A Year In The Life: DiFranco Brings New Simplicity To HP

As a student of legendary American statistician and management guru William Edwards Deming, Stephen DiFranco learned that the intelligent use of statistics can dramatically improve product quality and service delivery.

It is a lesson that DiFranco, vice president and general manager of Hewlett-Packard’s Solution Partners Organization, has used to benefit solution providers teaming with HP.

DiFranco, who just celebrated his first anniversary overseeing what may well be the broadest and deepest information technology channel in the world, has made big gains simplifying and streamlining channel programs and processes that were taking a heavy toll on HP partners. That’s no small matter given the complexity of running a channel at a $126 billion behemoth. It’s an accomplishment that has some channel cognoscenti referring to DiFranco as HP’s own channel management scientist.

Partners credit DiFranco with collecting far-flung data from partners and HP’s many businesses and then cutting through the red tape to bring an unprecedented measure of simplicity. DiFranco, for example, responded to partner concerns about deal-registration complexity and last November debuted a tool that cut the number of options partners must consider from 11 to five and drew clearer delineation between volume- and value-oriented transactions.

“I love DiFranco,” said Mark Romanowski, executive vice president at ASI System Integration, one of HP’s top enterprise partners. “He has cut through so much red tape at HP and just continues to streamline processes. If I need help, ‘Bingo,’ he gets it done. He makes things happen.”

Jim Kavanaugh, CEO and co-founder of World Wide Technology, a $3 billion national solution provider, agreed that DiFranco has made a huge difference. “He has made good progress,” said Kavanaugh of the channel changes. “But it is such a big machine that there is still a lot of opportunity to continue to make improvements. HP isn’t an organization that you can change overnight. You have to take a longer-term view of how you are going to change policies, procedures and systems. Sometimes you can try to change policy and procedures and the back-office systems won’t allow you to do it.”

DiFranco said one of his biggest accomplishments has been to “bring all channel operations for all business units into one group.”

To that end, DiFranco created two new channel operations positions, naming Debra LeBlanc as vice president of channel operations for the Americas and Rory Hunter as vice president of applications development in HP’s Global Information Technology group. DiFranco said Hunter is essentially the CIO of the applications HP uses to service partners, many of which came to HP through its many acquisitions over the years.

NEXT: Getting HP Business Units To Work With Partners

Until Hunter’s appointment, no one had been responsible for making sure these applications functioned properly, said DiFranco.

“The biggest challenge we’ve always had was following the ‘bouncing ball’ of all the different programs, and they’ve cleaned that up,” said Bob Venero, president and CEO of Future Tech Enterprise, a Holbrook, N.Y.-based HP partner. “We used to have multiple people figuring out how to work the deals in the different programs, but we’ve now cut that to one person.”

HP is also training inside sales to support channel partners and help them grasp the intricacies of PartnerOne, and HP’s field salespeople are also working with channel partners to meet with customers and help close deals. “We’re working on servicing channel partners in a more holistic way. So we’ve got rid of all the internal barriers and there’s no reason why an internal business unit won’t be equally credited for selling through a channel partner,” DiFranco said.

DiFranco said HP has been making progress in getting previously direct-sales-oriented business units working closely with the channel. One example is SMB Exchange, which HP introduced last January in a bid to win SMB market share from Dell and other competitors. “SMB Exchange salespeople are now working with partners and giving sales credit when selling through VARs, and they’ll be compensated similar to channel salespeople,” DiFranco said.

The small- and medium-business space—where HP accounts for less than 20 percent of the $57 billion total addressable market in the U.S.—is one area where DiFranco believes HP can do a better job of catering to partners’ needs. “We haven’t been putting forth the right channel program,” he said. “But we’re now servicing the reseller that specializes in that type of work and we’re going to create a business model and tools to make it easier for them to service customers.”

SMB Central, a portal launched in early March, gives channel partners access to one-on-one sales support, market development funds and leads from HP, among other benefits. SMB Central is the beginning of a number of coming SMB initiatives from HP, according to DiFranco.

NEXT: Cloud, Mobility In the Spotlight

These moves have helped DiFranco gain the respect of SMB channel partners. “He has brought in a bit of freshness to the channel and has definitely earned respect in the reseller community,” said Romi Randhawa, president and CEO of Fremont, Calif.-based HPM Networks. “He talks facts and is always looking for creative ways to grow his business.”

As DiFranco prepares for HP’s Americas Partner Conference this week, cloud and mobility are neon light issues due to their huge long-term strategic implications for PartnerOne. HP has been sculpting its private cloud message and in February launched its Cloud Enablement Program, which gives partners financial incentives to build their own cloud service delivery platforms using HP’s Converged Infrastructure portfolio.

In addition, HP’s acquisition of Palm last April, which took place dramatically against the backdrop of last year’s America's Partner Conference, was a seismic event in the annals of HP history, one that altered the course of an HP mobile strategy that had previously been closely tied to Microsoft. The Palm deal gave HP its own OS, developer ecosystem and hardware capability, as well as a level of control over the entire customer experience that some pundits suggest could put HP into a competitive position with Apple.

HP in late February unveiled its TouchPad tablet PC and a pair of Pre smartphones. HP’s mobility business hasn’t been a major channel opportunity in the past but DiFranco says that’s about to change.

“WebOS is going to exist in millions of products, in TouchPads, smartphones and HP printers. We believe it’s going to be an operational advantage for companies trying to manage large networks of client devices,” DiFranco said. “In the ecosystem for channel partners selling to business and government organizations, it’s an opportunity for us to address this market with an OS that’s designed to work across different types of devices.”

Although Apple’s iPad has a significant head start, one that grew even larger with the launch of the iPad 2, DiFranco says HP will offer a product that addresses key concerns of corporate CIOs. “HP has a very robust commercial portfolio, and channel partners who support that can deliver services,” he said. “That can be a very significant value proposition in large enterprises.”

NEXT: Thanks To The Partners

At the Americas Partner Conference, HP is conducting a daylong workshop for partners that will include a separate address by new HP CEO and President Leo Apotheker around the HP WebOS tablet opportunity.

As DiFranco celebrates his one-year anniversary as HP's channel chief, he can look back on a year in which he has racked up a healthy amount of frequent flier miles visiting with partners large and small. DiFranco can also cite a large and growing pool of lessons learned during the course of a year spent trying to streamline and simplify HP’s channel offerings.

“One of the most fascinating parts about the job I didn’t expect was that the interactions and relationships with partners in this role differs from other channel jobs I had. And it’s not just because HP is big,” DiFranco said. “We have so many partners that have built their franchise around HP, and who’ve worked with one or all of the business units over the years to create large position in their market.”

There’s no doubt that DiFranco has had a couple of curveballs thrown his way, but he’s satisfied with the progress he’s made thus far and the direction in which the HP channel is headed. “We’ve done significant work, some sexy, some not, but it’s all designed to make sure channel operates as it should. I just want to thank the channel for the help they’ve given me in this role,” DiFranco said.