IT Department Saves Big Bucks

Cost cutting in information technology looms over many corporate IT groups now, in these tough economic times. We're here to help.

Today CIO.com begins a 5-part series profiling tactical projects that you can execute in a few weeks to a few months, reaping rewards almost immediately.

CEOs expect the economy to grow at a skimpy 1.3 percent this year, according to a survey of 110 chief executives conducted by the Business Roundtable. That's the slowest growth rate predicted by CEOs since the post-9/11 and post-bubble year of 2002.

More ominous: Of those gloomy CEOs, 31 percent expect unemployment to increase in the next six months, up from 22 percent who thought so at the beginning of the year. When the boss thinks fewer people will be working, fewer people will be working.

You have to be smart to keep your job. One way to display your smarts is to seek and destroy all money-sucking technology waste at your company.

In our first installment, learn how Lafarge, a $2.1 billion manufacturer of concrete, gypsum and other construction materials, saved seven figures by dealing more deftly with vendors AT&T and Hewlett-Packard.

Tomorrow, read how Gap, the clothing retailer, automated end-user access permissions, to speed up a tedious administrative process and save up to $1 million worth of the IT department's time. And by the way, the project also helps Gap better comply with PCI and Sarbanes-Oxley regulations, which streamlines audits and avoids fines.

Each day this week, we'll look at other money-saving ideas you can steal, including a green IT project at Washington Mutual, an attack on cell phone bills at Title Resource Group and an asset management effort at the U.S. Department of Defense. Stay tuned. You might just make yourself layoff-proof.

Part 1: Smart Contract Talks Help an IT Department Save Big

No one wants to overpay vendors, but Lafarge North America was.

Patrick Kys, VP of IT and CIO of Lafarge North America, thought he wasn't getting the respect -- that is, the pricing leverage -- he should get from the company's major suppliers, such as AT&T, HP and Microsoft.

Lafarge North America is a private company, owned by Lafarge Group SA in France, that makes concrete, gypsum and other construction materials. With $2.1 billion in sales, the Herndon, Va.-based company isn't small potatoes.

But Kys and other senior managers didn't know what level of discounting they could get and therefore weren't sure they were as bold in negotiating as they could have been, Kys says. It's hard for individual technology managers to get reliable information about what others are paying, he says, even from each other. Vendor contracts often stipulate that customers can't discuss pricing. Maneuvering with vendors around the negotiating table takes practice.

To gain perspective, Lafarge North America last year hired NPI Financial, a spend management consulting firm in Atlanta. Within several weeks, NPI had reviewed the company's contract with AT&T. NPI then reviewed other Lafarge North America IT contracts and concluded that it was overpaying several vendors. Right away, the company set to work to get better deals.

NPI advises many clients and negotiates for some, collecting benchmarks on vendor pricing across industries while keeping individual client data confidential. Kys says he got the inside knowledge he couldn't get elsewhere.

NPI representatives guided Lafarge negotiators, and sometimes stepped in to negotiate, in contract talks with AT&T, getting the vendor to "do better" on pricing, says Sepehr Kousha, IT controller at Lafarge North America. For a negotiation with Hewlett-Packard, NPI provided benchmarking, she says. "That's very effective."

"We took their arguments off the table," Kys adds.

Lafarge is a big HP shop, using HP desktops, laptops, servers, printers, storage-area networking products and various utility software. When it was time to renew maintenance and service agreements with HP, NPI spent two weeks assessing Lafarge North America's current contracts against similar terms, conditions and pricing offered by third-party providers and against what HP was offering other customers, Kousha says.

"This helped us to not only improve our current-year prices but to also negotiate a multiyear deal, whereby our prices are not locked for the next 24 months," she says. Those negotiations took about six months. That's not unusual, as software pricing is not only costly but complex.

In a new networking and data telecommunications deal with AT&T, Lafarge gained "seven-figure savings," Kousha says. She declined to provide specifics.

Kys adds that that savings was 20 percent more than he had anticipated. He credits NPI with getting that margin. NPI is paid a retainer, with some incentive-based fees as a bonus.

Telecom negotiations are usually intense, Kousha adds, but better informed, Lafarge staff persevered. "They try and wear you down and won't come to a final price quickly. They try to make you give up," she says. "We decided tactically to hang in there."

Kys advises other IT leaders to add a controller or financial manager to the technology department. Most IT managers negotiate with vendors "sporadically [and] don't have all the tactics to win." Kousha reports to Kys, with a dotted-line reporting relationship to the corporate finance chief.

Next up for Kousha and Kys are contracts for storage equipment and Cisco's Smartnet technical support.

Tomorrow: In Part 2 of the our series on IT cost cutting, learn how Gap, the clothing retailer, automates end-user access permissions, to speed up a tedious administrative process and save up to $1 million worth of the IT department's time.

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