December 29, 2000, 11:17 AM — WHEN CHRIS BORNEMAN joined Commerx in 1996, business-to-business e-commerce was not a hot item.
"The b-to-b term had not even been coined," Borneman says. "The companies we talked with were curious about using the Internet as a resource for information, and that is about as far as it went."
Some of them, Borneman adds, were thinking about Internet-enabled commerce, but these notions were laced with a healthy amount of skepticism. "The engineers and CEOs I talked with back then were taking a wait-and-see kind of attitude," he says.
And he was talking to a lot of them. Chicago-based Commerx, a developer of industrial marketplace solutions, was getting ready to launch PlasticsNet, a b-to-b trading community for the plastics industry. Borneman, an early true believer in the concept, left Ameritech, where he had been writing code for a Web server, to take over as Commerx's technical director.
He wanted to leverage his technical expertise as a business strategist. "One of the reasons I made the move is that it put me in a much more outward-facing position," Borneman says. "It was a chance to work directly with partners and customers in the business community."
It also meant he got a crash course in the plastics business. "At the time, I knew nothing about plastics, and so I spent the first two months meeting at least once a week with customers," Borneman says.
The information flowed both ways. "I wanted to learn about the plastics business, and [customers] wanted to learn about the Internet," Borneman adds. "This exchange of information was what shaped PlasticsNet."
Commerx envisioned PlasticsNet as a b-to-b Web exchange to link plastics suppliers, processors, and OEMs. "A typical scenario involves a producer of resins [a supplier], an OEM such as Ford or Mattel, and a processor," Borneman says. "The OEM will often outsource the manufacturing to a processor."
As Borneman and his colleagues pressed on, hashing out the pos-sibilities with plastics professionals, they discovered that the processors -- the companies that take the resins and produce parts for OEMs -- were the most receptive. "This was in 1996," Borneman says. "The processors were the ones who became convinced that the Internet had something to offer in facilitating a closer relationship with suppliers."
His involvement in molding the Commerx business plan at such an early stage shows how some technologists are moving from the back office to the boardroom. "About two years ago my title was upgraded from technical director to CTO," Borneman says. "This was a recognition that my job was about much more than bits and bytes, that I was responsible for helping with strategy and vision."
Strategy in a company's early days is often about sales and getting customers lined up. Convincing an industry to try Internet-enabled commerce for the first time is not your ordinary sales job.