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News & Events

‘Passion for technology’ leads Krasny to fortune

Entrepreneurial CDW founder makes business personal in Kellogg speech

By Matt Golosinski

1/1/2005 - 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, for a time, he did enter the family business and sell Toyotas.

But the self-described “propellerhead” and “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 on Jan. 18, he used to “hang out in computer stores” and he bought one of the early IBM 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.

The education must have proved sufficient, since in 1984 he went on to found a company — in his kitchen — that has since landed at No. 376 on the Fortune 500 and has recently ranked No. 14 on Fortune’s list of the 100 best companies to work for.

The plainspoken executive recounted how he began his business by selling that first IBM system for $200, using a Chicago Tribune classified ad to find a buyer. He parlayed these funds into $400, and then more, by continuing to buy computers and resell them. Soon, he was selling 50-100 systems a week out of his car trunk, serving as de facto sales, repair delivery and tech support chief.

“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, Il-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, putting them first to ensure that the business thrives. “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. “A good manager puts others’ needs first.” He also highlighted the importance of cultivating shared valued 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.

Budding entrepreneurs will improve their chances by throwing themselves passionately into their work, Krasny noted.

“Make your work personal and make it more than just a business.”

Responding to a question about CDW’s growth strategy in a highly competitive market, Krasny explained that the firm is now pursuing more government contracts and looking into target markets, such as healthcare. Stating that current growth in the technology sector is pegged at 5 to 7 percent, Krasny added that he believes CDW can achieve 15-percent growth, possibly more.

Looking back over his years as CDW chairman, Krasny, who stepped aside in 2001 and now remains a “very active” board member, 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.”