How EDS Got Its Groove Back

Before Dick Brown took the reins at EDS, people wrote the company off as slow, stodgy, even uncool. By focusing on the soft stuff — the company’s culture — he’s turned EDS into the leading example of an old-economy company that gets it.

The phone that didn’t ring — that was the clue that told Dick Brown something was wrong. He summoned a technician to his office who explained the problem: To avoid incoming calls, the previous CEO had had his phone lines cut. The leadership of EDS, the company that invented the information technology-services industry, had had itself disconnected.


More out-of-touch signs soon surfaced. Brown wanted to know how many people were employed at EDS. It took six phone calls — once his lines were restored — to find out. He asked to see the previous month’s financials. The numbers weren’t available. The company closed its books on a quarterly basis. He asked for the previous month’s sales results. Same answer. Sales were totaled at the end of the quarter. “Unbelievable,” says Brown. “We’re a $19 billion company, and we were closing quarterly.”

The kicker came when Brown tried to send an email to EDS’s 140,000 employees. It couldn’t be done. The company, he learned, was tangled up in 16 different email systems: AOL, Exchange, Hotmail, Notes — some EDSers even used their clients’ systems. EDS was responsible for keeping more than 2.5 billion lines of code running at 9,000 corporations and government agencies worldwide, but its CEO couldn’t send an email to his own people. “Totally unacceptable,” Brown says, shaking his head at the memory.

When he took the reins at EDS in January 1999, Brown joined a company that was floundering in a world it had created. EDS had pioneered the IT-services industry — the fastest growing industry in the world. But when it split off from General Motors in 1996, EDS was too slow for the fast-forward IT marketplace. Faster, nimbler startups — Razorfish, Scient, Viant — ate away at EDS’s market share. IBM launched its own IT-services division, Global Services, and promptly steamrolled EDS on the way to grabbing the lead. At a time when the market for computer services was estimated to be at half a trillion dollars — and growing rapidly — EDS’s growth slowed, and its market cap declined.


The company’s sins were numerous: It missed the onset of the Internet wave. It missed the start of the client-server wave. It missed the beginning of the run-up to Y2K. Even worse, it wasn’t seen as a cool company. The digerati dismissed EDS as stodgy, arrogant, and chained to old technology.

“When Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems first had us do a piece of a contract for him, he wouldn’t let us publicize the deal, because he thought we were too old economy,” recalls John Wilkerson, who shotguns indirect sales channels at EDS. “Sun was cool. We were the knuckle draggers.”

That was then. This is now: At the end of July, EDS announced a 17% increase in its quarterly profits, a 7.5% rise in revenue, and an $80 billion backlog of signed contracts. The quarter caps a remarkable turnaround for EDS, a transformation that began last October when the company outmaneuvered IBM to win a whopping $6.9 billion contract from the U.S. Navy. EDS signed an additional $32.6 billion worth of new business in 2000, up 31% for the year. This year, as the Scients and Viants fell to earth, EDS’s E Solutions unit grew by 35% in the first quarter. At a time when the tech sector is awash in pink slips, EDS has hired 6,000 people since January. It has signed very public and very profitable partnerships with most of tech’s corporate leaders: Cisco, Dell, EMC, Microsoft. And as for Sun? In July, it unveiled a partnership with EDS that is expected to bring both companies an additional $3 billion in revenue over five years.


The EDS turnaround offers an instructive story for the post-dotcom era. It’s an object lesson in how an old-line company with real assets, real size, and real profits can reinvent itself for the digital economy, fully absorb the Internet, and turn into an old-economy company that really gets it. But as powerful as those turnaround lessons are, they aren’t even the best part of the story.

One hundred days after Brown arrived at EDS from Britain’s Cable & Wireless, where he had been CEO for two years, he took a half-dozen of his top executives to the New York Stock Exchange. As they looked out over the trading floor, Brown vowed that they would restore EDS to its full financial health. The company would boost its operating margin by 30%. It would climb back to double-digit earnings per share. And its revenue growth would meet or exceed the market’s overall growth rate. Brown committed the company to some hard numbers. Then he set about changing the company by focusing on the soft stuff: EDS’s culture and its people.

“Most business leaders are afraid to talk about culture,” says Brown. “They’re far more comfortable with numbers. While I am very numbers focused, you can’t change a business with numbers. Numbers are the end result. You change a business by changing the behavior of its people.”


This, then, is the story of how EDS, a global company that is larger than some cities, built a massive change effort on one of the fuzziest, most elusive terms in business: culture.

Leaders Get the Behavior They Tolerate

When Ross Perot launched EDS in Dallas, Texas in 1962, he also created the radical notion that other organizations would hire a company to handle all of their computer operations. Back then, the word “outsource” hadn’t even entered the business lexicon. To sell the fledgling concept, Perot built the ultimate can-do culture, comprised mostly of the sons and daughters of Midwestern farmers and returning Vietnam veterans. “Ross told us to hire the people who have to win,” recalls EDS vice chairman Jeff Heller, who flew attack helicopters in Vietnam before joining the company in 1968. “And when we couldn’t find any more of those folks, he said to go after the people who hate to lose.”

EDS came to rule the industry that it created, and it grew exponentially after GM acquired it in 1984. Under GM’s wing, EDS established ground-level operations in 42 countries and bulked up to become a $14 billion giant before it split off from the carmaker in 1996. In retrospect, the GM-sponsored success turned out to be EDS’s most crippling competitive handicap.


A hefty annuity from GM, which amounted to 30% of EDS’s 1996 revenue, first lulled EDS into complacency and then fostered an unwillingness to change within the company — while the world was changing all around it. Individual operating units had no incentive for cooperating with each other to win business. The company’s top leaders had grown aloof and cut off from people at the front lines. “We’d have meetings, meetings, meetings, but nothing would ever get decided,” says Heller. “It would all end up in warm spit.”

In December 1998, EDS’s board of directors recruited Dick Brown from British telecom Cable & Wireless, making him the first outsider to lead EDS in the company’s 36-year history. He arrived with an unambiguous message: “A company’s culture is really the behavior of its people. And leaders get the behavior they tolerate.”

Brown quickly signaled that he would not put up with the old culture of information hoarding and rampant individualism. In one of his first meetings, Brown asked 30 top managers to email him the three most important things that they could do to improve the company and the three most important things that he could do. He made his request on a Monday and asked the managers to email him their action items by the end of the week — at the latest. “I was interested in what they’d send, but I was more interested in when they’d send it,” Brown says. “This was a litmus test on urgency.”


Ninety percent of the managers waited until Friday afternoon to reply to Brown. “It never crossed their minds that they could email me within the hour,” Brown says. “They just did it at the last minute. And that’s the message that they sent to their people: Do it at the last minute. In the end, almost all of them loaded up on what I needed to do. They were pretty light on what they needed to do.”

Today, most of those managers are gone from EDS.

The Phone Call You Never Miss

Brown moved swiftly to change old beliefs and behaviors at EDS, unleashing a set of practices — dubbed “operating mechanisms” — that were designed to create a company-wide culture based on instant feedback and direct, unfiltered communication. One of these practices is the “monthly performance call.” At the beginning of each month, 125 of the company’s top worldwide executives punch into a conference call that begins promptly at 7 AM central daylight time. Participation is not optional. “If you miss the call, you get taken to the woodshed,” says Heller.


The ostensible purpose of the call is to review in detail the past month’s revenue and profit targets. As chief financial officer, Jim Daley reads through the figures for each unit. Everyone knows who hit their numbers, who exceeded them, and who whiffed. But something else is at work here. When executives realize that they will miss their numbers — and no one hits all of their targets all of the time — they must act before that call. “We don’t try to embarrass people with those calls; we try to help them,” says Brown. “At the same time, facts are facts, and it’s critical to measure each executive and each organization against their commitments. I use the word ‘commitments’ deliberately. It’s easier to miss a budget than a commitment, because a budget is just an accumulation of numbers. A commitment is your personal pledge to get the job done. And that’s how we strive to behave as a team.”

Blow Up the Company

Soon after joining EDS, Brown visited Continental Airlines at its Houston headquarters. EDS handles all of the airline’s legacy systems: accounting, payroll, maintenance, and, most critically, its reservation system, making Continental one of EDS’s largest clients. It was in danger of becoming an ex-client.

“Systems were crashing, deliveries were failing, projects were late,” says Janet Wejman, Continental’s senior VP and chief information officer. “When projects were finally delivered, the quality was unacceptable. I asked for meetings with the management to explain our problems, but all I got was, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. We’ll handle it.’ “


Wejman was taken aback when Brown came calling. Not only had she never met EDS’s previous CEO, she didn’t even know his name. She told Brown: “Things can’t go on like this.” Brown assured her that there would be changes — and he delivered within two weeks: A new account team was brought in. The new account executive conceded that there were problems and promised to work with Continental to solve them. The new relationship, Wejman says, “isn’t always nirvana. But EDS does a better job than anyone in the world.”

Still, the difficulties with the Continental account pointed to deeper systemic problems within EDS. Cultural change wasn’t coming fast enough. Almost everyone paid lip service to the call to collaborate, but not enough people acted on it.

The real problem, Brown and his leadership team realized, lay within the structure of EDS. The company had splintered into 48 separate units, each with its own management and its own P&L. Since the operating units refused to communicate or cooperate, EDS lacked a single overarching, market-facing strategy. The company was rolling out duplicate offerings, duplicate capabilities, and diametrically opposed strategies.


“Once we were doing a strategy session on e-business, and a guy from the energy unit announced that he had 20 people working on a transaction system for oil- and gas-pipeline settlements,” recalls Bob Segert, managing director of corporate strategy and planning. “Someone from finance jumped up and interrupted him, saying, ‘You’re wasting your time. We already have a system for that.’ They were both working out of the same building, but neither knew what the other was doing.”

Brown and his team had a solution: Blow up the company. Build something new.

Leading the Breakaway

The mechanism was “Project Breakaway,” a team of seven leaders from different units, each with a different industry expertise. Brown gave them an assignment and a six-week deadline: Draft a blueprint for an organizational structure that is centered around the client — a structure that increases productivity, promotes accountability, and drives a collaborative culture across the entire enterprise. The goal: to break away from the old ways of doing business.


Getting there wasn’t easy. “As soon as Dick left the room, the fighting started,” says Segert, who won the dubious honor of facilitating the discussions. “I set up a straw model for what a new organization might look like, and they just tore it apart. One of the executives — who is no longer here — stood up and challenged the entire process. But I was thinking, ‘Great, the discussion has started.’ We had just formed, and we were already starting to storm.”

They debated for 16 hours a day, seven days a week — right through the July 4 holiday. After six weeks, they had hammered out a new model: The 48 units were slashed to four lines of business, all of them focused directly on the client. Each client had its own “client executive” — a top performer who would be responsible for troubleshooting problems with the client. To get the job done, the client executive could draw from all four lines of business.

The “Group of Seven,” as they came to be known, unveiled the new model at an August off-site for EDS’s top executives. “There was a lot of skepticism,” recalls Segert. “But then one of the leaders grabbed a microphone and said, ‘I feel like I’m at a new EDS. This thing might have flaws, but I’m excited to think about how far we can go with this new model.’ And that turned the tide. And thank God it did, because if the senior leaders weren’t walking the talk of collaboration — if they weren’t living the business model — the effort would have collapsed.”


7-Eleven Sees Red

Despite the massive reorg, there was still one practical problem: customers. EDS’s once-a-year customer-satisfaction surveys offered little in the way of urgency or transparency. When Brown asked, “How are we doing on the Continental account?” no one had a good answer.

The solution: the “Service Excellence Dashboard,” a Web-based tool that measures and tracks service quality in every EDS business at all times. The Dashboard displays a color-coded rating system — green, yellow, and red — for critical customer-service benchmarks, including value, timeliness, and delivery.

But the Dashboard is more than a display of cold, hard facts. It’s also another force for transparency and cooperation. The status of 90% of EDS’s accounts is displayed on the desktops of the company’s worldwide leaders. If you’re responsible for Continental, and your client executive has put up a “code yellow” for the account, your peers will know about it. The Dashboard also fuels collaboration, because many of those executives will quickly contact you with offers to help. Such was the case with EDS’s 7-Eleven account.


EDS supports the network, hardware, and applications for 7-Eleven’s retail-information systems, which link up all 5,200 of the franchise’s stores. In August 2000, the system flatlined. Servers crashed. Applications failed to work correctly. Stores tried to place product orders but couldn’t dial into the host system. When they did manage to dial in, the system sometimes couldn’t connect with 7-Eleven’s suppliers. “If we can’t process our orders, we can’t get product into the stores,” says Jimmy Pitts, 7-Eleven’s point man for coordinating with EDS. “And if we don’t have product in the stores, we don’t have sales.”

7-Eleven CEO Jim Keyes put in a direct call to Frank DeGise, EDS’s client executive for the franchise. Shortly thereafter, DeGise put up a red light for the entire account. Within 24 hours, EDS had mobilized.

Don Uzzi, EDS’s executive sponsor for the 7-Eleven account, quickly assembled a SWAT team of senior leaders. The team brought in the company’s top network guru and handpicked an A team of systems administrators. More significantly, it partnered with 7-Eleven’s top IT troubleshooters and formed a joint-company project — “Going for the Green” — to fix the network. Working together, the two companies did an architecture review that revealed design flaws in the network’s structure. It took 60 days to reconfigure the network and streamline the hardware. After an additional month of testing, all systems were go. The 7-Eleven account flashed green.

“At the old EDS,” says DeGise, “the culture was, ‘Fix the problem yourself. And while you’re fixing it, make sure you’re signing new business.’ ” The new EDS is sharing information internally — and the next EDS will extend that reach to its clients. By the end of the year, all of the color codes, metrics, and comments from the client executive and other leaders from within EDS will be pushed to the client’s desktop.

“We’re taking the original design intent behind the Dashboard — which is to create new relationships that are based on trust and collaboration — and we’re bringing it right to the client,” says Charley Kiser, who leads the Dashboard team. “Clients will see the good, the bad, and the ugly. They will truly be part of the team.”

When Eagles Flock

Walk into the fifth-floor reception area at EDS headquarters in Plano, Texas, and you can’t miss it: a great bronze sculpture of a screaming eagle, its wings unfurled and its talons flashing. It’s a legacy of the Perot era, a symbol of the qualities that Perot valued. The eagle is courageous. It is predatory. But eagles don’t flock.

There are signs that the old culture still reigns at EDS. Despite the downsizing, there are still multiple layers of hierarchy. Despite the reorg, there are still instances where salespeople from different business practices call on the same client. Despite efforts to increase the cool factor, blue suits still prevail at corporate headquarters.

There is also abundant evidence that the company that was wired to compete has learned to collaborate. Consider how Brad Rucker and Robb Rasmussen work together. Both are leaders in the E Solutions business, both are EDS veterans, and both are leading the company’s push into the digital economy.

At the old EDS, Rucker and Rasmussen would have been competitors, fighting toe to toe to win new business. They are still competitors, but now their energy is directed against EDS’s competition. “People are motivated by how they get paid,” says Rucker. “I’m compensated based on how my organization performs against its financial goals. I’m also compensated according to how we do at E Solutions. If Robb is having a problem, I need to help him solve it.”

“And let’s be honest,” interrupts Rasmussen, eager to make a point. “This year he’s the one who is carrying me.”

“And last year, he carried me,” Rucker continues. “But the point is, we’ve made everything open and transparent. I know what percentage of hours he’s billing, and he knows my percentage. If Robb has people who are on the bench and aren’t billing, I have an incentive to help him get those people off of the bench. I trust that man with my career, and I know he feels the same way about me. That’s a different peer relationship than I’ve ever had at this company.”

As the two men talked, they offered real-time, real human evidence that EDS has changed. After two years of effort, the culture — that soft-and-fuzzy factor — is working for the company. No one can predict whether the change will last. But for now, it’s clear: The eagles are flying together.

Bill Breen ( is a Fast Company senior editor. Contact Dick Brown by email (

Sidebar: Reinventing the Brand

Soon after Dick Brown joined EDS, he realized that he and his team had to do more than reinvent the company — they had to remake the brand. Dotcom mania was at a frenzy, but EDS was out of it. It was seen as an old-economy company in a new-economy industry.

To head EDS’s global-marketing efforts, Brown brought in Don Uzzi, whose record included a marketing turnaround at Gatorade and a dismissal from Sunbeam by “Chainsaw” Al Dunlop. Brown wanted Uzzi to make EDS a household name. And there was a second, equally critical goal: to market EDS to EDSers. A cool brand could make people feel good again about working at the company.

After Uzzi arrived, he quickly decided to launch a new campaign at the biggest media event of all: the Super Bowl. It was a huge risk. The Super Bowl is for truly major advertisers, and EDS was nearly invisible in the ad world. Moreover, EDS would have to spend millions of dollars buying airtime — before it could come up with the actual campaign.

Uzzi asked Fallon Worldwide, EDS’s ad agency, to design a campaign that would let EDS poke fun at itself and that would show how the company solves complex issues for its clients. Fallon pitched three ideas; Uzzi settled on “Cat Herders.” It would be shot in the style of a John Ford western — big sky, big country, stirring musical score — but it would feature rugged cowboys herding 10,000 house cats. “I thought that ‘Cat Herders’ would work because it was truly epic,” says Uzzi. “When it comes up on the screen, it just stops you. And the metaphor captured perfectly what we do: We ride herd on complexity. We make technology go where clients want it to go.”

Three weeks before the Super Bowl, Uzzi previewed the commercial at an off-site for EDS’s top executives. Most gave it a standing ovation. But there were doubters. “I thought it was terrible,” says EDS vice chairman Jeff Heller. “I asked Don if we could pull the ad and get our money back. Boy, was I wrong.”

Indeed he was. “Cat Herders” won many of the biggest online polls for best Super Bowl commercial. Clients called from all over the world, asking for tapes to show at meetings. TV Guide published a listing of when the spot would run again. More important, Uzzi got email from all over EDS. The consensus: “Cat Herders” had put the luster back on the EDS logo.

Sidebar: Dick Brown on Change

How do you change an old, proud, but lagging company into a nimble, high-performing — even cool — competitor? Here are six of EDS chairman and CEO Dick Brown’s catalysts for change.

The Straight Stuff, Straight From the Top: Every other week, Brown sends an email message to all 128,000 EDSers, telling them where EDS is going, how it will get there, and what challenges lie ahead. Each email is also an explicit call for dialogue, since anyone at EDS can write him back.

Go Off-Site to Get Close-Up: Two or three times a year, Brown convenes the company’s senior executives for a three-day meeting. Leaders learn how to team by teaming.

Nowhere to Run to, Nowhere to Hide: Once a month, the top 125 worldwide leaders participate in an hour-long conference call, in which the CFO goes through the previous month’s numbers for each executive. The call serves to make every EDSer’s performance transparent.

Money Doesn’t Talk, It Screams: Brown has introduced a pay-for-performance system that ranks every employee. Top performers are rewarded; poor performers are given the opportunity to get better.

Color-Coded Clients: Go, Caution, Crisis The company’s “Service Excellence Dashboard” is a Web-enabled tool that lets clients rate EDS. It forces speed and collaboration.

Here’s Your Coachable Moment!: Brown is a big believer in delivering real-time feedback, which he calls “coachable moments.” The phrase has entered EDS’s lexicon: “May I give you a coachable moment?” The goal is to make coaching a part of everyday behavior.