Paul Martin is talking about his plans to head back home to the US when we meet in London on a bright autumn day at Rexam’s very smart offices by the Thames on Millbank, just a short walk to the Palace of Westminster in one direction and the Tate Britain art collection in the other.

After what will be five years in the UK, Martin plans to move his family to Chicago in the new year, but it is a mark of his achievements at the company (and of the enabling effect of new technology) that he will retain his position as global CIO even when he crosses the pond.

When I first met Martin over dinner in March of this year I confessed that I did not know the Rexam brand.

I’ve heard the name a lot since, and I apologise embarrassedly on this occasion, but Martin cheerfully admits that it is one of those large organisations that don’t ring too many bells with the man on the street.

Despite turning over more than £3.6bn, employing 22,300 staff and operating in more than 20 countries, Rexam is very much a business-to-business operation, although you might unwittingly reach for one of the company’s products in the course of reading this article – the average person touches a Rexam product 15 to 20 times a day, the company claims. That’s because Rexam makes a world of cans and packaging that contain everything from Coca-Cola and Pepsi drinks to mascara and pharmaceuticals on a mind-boggling scale that make its goods ubiquitous, even if the company’s name is still largely unknown among consumers.

Martin is currently based in Rexam’s London’s HQ but makes working visits to the States every three weeks or so, and by flipping that schedule he reckons that his productivity will not be interrupted.

Videoconferencing and other collaboration tools have helped make geographical distances shrink and a previous culture that demanded face-to-face contact has changed, he contends.

“In the past, we have been a traditional business that’s been like that, a little old school,” he says. “There would be a two- or three-hour meeting and they would want you here. Now, with so much pressure on cost and with us having a different leader-ship team in place, it’s very different. Our CEO is into globalisation and being efficient. We have videoconferencing in every meeting room, we use Microsoft NetMeeting a lot for internal debate, we use SharePoint extensively, and of course you can do quite a lot with email and voice conferencing, so that’s been a change.

“We’ve realised that you don’t have to be in the same office to be effective. Our IT is global and it doesn’t matter where you sit,” he adds.

Rexam is also a business generating enough value for the company to be a feature of the FTSE top 100 but Martin says a key part of his role has been to hone Rexam’s competitive edge through projects such as datacentre consolidation, creating managed service provider contracts for networks and reducing risk through the appointment of a chief security officer. However, perhaps his most important achievement was the introduction of an SAP enterprise resource planning system that underwrote a re-engineering of the organisation to make it the lean operation it is today. The SAP implementation snakes around the company, linking plant floor operations to logistics to inter-company communications with supply-chain partners.

Paul Martin: CV

1980: Degree in MIS from Western Kentucky University

1980-82: Programmer analyst for Texas Instruments

1982-93: Project leader and systems development manager at Frito-Lay

1993-97: Systems and infrastructure director at Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway

1997-99: CIO of finance company The CIT Group

1999-2001: IT director of American National Can, acquired by Rexam in 2001

2001-03: CIO of Rexam Beverage Can Americas

2004-present: Rexam Global CIO

As well as saving bottom-line costs, Martin says that the SAP project improved customer satisfaction and made for a generally slicker and more flexible organisation. Eighty-five per cent of Rexam’s orders are now taken online.

Of course, failing to deliver an SAP system in a timely and efficient manner has been a career-breaker for many an IT chief, so what was the secret of Martin’s success? He says involving business executives was critical, treating the system not so much as software but as an embodiment of process redesign and improvement.

“[Management and colleagues] associated it with re-engineering or a business transformation,” he says. “From an IT perspective, what that translated into was building world-class supply-chain processes. We were looking for new ways to connect to suppliers and customers and it just happened that SAP was what was being implemented.

“That’s the reason why ERP projects fail,” he says. “It’s because it’s viewed as an IT programme and to me it’s a business programme. We have the CEO in every division involved. The second piece [that can go wrong] is underestimating the business change SAP can generate so you need the involvement of key stakeholders on business process change. Then you need to factor in the need for retraining. These projects don’t fail because of the technology.”

That attitude of seeing a transformation project where others might see an SAP project informs Martin’s view of technology generally and the CIO’s role as change agent.

“It’s not about the technology but what the technology could do for the business. Ten years ago [IT leadership] was about getting your networks in place and very little about transforming the business.”
Rexam, a company that abides by the Six Sigma business methodology, prides itself on a very lean infrastructure with IT representing just 1.1 per cent of revenue, compared to about 1.7 per cent for peers, according to Gartner’s analysis. Datacentre and networking are outsourced to HP and AT&T respectively. But this constant driving towards efficiency does not mean Martin has no appetite for innovation.

“I’ve been at a lot of companies that made a lot of firsts,” he says. “At [snacks maker] Frito-Lay we were first to introduce handheld computers for people who went from store to store selling and taking orders.”
However, he takes a rigorous approach to cost justification.

“Every project has a business case and every business case we submit has all the necessary backing in terms of what the return-on-investment will be; then afterwards we do a post-mortem on where that hit.

When we talk about efficiency, we talk about automating business processes and we don’t get business cases without having the right metrics.”

Martin even has a precise target number: just as Rexam aims to gain an 11 per cent advantage when doing acquisitions, he shoots for an 11 per cent gain on any technology investment stake.

Martin has enjoyed a steady rise to the top of his profession. Born in Kentucky, he studied MIS at university before joining Texas Instruments’ chip design business. Like many of his countrymen, he then zigzagged through America, progressing through increasingly senor roles at snacks maker Frito-Lay (which produces Walkers crisps, Doritos, Cracker Jack and so on), a finance firm (New York-based The CIT Group), a railway operator (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) and then into packaging through American National Can, acquired by Rexam in 2001.

Of course, no career path is walked without the odd stumble. “One CEO told me after I had proposed a web strategy: ‘The internet? That’s for pornographers and thieves!’” he recalls.

Valued mentor

Along the way, however, he has enjoyed more insightful support. He is a believer in the value of mentors, none more important than Charlie Feld, currently a grey eminence at EDS but previously a legendary CIO who worked with Martin at both Frito-Lay and Burlington Northern Santa Fe. This key relationship has helped make Martin the networker he is today.

The CIO Questionnaire

Q. Which business books have been influential in your career?
A. The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell by Oren Harari and 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch by Robert Slater.

Q. Who have been the most influential people in your career?
A. My wife, Patricia, and my former boss of 14 years, Charlie Feld, later executive vice president of EDS.

Q. Do you believe in mentoring?
A. Yes, I believe in mentoring or coaching. Early on, I had several mentors who helped me shape my career. It is great to meet with a person who you view as a role model who takes an interest in you and your career. I can attribute my success to the coaching I received in the Eighties and Nineties.

Q. Which tools or tactics have given you most success in communicating up, down and across the organisation?
A. In terms of communicating, along with informal communication, I love to pull together PowerPoint presentations to get my message across about IT.

Q. What has been your biggest mistake?
A. Not moving to the UK sooner. The experience of living and working in a different country has been invaluable.

Q. And your greatest success?
A. With the exception of my family, my greatest professional success was when I was the CIO for Rexam Beverage Can Americas where we re-engineered the supply chain and enabled it with SAP in 2003. We took customer online ordering of beverage cans from five per cent to 85 per cent in 12 months and changed the way our company conducted business.

Q. What is your greatest strength?
A. I am a business process change agent with a collaborative approach to getting things done.

Q. And your greatest weakness?
A. I can over-commit.
Q. How do you keep up to date with the march of technology?
A. Gartner research and networking with other CIOs.

Q. How do you deal with stress?
A. I go to the gym three to five times
per week. In addition I like to get in my
car and just cruise with music in the background.

Q. What profession would you most like to attempt?
A. I would enjoy the challenge of managing a business.

Q. Which word or phrase do you most use/overuse?
A. “Can do!”

Q. Do you have a sport you practice, or
a sportsperson or a team that you follow?
A. I love American baseball, but since we live in England now, my son and I are major Chelsea FC fans.

“Charlie Feld was a person I viewed as a mentor,” he says. “He was instrumental in my career and he is an icon in IT. He was the person who could walk into any boardroom and sell what IT can do for the business, take them through datacentre outsourcing, how we were going to roll out SAP. There was a pond at Frito-Lay and we would walk around it and talk. That’s the reason why I network. I do it not just to build a good relationship but to find out what’s hot in your shop. In SOA, what do you do in your space? What I love about the CIO community is that nobody seems to hold back. That’s highly valuable.”

That feel for networking and knowledge-sharing has helped him adjust to the UK and Europe, he says, although he notices significant different approaches between here and the US.

“It’s not as direct here,” he laughs. “I find people to be extremely polite. In the US you might do a presentation and somebody will say ‘That was a dumb idea’. Here you get ‘Interesting... maybe we should think about that’.”

He also detects a difference in attitude in terms of communications and keeping up the morale and enthusiasm of a team.

“We share our successes and we share our failures,” he says. “In North America, everyone’s a cheerleader and they’re very vocal about it. Here, there’s a more conservative approach that is about getting on with it, and there’s not as much fanfare. We have meetings every three months and I try to ensure that our executive leadership team understands the successes, and if we have drawbacks I communicate that as well. Similarly, for IT staff we have what we call an ‘all hands on deck’ meeting where we pull together the team once a quarter and we use NetMeeting to discuss technology opportunities.”

Swapping the land of opportunity for this green and pleasant land has also helped Martin’s career. He now sits on the executive committee of Rexam and plays a full role in the early stages of due diligence processes regarding potential acquisitions that feed Rexam’s plan to double both revenue and profit by 2012.

Looking forward, he is bullish about the CIO role, both generically and at Rexam.

“The CIO role will continue to be needed in the organisation, no matter how far outsourcing goes. We need to be very careful when we talk about outsourcing. I’m a fan but it doesn’t mean you don’t have to look after it anymore.”

However, he also spies a likely career progression for successful CIOs.

About Rexam

Rexam is the world’s second-largest consumer packaging company and the largest beverage can maker. You might not know the name but as a provider to some of the biggest global brands, the chances are that you touch one of its products every day whether you’re having a drink, preparing food, applying a beauty product such as perfume, a lipstick or compact, or using a healthcare product such as a pharmaceutical or eye-dropper.
Headquartered in London on Millbank, just a few minutes’ walk from the Houses of Parliament, Rexam is a fixture of the FTSE 100, turns over £3.6bn and aims to grow that very rapidly, mostly through an ambitious acquisition strategy. A truly international firm, Rexam employs 22,300 people in over 20 countries and operates 110 plants. Customers include Coca-Cola, Cadbury-Schweppes, Anheuser-Busch, Heineken, Carlsberg, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble and Maybelline.
Some of the product volumes are remarkable: Rexam produces about 55 million beverage cans, for example, popping out 2200 units per minute.

“I’ve seen a number of CIOs become CEO but more of them become COO,” he says. “It’s a nice, logical move for a CIO who wants to be more business-oriented. Other than the CEO, you’re the one who looks across the business most.”

Running a business could prove attractive one day but he maintains that the job at Rexam has only just begun: “I’d like to grow the role. I’m really the first global CIO Rexam has had and we have a ways to go,” he says.

With much more merger-and-acquisition activity likely at Rexam, further technology improvements planned (including looking more closely at setting up telepresence rooms for video-conferencing and at implementing RFID tags for further automating logistics) Martin has certainly got plenty to do. But (pun intended and to cite the phrase he admits he most over-uses) you do feel he has the ‘can do’ attitude needed.