Corporate Innovator Profile
|Name: Steven Nghe
Title: Digital Product Innovation Manager
Company: Kloeckner Metals Corporation
Experience: Delta Dental
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 5 years
LinkedIn: Steven Nghe
Founded in 1975 and today headquartered in Roswell, GA, Kloeckner Metals Corporation is one of the world’s largest metal and steel distributors with locations in North America, Europe, and Brazil. We recently spoke to the company’s first digital product innovation manager, Steven Nghe, to learn about the enterprise innovation priorities of both this supply chain consultancy and an industry not widely recognized for emphasizing modernization.
What are some of the innovation priorities of a company like Kloeckner?
Kloeckner’s executive leadership deserves a lot of the credit for recognizing the need to leverage innovation and to actually act upon that need. You hear a lot of stories, especially in older industries likes ours, about how large companies understand the opportunities of digital innovation, but for one reason or another, the status quo remains intact. Fortunately, Kloeckner is not that kind company. Over the years, we have evolved from a metal distributor into a robust supply chain consultant that distributes, meaning we know a thing or two about how to make meaningful change. For example, we created one of the first digital platform in our industry, Kloeckner Connect. This family of apps allows us to utilize the cloud to bring efficiencies with inventory, orders and logistics for our customers. These apps bring a uniqueness to our industry because It is still not common practice to leverage the cloud to conduct business.
Even with Kloeckner Connect, our goal is to always continue to push boundaries and accomplish more. Today, about 60 percent of our innovation focus is dedicated to the study and implementation of new technologies and methods to add efficiency to aging equipment, internal processes and procedures. Our remaining time is heavily skewed towards external innovations that can maximize the customer experience. What we have found though is that the two are not mutually exclusive. That is, what’s good internally almost always benefits the customer; and if the customer is satisfied, then we have a lot of happy folks internally.
How have you managed to change the culture to one that lives and breathes innovation?
First and foremost, the Kloeckner culture is incredible. There is a respect for one another from both the top down and bottom up, which translates into a corporate environment in which everyone is willing to at the very least listen to ideas that might make them uncomfortable at first. That environment is not the norm for many corporate innovators. To your question, before I even signed on with the company, the CEO had adopted a “lean” way of thinking. That is, the most important person was already an advocate for a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) approach to product development before my first day in the office. This agile mindset is, of course, popular for startups and some of the most tech-savvy enterprises, but it is highly uncommon for the CEO of a legacy company such as Kloeckner. Having a boss that embraced, without needing to actively explain and convince him on the merits of lean startup methodology, meant that our team could begin putting new technologies in the field to test as soon as possible.
Even with a tech-savvy CEO, there must be some challenges to pursuing a robust digital innovation? What are they and how do you manage them?
Of course! We know that there is a time-sensitive need to adapt and become a more modern company. I’m confident that our lean startup methodology will enable us to keep pace and stay on top of any digital innovation in the future.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is the continuous introduction of new concepts and ideas to organizational stakeholders. In many situations, we’re tasked with explaining things that have never been thought of or talked about in the history of the company. Thus, a good amount of education and handholding takes place. At the same time, we must continually showcase potential value and ROI – which can mean different things to different people.
We are most successful in educating and securing approval for projects when we can present our ideas in comparison to the competition. As a leader, our company is energized by any possibility of being the first in the industry to do something unique. We also spend a lot of time comparing our recommendations and ideas to similar ones executed by companies in other industries. This helps us paint a much more realistic picture about what the potential spend, value and ROI could be. In addition, last year we created a digital innovations department to crowdsource ideas and maximize the use of internal skill sets. We believe that the knowledge needed to take us into a new era of our business model will come primarily from existing employees.
You describe yourself as someone who “uses the online world and its possibilities to create actionable directives that help companies achieve greater levels of success.” Define this way of thinking and explain why it might be beneficial for other corporate innovators to follow suit?
Ultimately what I mean here is that a one-size-fits-all strategy is destined to fail in a corporate innovation environment. If I came into this role guns blazing about the need to go gangbusters on social media and mobility, then I would have immediately lost trust among colleagues because those tactics aren’t imperative to our innovation success. Instead, I took the time to learn and understand Kloeckner’s environment, as well as our business goals and objectives, subsequently creating an innovation strategy based on priorities.
The result of doing so was a rather quick implementation of one or two improvements rather than a mediocre introduction of 10 new technologies all at once. The other advice I would give intrapreneurs is to treat the money like it is your own. Corporate innovation can be expensive. Whether building in-house or making acquisitions, the money piles up quickly. Treating the budget delicately from the very beginning will earn you a lot of trust and respect among your peers and superiors who are unaccustomed to spending on digital innovation.
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