Restoration Hard(and soft)ware

By Tracy Mayor, CIO |  Software

TIME WAS, EVERYBODY

who watched TV or read magazines knew Allstate Insurance Co.'s familiar "You're in good hands" tag line, which was almost as ubiquitous as Trans World Airline's bright-red swinging-'60s logo. Both companies had managed to create a branded image that gave off an air of fresh enterprise for a new generation of young adults and, in turn, were able to reap handsome rewards.

But flash forward 30-some years, and you find those fresh, young consumers are facing retirement, and the brand names they responded to so loyally have lost their exclusivity after decades of industry turmoil and marketplace pressure.

To be sure, these two venerable companies are in very different situations: St. Louis-based TWA twice filed for bankruptcy protection in the 1990s, hasn't posted a profit in more than a decade and operates around a technology infrastructure that's 30 years old in places; Allstate, though facing a competitive and uncertain marketplace in the era of e-commerce, is a $26 billion company that remains the No. 2 insurer of homes and automobiles in the United States.

But they share a common strategy that's increasingly being adopted in other old-line industries -- a concerted and very public commitment to use information technology to get closer to their customers and redeem themselves in the eyes of their respective investor communities.

In choosing IT as one of the key weapons in their arsenal as they fight to bolster their brand name among consumers, stave off the competition and gain operational and economic efficiencies, both TWA and Allstate find themselves relying on their information officers in ways that they haven't before -- especially true for TWA, which hired its first CIO in February 2000.

Kenneth Wilcox, the man who now holds that title, was hired to help selectively upgrade and otherwise maintain a creaky application suite that's written in Cobol, assembler and a handful of other ancient languages; unearth and create usable customer and financial data that's currently buried in the airline's myriad systems; and develop new systems to make customers' in-airport experiences more efficient and pleasant.

Frank Pollard, Wilcox's counterpart at Allstate, is a 33-year company veteran now working to build a customer relationship management (CRM) system that will improve the efficiency and quality of Allstate's agent and customer relationships, roll out Web-enabled technology to the company's 70,000 desktops nationwide and launch an e-commerce project that in its first phase will allow customers in 15 states to purchase Allstate home and auto insurance online by the end of 2000.

And while both companies have issued ebullient press releases in the last year touting their newfound technology plans, it's still unclear over the long haul if the companies' technology plans are enough to guarantee growth and gain market share.

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