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  Michael Krasny
  © Nathan Mandell
CDW Inc. founder Michael Krasny

'Passion for technology' leads Krasny to fortune
Entrepreneurial CDW founder makes business personal in Kellogg speech

by Matt Golosinski

If Michael Krasny hadn't become the head of CDW Inc., a $5.3 billion technology company, he might have been a used car salesman. In fact, he once did enter the family business and sell Toyotas.

But the self-described "geek" couldn't resist his passion for the high-tech world of the late 1970s. As he recalled during a speech at the Kellogg School in January, he used to "hang out in computer stores" and he bought one of the early PCs in 1977.

"Things never came easy for me," admitted Krasny in an address that was part of the Kellogg Distinguished Entrepreneur Speaker series, sponsored by the Larry and Carol Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice. The chairman emeritus and founder of CDW said that he would have preferred attending trade school rather than college, but his parents insisted on the latter.

"Computer Science was the only class I really enjoyed," said Krasny, who in 1984 went on to found a company — in his kitchen — that has since landed on the Fortune 500 and ranked high on Fortune's list of the 100 best companies to work for.

Entrepreneurship update
The Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice at the Kellogg School has developed the Entrepreneur in Residence Program to support Kellogg students who are seriously interested in this field to learn from experienced entrepreneurs. Each quarter, over several weeks, an entrepreneur is invited to spend an entire day meeting with students in 30-minute one-on-one sessions to answer questions and to provide advice. For more information, contact Scott Whitaker at 847.491.4907. Interested Kellogg graduates will also want to mark their calendars for the annual Kellogg Alumni Entrepreneur Conference, to be held May 19 at the James L. Allen Center.

For more information, visit the Alumni Web site.
The plainspoken executive recounted how he began his business by selling his first system for $200, using a classified ad to find a buyer. He parlayed these funds into more, continuing to buy computers and resell them. Soon, he was selling 50-100 systems a week out of his car.

"I never had a business plan for CDW, just the passion for technology," said Krasny. "I knew that I wanted to control my own destiny, and the firm evolved from that."

Today, the Vernon Hills, Ill.-based firm boasts some 3,700 employees and subscribes to the philosophy "success means never being satisfied." Among other distinctions, Krasny was named CEO of the Year by Financial World in 1996 and was recognized by Inc. magazine and Ernst and Young in 1993 as Entrepreneur of the Year.

During his lecture, Krasny accented the importance of cultivating a healthy working environment for colleagues. "Shareholder value is not my primary concern, and customers are not my primary concern," he said. "Put your co-workers first and all else follows."

Krasny articulated several "keys to success" at CDW, including the value of mentorship and humility. "I've tried to lead with humbleness," he said. He also highlighted the importance of cultivating shared values among team members and creating a work environment that is "fun, but not a country club." Recognizing that "the customer is the ultimate employer" and implementing highly automated systems were also vital to CDW's success, he said.

"Make your work personal and make it more than just a business," advised Krasny.

Krasny stepped aside as CDW chairman in 2001, but remains a "very active" board member. He recalled the firm's commitment to trying new approaches.

"Innovation was our middle name, and not everything worked," he said. "But our people knew it was better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University