Why you should care

Your life may have been touched by Ursula Burns and Xerox and you probably don’t even know it. 

Paying a parking ticket, booking an airline ticket, using an EZ pass, filing a health insurance claim, photocopying inappropriate body parts while at work—what do these all have in common?

Xerox.

For years, the Fortune 500 company has been known for its copying machines, but recently it has been in the midst of a massive transformation to becoming a computer services company. The person spearheading this shift? Xerox CEO Ursula Burns. Whether she’ll be a success is still very unclear.

Xerox’s services business now accounts for 55% of the company’s total revenue.

“She’s actually trying to change what we’ve known Xerox to be,” says Caroline Howard, a senior online editor at Forbes who covers enterprising women. Burns has moved the company away from its reputation for machinery like printers and copiers and toward IT services.

The company’s transition is still in its early stages, although Xerox’s services business now accounts for 55% of the company’s total revenue. In an effort to diversify the company in 2010, Burns pushed through the acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services, an outsourcing company, for $6.4 billion. Three years later, Xerox’s overall revenues are still declining, down 1% to $21.4 billion in 2013. Forbes reports revenues are expected to be up only 1% in 2014, and some financial reporters consider the company’s performance adequate reason for the Xerox board to fire Burns—the price of revolution has its consequences. Barclays recently cut its ratings of Xerox Corporation, expressing concern about the cost of continued restructuring.

Diptych of Anne headshot on left and Ursula on right

Anne Mulcahy, left with Ursula Burns, right.

Source Getty

Other observers find hope for Xerox, whose earnings recently allowed for a dividends hike. Still, Xerox investors might want to ”prepare for a long, painstaking process” to transform the company, writes Forbes reporter Dee Gill.

In 2009, Burns became the first African American woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company. She started with Xerox as an intern and worked her way up the company after Xerox helped her earn a master’s from Columbia University. Burns, 55, comes from a STEM background, and her undergraduate and graduate degrees are in mechanical engineering. In 2009, Forbes ranked her as the 14th most powerful woman in the world. But even with those stellar credentials, her rise to this position faced multiple obstacles.

Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor.

— Ursula Burns

”I was raised by a wonderful mother in the rough and tumble public housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” writes Burns in her LeanIn story. “Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor.”

”Mom didn’t see it that way. She constantly reminded me ‘where I was didn’t define who I was.’”

Now, her life is markedly different. In 2012 her total compensation was $9,976,466. Xerox has suffused every aspect of Burns’ life—even her husband, now retired, worked at Xerox. Her famously blunt way of speaking earned her the attention of two important Xerox executives who, in turn, made her their executive assistant. Burns worked closely with her predecessor Anne Mulcahy, who handpicked Burns as her successor in a historic woman-to-woman CEO handoff. In addition to her duties at Xerox, Burns is also on the White House Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education (STEM), and sits on the boards for American Express and Exxon.

But again, Burns isn’t letting where she is define her. What is more crucial is where she, and Xerox, are going. The truth is, both futures are still quite uncertain.

CFO Kathryn Mikells says the company plans for growth in areas such as document outsourcing and managed printing, transportation and healthcare, which will be fueled by Xerox’s technology business. Healthcare comes with its own set of problems, as Xerox found out while implementing Nevada’s health insurance exchange.

In a time when technology companies are in such upheaval, it’s not surprising that drastic measures are sometimes necessary. But is Burns’ strategy of cutting back on the products that have defined Xerox in favor of new opportunities too risky?

Maybe, but it’s not unprecedented. IBM did something similar, and Burns didn’t miss it.

woman speaking as she is sitting on red and whit ebackdrop

Kathryn Mikells

Source Reuters

“We looked at IBM primarily because its transformation, while different in the specifics, was very similar in the general theme—going from hardware and technology offerings only to expanding to higher engagement with clients,” said Burns in an interview with BusinessWeek. “We had to be clear about what we were moving from and to. We had to make sure that we weren’t running away from something that we could do well to something that we weren’t sure that we could do well.”

The final judgment as to whether Xerox can perform client services well enough, and quickly enough to shift the company will come with time. It will take a sure hand at the helm, ready to course correct. Burns is not one to shy away from admitting her missteps, says David A. Thomas, dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “I think she has this interesting combination of consulting broadly, listening carefully, being decisive and being accountable for her decisions. By that I mean she’s not afraid to make a mistake and then take accountability for making that mistake.”

”We’re going to make mistakes,” Burns said. ”We just try to make mistakes where you can make them fast, so you’re not five years into the damn thing and realize, ‘Oh my God, that was a bad move. And we just threw billions of dollars after it.’ Fail fast and make sure that you fail early.”

As a Xerox lifer, Burns’ past has been marked more by her successes than her failures. Now if only her future legacy can just, er, copy that.

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