Change Is a Snap

Alan Biland and his 50-person team at Snap-on Inc. are developing a set of online tools to help the company sell more hand tools.

How does an 80-year-old manufacturer and distributor of old-economy products — from hand tools to tire changers — transform itself into a new-economy innovator? How does it embrace the power of the Web without sacrificing the model of customer-service for which it has become famous?

Alan Biland, 41, VP and chief information officer at Snap-on Inc., a $2 billion manufacturing-and-distributing company based in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is wrestling with those and other Web-driven questions. He's the chief strategist behind the company's "store without walls" initiative and the leader of its Internet Commerce Group, a roughly 50-person team that's charged with creating Web-based sales and services for dealers, industrial customers, and independent auto-repair shops. "Our mission," says Biland, "is to remove any and all constraints to servicing and selling our products."

In many ways, the Internet is a logical next step for this common-sense company, which already has very strong connections to its customers. Since the 1940s, its dealers have worked out of easy-to-recognize Snap-on trucks, making weekly visits to their auto-repair customers and selling tools straight from the trucks. According to Biland, the Snap-on truck is here to stay. "To the customer who buys our tools, the truck is Snap-on," he says. "The fact that our dealers pay weekly visits to our customers — just to check in and make sure that they're happy and productive — is a tremendous asset."

Biland's group is focusing on using the Web to help the company's 6,000 dealers boost sales and improve productivity. Snap-on is rolling out a Web-based ordering system that allows dealers to customize their home pages and place orders. (Eventually, it might even enable them to conduct auctions.) The system's robust e-catalog architecture helps dealers target cross-selling and up-selling opportunities — no easy task, since Snap-on offers roughly 22,000 products. The Web system also allows industrial customers who buy directly from Snap-on to get price quotes, to place orders, and to check on the status of their orders.

What has Biland learned about change? For one thing, you can't always build the future from the same place as the present. While Snap-on is headquartered in Kenosha, the Internet Commerce Group set up shop in San Jose. "People from California think differently, especially about the Web," says Biland.

There's no telling where the "store without walls" strategy will lead. For now, Biland and his colleagues are more focused on creating a strategic vision for the future than they are on mapping out the details of the journey. "We're just trying to figure out where the world is going to be in five years," says Biland, "and to prepare for it."

Cathy Olofson (cathyo@channel1.com) is a frequent contributor to Fast Company. Contact Alan Biland by email (questions@snapon.com), or visit Snap-on Inc. on the Web (www.snapon.com).

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