Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bob Brennan, Iron Mountain CEO, at Harvard Business School

by Sarah Cortes

This morning at Harvard Business School. Bob Brennan, President and CEO of Boston-based Iron Mountain,
delivered a vision for the future and reflected on the notable mid-recession growth and profitability of this perennial giant in the world of Records Management, Data Storage and Disaster Recovery.

Casual observers marvel at how the company not only survives but has recently exploded galactically into the S&P 500. It seems counterintuitive for a company that seemingly shares the same challenge we see each week on the popular TV show, The Office, namely, a core business built around a mundane, semi-obsolete medium, paper, (and similarly semi-obsolete medium, magnetic tape), in a hip digital age.

At the breakfast gathering in HBS's sparkling and sun-drenched Spangler Center, sponsored by the HBS Association of Boston, Iron Mountain materials summarized the firm's fortunes: "In 1998 Iron Mountain was a $400m physical box and tape storage company with operations entirely within the United States. Today, they have $3b revenues, operate in 38 countries on five continents, and have completed more than 250 acquisitions."

Make that 300 acquisitions, according to numbers Brennan quoted this morning. Things have been picking up in 2009, it seems.

His vision for the future and ambition is similarly galactic: "Adding technology services that increasingly will bring us into competition with IBM, EMC and Microsoft." We asked Brennan to throw a spear to pinpoint his definition of "technology services." Iron Mountain's growth has largely been fueled by its Document Management Services (DMS) division, which pretty much means image storage. A huge area with room for growth, but storing images of printed paper is a different goldfish pond than the growing online, real-time digital data backup and storage business. For their largest client sector, financial services, which Brennan today revealed accounts for 20% of Iron Mountain's business, data storage and backup means transaction records in database form. It also means, if not real-time backup, for example, via EMC's SRDF technology, then at least daily database synchronization in a batch backup, transmission and storage cycle.

"IBM." said Brennan, meaning, clients seeking that service should addre
ss themselves to Big Blue. "We have no clue about online data storage." Good to be clear about core vision. With an enormous slide projected behind him as he speaks, of a goldfish in a small bowl and another goldfish leaping into a larger bowl, set before a vast ocean, Brennan made the point that Iron Mountain's unarguable success in this economic holocaust, is due to leaping into bigger ponds like DMC, but not drowning in the ocean of online and realtime data backup and recovery. Iron Mountain sees its present and future in "inactive data" rather than online, real-time transaction-based data, according to Brennan. "Let us eliminate your noise," he says, summing up the approach.

Brennan also seeks to make Iron Mountain the leading provider of digital computing, now known as cloudshare. "In the old days, we called it timeshare," jokes Brennan. He compared his firm's market share in this arena to that of salesforce.com, another recent juggernaut.

His biography outlines a path to the executive suite reminiscent of Craig McCaw, who cobbled together the stupendous McCaw cellular empire in the 1990s. According to the company website, Brennan joined Iron Mountain through the acquisition of Connected Corporation, where he served as Chief Executive Officer. Before Connected, he was a general manager for network and service management with the highly successful and flamboyant Cisco Systems, Inc., a global leader and the "junkyard dog" of the networking and communications equipment business. He was CEO of American Internet prior to its acquisition by Cisco.

"We are not a software company and we're not a real estate company, and we're not a transportation company, although we maintains a fleet of 5,000 trucks making 75,000 stops," summarized Brennan.


Iron Mountain faces challenges as it continues to reinvent itself and move into cloudshare and other digital arenas. Brennan distinguishes himself from his counterpart on The Office, Michael Scott, the notorious (anti-)manager, by squarely facing the transformation required of Iron Mountain's 21,000 employees around the globe. Brennan clearly takes pride that his firm has managers who have worked themselves up from the warehouse to running multimillion dollar business lines, but acknowledges it is largely a blue collar workforce. With this in mind, he brought together the 200 company leaders from around the world a few weeks ago and focused on the company's strategy. At this gathering, Brennan articulated his management philosophy: "Lead with kindness - we have to pull, not push, people. And develop people." This philosophy is creating discomfort for some of his managers, and "it's creating a lot of discomfort for me, too," joked Brennan. "I've been getting a lot of feedback since I put this out there a few weeks ago."

copyright 2009 Sarah Cortes

Disclosure: The author was SVP and head of Disaster Recovery at Putnam Investments on 9/11 when parent company Marsh & McLennan's data center collapsed on the 96th floor of the
North Tower of the World Trade Center and failed over to Putnam's facilities while hundreds of colleagues died. Iron Mountain played a critical role in Marsh & McLennan's remarkable recovery, driving thousands of magnetic tapes across the country while airlines were grounded. Her technology consulting practice includes, among other areas, advising companies how to negotiate their Iron Mountain contracts and pricing. You can read her other Tech columns at IT Knowledge Exchange
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