CIOs make their mark in NHBy RYAN O'CONNOR
Union Leader Correspondent
March 09. 2014 4:08PM
In terms of distance, New Hampshire is roughly 3,200 miles from Silicon Valley. In terms of technological advancement, however, the Granite State is proving to be a viable alternative for innovative minds.
Ken Kauppila, for instance, has traveled the world, raising troubled companies from near bankruptcy and turning those businesses into profitable entities.
Last year, he changed his focus to leading a company with high-growth potential. He moved from Chicago to embrace just such an opportunity as chief information officer at Merchants Automotive Group in Hooksett.
Robert Anderson, on the other hand, is a longtime resident of the Granite State. Like Kauppila, Anderson has a deep background in advancing technology, but assumed he'd have to venture far from home to take the next step in his career. In January, he traveled a few miles down the road, from his Seacoast home to the Planet Fitness corporate headquarters in Newington, where he took the reins as CIO.
"I thought I was going to have to move to California or Santa Fe, but I found this opportunity right in my own backyard with a brand that is already very large and someday likely to be much larger than it is today," he said.
More than mom-and-pop shops
The attractiveness of some of New Hampshire's top companies didn't surprise University of New Hampshire Professor and Director of the Center for Venture Research Jeffrey Sohl.
"A lot of us are still hung up on New Hampshire being maple syrup, mom-and-pop T-shirt stores, tourism and skiing, but I think that's more the image we're hanging onto and less the reality, specifically in the southern sector of the state," said Sohl, who cited a 2013 report by Dane Stangler of Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation titled "Path-Dependent Startup Hubs. Comparing Metropolitan Performance: High-Tech and ICT Startup Density."
The report labeled Manchester-Nashua as fourth among the country's top small- to mid-sized metropolitan areas (with populations of 250,000 to 500,000) for high-tech startup companies as of 2010. Rockingham-Strafford was seventh on the same list.
"That report says a lot because it shows New Hampshire has a lot of viable employment opportunities, and because we're talking about startups, and that means you have a lot of talent here from which to draw," said Sohl, who noted that the Granite State's close proximity to Boston, along with well-educated students from the state's many colleges and universities, specifically Dartmouth and UNH, plays a major role recruiting technology-minded individuals to the area.
"Silicon Valley is wonderful, and I'm not saying we're ahead of them in any way, but if you've been there there's a ton of traffic and cost of living isn't exactly cheap, and what you see in many of the companies out there is really the desire to hit the home run, so to speak," he added. "So these CIOs are looking at New Hampshire and saying, 'Hey, we have a chance to really make an impact in technology, there's a good workforce in place and a reasonable quality of life.' You put all those pieces together and, aside from the tough winters, New Hampshire's not really a bad deal for them."
Building a better Planet
Anderson said he's been in the information technology (IT) arena for nearly 30 years.
"I've really been exposed to a lot of technology advances over the years, from people using punch cards through the Internet revolution. I've seen a lot, done a lot and have been exposed to a lot, and that's really benefited me and carried my career to where it is today," he said. "I love to solve problems, I love challenges, and that's what really led me to Planet Fitness, which is really a company with legs."
There were 240 Planet Fitness workout clubs in 2008; the company now boasts 769 locations, Anderson said.
Planet Fitness has found a niche with its "Judgement Free Zone," and Chris Rondeau, the company's CEO, said Anderson is perfect fit for a company attempting to springboard off recent success.
"Robert is a dynamic leader and has a demonstrated track record of delivering exceptional results and fostering innovation," said Rondeau in a written statement.Anderson said he plans to use every advance at his fingertips to ensure the company employs the best technology.
To get there, he's streamlining all aspects of business, from member enrollment, to day-to-day operations, to the technology being used at both the corporate gyms and franchise locations. Currently, Planet Fitness has more than 5.3 million members across the country.
"That's a huge mass of people, and we are really taking into account the social aspect of going to the gym," he said. "One of our goals is to allow those people to be connected wherever they are and for whatever their needs may be.
"In the past, most people thought of health clubs as a place they can go use a cardio machine or treadmill for 30 minutes, or to go and lift some weights and feel good about themselves," he said. "But in the near future they're going to be able to track their health goals right through their (mobile) devices through the infrastructure we have in place."
Many of these advances will be implemented in the next year or two, but Anderson said the company's greatest challenge is keeping up with its own rapid growth. He noted 22 percent of the current Planet Fitness members have joined online, a number that is steadily growing. Recently, in fact, Planet Fitness had 29,000 people enroll online in one day.
"Some of the challenges we have are bringing technology to markets fast enough to handle the signups and growth and then to deliver once they walk through the door," he said. "We're really looking to create an overall collective feeling throughout the Planet Fitness Universe."
Staying ahead of fleeting technology
Prior to his arrival at Merchants Automotive Group in Hooksett, Kauppila began in programing and worked his way up through the corporate ranks at several companies where he found marked success in large strategic projects. Eventually he helped build Experian Automotive from a fledgling startup to a leader in automotive technology solutions.
"It is all about the people, process, and ability to harness the potential to execute," he said. "Experian was the perfect storm — we were fortunate to have assembled a highly talented team, the right leadership, a supportive parent company, precise planning, and to pinpoint execution to deliver the first ever relational national vehicle database to the industry."
When he left Experian, he began to focus his career on "global IT turnarounds."
"I wanted to round-out my career in terms of understanding absolutely all aspects of technology, from application development to infrastructure to security to database, and there's no better way to do that then to go and help companies that are financially distressed and/or operationally challenged on a global basis because there are so many variables that come into play," he said.
Having found additional success abroad, Kauppila said he changed his career focus to joining a company with a strong ownership group and executive team that was focused on high growth in the automotive industry.
He found that in New Hampshire.
"When I came in to interview here, I was picked up at the hotel, and the driver said to me, 'You're really going to love working for the Singer family. They're great people,'" Kauppila said. "Now, I've just come out of a run of fixing companies that have been broken, and nobody talks about how wonderful the ownership is in those types of environments, and it was refreshing to hear that."
Kauppila said he soon came to realize that Merchants is much more than just an automotive dealership. The company is among the top 10 fleet management providers in the country.
"We don't just sell cars. We lease vehicles and manage the total cost of ownership around those vehicles for some very prominent customers in the industry today," he said. "And the role I had an opportunity to come in to play was to help optimize the information technology area, and that's what I've been doing my entire life."
Kauppila said his approach begins with assembling a top IT team and then expanding and regionalizing into other areas. Right now, he said Merchants is in the process of expanding into Chicago, a major market in fleet management.
He's also created a roadmap detailing costs and tasks for each area of business and translating that into projected results and benefits.
"I see the future of this company really continuing its growth, being able to focus on efficiency and driving total cost of ownership for our customers, continuing to add new features and functionality to the solutions we provide, and it's going to be very exciting," he said.