are getting ready. They say to us: 'I need to increase the consumer experience in my store,' and to do that, they need to use their people differently. When you go through a store, too often there is nobody to help you and you walk out, or there are too many people in line at the cash register, and you just leave your basket there.
But even if it were not a job killer, won't it change the composition of the retail work force?
Yes, and you will see it the same way in the banks. They want their own people to be more knowledgeable about different products, and move customers [for transactions]through the ATMs or online.
What are the other big trends?
It's about knowing the preference and presence of each customer. When they go into the store or bank, people want to be recognized. When they go into an ATM, they want it to show, for example, if they are French-speaking. Or if you are over 50, you may not need information about your kids' education fund. It's about promoting messages tailored to you.
Similarly, if I go into a store and I am used to buying X product, they may know I'm there from my mobile phone and say, 'Oh, Linda, you're here and we have a sale on this [related]product.' As I walk over to buy what's on sale, I will probably pick up three or four other things.
So there is this tension between convenience and privacy?
Retailers are very conscious of that tension, and they have software to manage these things. There can be mechanisms in the software to not promote something, say, five times in a week. It's important not to hit your customer all at once. But consumers have to know when they sign up for a bunch of things, and put their e-mail address on them, they will get hit. If you don't want it, you don't have to receive it.
Mobility is another big thing. A lot of us have smartphones. We are working on innovations where if you go up to the ATM, you'll be able to put the phone on the ATM to authenticate – it will know it's you. There are so many cool things coming up around mobility.
President, NCR Canada Ltd., Mississauga
Born: Montreal, 52 years old
Education: Commerce degree, 1980, McGill University
Joined Burroughs Business Machines out of university
Worked at GE Capital IT Solutions for 17 years
Held management roles at Entourage Technology Solutions; Compuware Corp.; Sun Microsystems; and Hewlett Packard.
Jan., 2011, became NCR Canada president