Podcast: COO at Lenovo – Renee Ure

By Published On: June 1, 2021

Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple

In This Episode:

In this episode of the Supply Chain Careers Podcast, we speak with Renee Ure, who is the Chief Operating Officer of Lenovo’s Infrastructure Solutions Group (ISG). Renee shares how she got started in supply chain, deciding to pursue the business world rather than Geology and a love of rocks, instead finding a love of manufacturing operations gave her the opportunity to see how planning and execution drive success for a company. She talks about taking on national and global responsibilities for supply chains, the incredible importance of data and people, plus her belief that it is best to be a grunt before becoming a leader. She sees supply chain as having a more important seat at the leadership table. She also emphasizes the importance of putting together a team of winning leaders rather than survivors.

Renee Ure Bio:

Renée Ure is Lenovo’s Infrastructure Solutions Group (ISG) Chief Operating Officer with responsibility for internal operations and efficiency, cost, expense, transformation, supply chain & procurement. She joined Lenovo in June 2017 as the VP of Global Supply Chain within the Infrastructure Solutions Group. Renée has been instrumental in the transformation of the ISG business by driving new technologies and instilling a talent-focused on people-first culture. Prior to joining Lenovo, Renée retired from IBM in June 2017 with more than 25+ years of executive leadership experience in operations, procurement, demand planning, sales operations, manufacturing, fulfillment, and finance. Outside of Lenovo, Renée is an executive board member of Supply Chain Leaders in Action (SCLA), executive leaders seeking strategic ideas and thought leadership to improve supply chain and logistical operations. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Finance from Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.


When I was back in high school, there was no such thing called supply chain. And as I was coming out of school my grades probably weren’t the best. So, I decided to go to a community college and then go to the school of my dreams. Now I had two different avenues at that point. One was going towards something in business. I loved investments. I love the stock market. I loved all those things. But I also had a love for geology. So, in the community college, I kind of centered on both because I loved them so much. And in the end, I chose the business end of it. I call it my choice between work boots or high heels. And I ended up choosing high heels. It was a tough decision because I absolutely loved rocks, but I just felt that career wise, I wanted a family. Was that going to be the right move and did it really limit me to the number of areas I could live in?

So, my choice was the business end of it. I think it was the right choice. I still have my love of rocks. Probably not as much as I did in the past, but that’s what influenced me to go towards the business end. Now, when you talk about supply chain, I didn’t know what in God’s name I wanted to do when I came out of school. So which avenue was I going to go? I decided to do what was kind of easy for me, which I got hired to do time studies and do capacity planning for manufacturing.  I was fascinated by the fact that you could actually model everything out. For me, it was really exciting to do this for a whole manufacturing line. So that was the start that ended up to where I am today.

One of my key roles in the beginning was planning. And really, anything you do, you have to understand the planning aspect of the supply chain, how integral it is to being successful. And I had quite a few planning roles and then started transitioning over to manufacturing management. And in the Raleigh area when I was with IBM, I had the opportunity to manage all of the manufacturing for North America. It was about a million square feet of manufacturing space. There’s nothing better than standing on a manufacturing floor and having the ability to see how you’re doing because you have conveyor above you, you have conveyor below you, you can always get a good feel for how you’re doing on a daily basis. And there’s that sense of accomplishment. And I really enjoyed my time managing and leading teams.

Then I ended up managing bigger pieces of the supply chain, for a region, which involved having engineering. Now, gentlemen, I am not, and did not graduate with an engineering degree. And I know very little when it comes to the technical piece of how systems are built. But as I was going into leading an engineering team, I asked my mentor at the time, what do I know about engineering and how are these engineering folks really going to have any kind of, I’m their leader now. And he sat back, and said, Renee, every decision’s made financially. Whether it comes down to how you do something, you’ve got to look at the finances. You won’t have a problem with it. And he was absolutely right. And as you go through different positions in the supply chain, one thing you realize very quickly is, you can do this. You get that confidence, you build that experience and the maturation process into a supply chain leader starts to happen. So that engineering one was a pivotal point.

And then I remember in the mid two-thousands, I got a call that said, Hey, listen, we’re going to merge this software supply chain with the rest of the supply chain. Are you ready for this? And I’m like software has a supply chain? Yeah, that has a supply chain. And I merged that and it kind of brought it full circle. Is it a little different? Yes. Is it something you can always touch? No, but there’s a supply chain just like there’s a supply chain and retail supply chain in just about everything. So, those roles helped me, but the one thing that I was missing was the globalness to it. And then I started picking up a lot of global roles, which really brings the power of the supply chain, because any problem you have or anything you’re trying to complete for a client, you work at around the clock. And if you have a global team, there’s no problem that you can’t solve in a 24-hour period. So, I really had that stepping stone of different roles that helped me build out of what we know as supply chain type roles and careers that we have today.

When I was with IBM, IBM owned everything internally, and I was part of the offshoring and going and taking manufacturing and looking to partner with a contract manufacturer in order to benefit financially, but also benefit from the flexibility that you can get within the supply chain. So, I was responsible for moving things off shore, in parts of low cost countries in North America and moving that completely off shore to Asia. China was untapped at the point. And we moved into quite a few partners on growing that piece on outsourcing of the supply chain. Now that’s completely different. There’s so many different areas that you have to watch out for. Partnering and relationship building is extremely important.

You also have to worry about what key indicators and how do you manage that partner? You don’t want to go in and completely micromanaged because you might as well do it yourself at that point, but how can you go in and really give them the right indicators so that they’re going towards milestones and completing what you need done, but very clearly you can step away. So truly saving the dollars that need to be saved. Now I would say offshoring’s always done when you have a commodity, when things are deemed as a commodity. In those days, that’s where I was. I was going and selling businesses. I got to tell you it didn’t feel good.

One of the areas that I feel made me a better leader is, you work with a lot of these folks and then you have to go make very tough business decisions. So how you put them in different compartments so that you’re making the best decisions for the business or the stakeholders, and then for our people. And how can you go in and make that and do that successfully, without it driving you crazy that you’re going in and displacing people out of their jobs. That wasn’t very easy. But it taught me how to put things into different compartments and make business judgment on facts versus emotion. Very important lesson for me, wasn’t easy. Understand why it was done and the reasons why it’s done, but now, I’ve come full circle to Lenovo who verticalizes the whole supply chain and owns every single bit of it. So, I started off owning everything, outsourcing everything, and now we own everything. And it’s a pleasure just being able to come full circle of my career.

We have, and thank you for the question. It’s very important for us to look at the outside influences that are out there today, geopolitical areas pulling on the supply chain. Having things localized as much as possible, we call it global local. We pivoted and almost in a case where we bifurcated the supply chain to be more geocentric in how we’re delivering, so if a client says, Hey, listen, I don’t want to deal with all the geopolitical garbage going out in the world today. I want you to be able to build and deliver my products from this geo we’ve actually bifurcated so that we can take the whole Asia piece and we can put that aside and we can deliver in Europe. And we can deliver in North America, from products built in those areas. And that’s pretty significant. It saved us a lot of time, saved us a lot of money. And it gave us advantages that our competitors couldn’t go because they didn’t own their own supply chain. So they couldn’t pivot and move as quickly.

Whereas our factories were never down during COVID. Now I know that sounds amazing. But we had one factory in China that was down for two weeks, every other factory had been up and running during COVID. I don’t know if there’s any of my competitors out there that can say that and I think it’s because of that bifurcation, but it’s because we came more silo driven within those geos. I think it helped us tremendously and we’re not deterring from that strategy.

I’ve been saying this for quite a while. Mike, and this is extremely important to me. The new currency out there is called data. Quality of that data is extremely important and how we use that data, how we correlate it. But in the past, 20 years ago, we weren’t using that unstructured piece. And what do I mean by unstructured data? It’s all the data around social media, in newsprints, in news articles that are maybe live, how do you go and take that data, which by the way is so integral to everything we do. How do you make that unstructured data into data that you can use? So, IT today, is all about that, but you’ve got to add the unstructured piece so that you have all elements of what’s going on in a region. I know there was a situation we had in Monterey, Mexico where there was severe flooding. How did we find that out? Well, you would think, our logistics provider would have called us up, told us that, no, it came through social media. That’s how we got alerted to it because we have a way to filter all of that information and all of that unstructured data, we were getting hits that there is a disruption there, and that disruption happened to be flooding. We very easily pivoted and moved to shipping everything by air so that we weren’t impacted by that. And we did that quickly. If you don’t have that information, what are you going to do? You’re going to pack all your trucks. They’re going to head towards the border and they’re going to be caught for hours because of flooding.

I think the difference here, Mike, is how do companies use that unstructured data and how do they use it to an extent to differentiate themselves for their clients and for the shareholders? And I think that’s the difference with it. You need visual, you’ve gotta be able to see into the supply chain that’s been going on for at least 10 to 15 years. It’s now pivoted more of that unstructured data, which I think is very important.

We’d be really good if we could do that. We haven’t gotten to that extent. But I’m telling you, that’s where we need to get to, because it’s great to hear from your clients. It’s great to understand, but there’s no data like unstructured where they’re going to tweet about it. That’s the data we have to capture. We’re working on that. And I think that too will be the differentiator. I don’t know how many people out there have it. I know there are a couple of retailers that watch that at a regular basis. But that’s Nirvana for me. And if we can capture that. Wow, fantastic.

So, for me, everything we do, we have to think two steps ahead of our competition. And I thought we did a brilliant job of it during COVID. We thought about how to think two steps ahead, not only about how to keep manufacturing open, but how to put the measures in place so that our manufacturing team would be safe. And what processes could we put in so that we would be the standard and looked upon as a standard for keeping our factories open? So, I can tell you specifically, in the case of China and in Mexico, we were considered the standard on what to do when setting up a manufacturing environment in the COVID world. We altered the process, how to keep people distant, how to keep protective equipment on them.

I always tell my mentees, you really have to be a grunt before you can be a leader and you have to do the jobs within the supply chain. It’s so, so important for any leader to have the aspect of doing those jobs and understanding them and understanding what the people are going through. So that’s point one. Jobs are now taking the change to include more data. S,o where we needed people doing physical manual work, filling out spreadsheets, and now it’s how do they analyze the data that’s in there? So, they become more data analysts, right? How can you pick out what the correlations are in there that are going to eventually either be benefits for you or could be detractors for you? So I think the roles are changing for less manual, but more on analyzing.

Should people be worried about that? No, it’s a progression, it’s a maturity process and now with more and better tools that we have, it’s going to mean that our folks are going to have to get speced on that, they’re going to have to develop skills on how do we go and handle the data that we have. So that’s one thing.

Now, second thing for roles and how they’re different. Supply chain is being looked upon a bit differently than it was in the past. In the past, when you look at supply chain, it was held somewhere in finance or it was held in the exec business unit, but it never had what I call as a seat at the table. And what I think you’ve seen now, especially during COVID, people who didn’t understand the supply chain, who didn’t have respect for the supply chain, ended up suffering during the pandemic. So what you’re seeing now is this resurgence that in order to be that effective CEO or COO, you have had to have that experience in supply chain. And I think Fortune wrote an article on it about a year ago saying in the future, the most accomplished CEOs will have to have gone through supply chain roles in order to get there. Supply chain now, with the seat at the table is having that interaction with our clients.

I would say a third of our supply chain roles are not only dealing with suppliers, but now they’re dealing with clients and you have more of that operations group to operations group connection. So now you have to teach folks how to deal with clients, right? How to be customer facing supply chains. Never had to do that before, they were in the back room. You have to be able to develop that relationship. It’s the relationships between supply chain and our clients that I will tell you is the differentiator that we’re seeing. So, I would say those are the two biggest areas that I see a change for supply chain beside your traditional roles.

I have been with Lenovo getting close to four years now and I came into a group that felt that they were survivors.  And they felt if another year goes by and they survived, they were successful. So, it was how do I take a group, by the way very, very, very well-skilled experience. But how do I change that mentality to be winners versus survivors?  To me, it was very interesting. So, what did I do? First of all, I got rid of the folks that weren’t on the same page and key pieces of the leadership that just weren’t going to be in that journey with us. And I had to instill vitality in there. We had gone through probably 10 year where we hadn’t hired, so I needed to, number one, surround myself with winners. But the other thing that we lacked was diversity. So how can I go out and get a very diverse group that want to be winners? And that’s how you start to affect the culture and how do I get the right ambassadors?

Once you get the right folks to me, it’s very easy. If you show people respect, trust them and compensate them and target yourself for success. A lot of times we don’t target ourselves for success. But if you can follow that, it’s all about the people. And it’d be interesting if you guys would talk to some of the folks that have worked for me past or worked for me present. But one thing they will always say is Renee has my back. We might be doing some outlandish things, but she’s got my back because you’re never going to move a group forward unless you take risk. If you take risks. You have to be ready, that people will fail, and people will succeed, but if people take a risk and fail, you’ve got to get them back up on their feet and tell them here’s where you probably went wrong. Don’t do it again. Learn from it and move on. And that’s what makes the world go around. To me, it’s a very simple formula. You take care of your people. You respect them, have trust in the decisions and let them go, let them be innovative. You, if you can have a high-performance culture, if you don’t have one that wants to take risks, you have to be able to balance risk taking along with building that high performance culture. Four years down the road, we have less people than we had when I started. We have a higher skilled group. It didn’t take but a handful of people to really help change that culture. It’s all around people. Take care of the people. People will take care of you.

Well, there’s been plenty. I think anybody in the business world, in the 2008, 2009 timeframe, we were all headed down a different path. We went into a huge recession. I mean, that was massive. We were on such a trajectory of growth at that point, and then to have it all pulled back. I got to tell you, there’s nothing better than going through a crisis. That really tends to identifying who are your next leaders, who are your leaders that can stand up in adversity and work out a plan. By the way, people react to a crisis so differently, but I’ll tell you, you can pick out your managers and you can pick out your leaders and it’s your leaders that can lead through that disruption, it’s your managers that can really get you to that survivor mentality that I was talking about. And there is a huge difference.

I do think having a mentor relationship with somebody. I think people feel that your mentor should be somebody higher level than you, older than you. The mentors that I’ve had in my career have usually been peers of mine or somebody that is even a lower level. And it’s somebody that knows me well, that can give me advice that I can ask questions. You’ve got to pick somebody that’s going to help you develop those areas that you want to develop. So, don’t think that mentorship is about you getting ahead because you know somebody. Networks are important, but when it comes to developing the skills you want to develop and the advice that you want to be given, it comes down to the people who are going to give you candid, good feedback, and who know you. So, mentors are important, but be careful on who you pick as a mentor, you have to be able to get along with them. They have to know you and it’s a give and take, right? It has to be a two-way street. So, mentorship, I think is extremely important.

I talked about being a grunt before being in leader. Again, I think it’s important now. It’s worked very well for me. I get somebody who understands the roles that they’re leading. When you don’t understand the roles that you’re leading, you’re not going to have the respect there and you’re not going to have the trust. So, that to me is probably the second thing.

Third thing, diverse team. You’re not going to get your best solutions unless you have a team that is diverse and that’s culturally diverse, that’s race diverse, that’s sex diverse, especially when you’re going after the markets that you’re going after. And if you are a global company, you have to have that diversity in everybody. That’s something I didn’t find in the supply chain team when I came. That’s something that you will absolutely find now, when you look at the demographics of the supply chain team that we have. To me, diversity of people will bring that diversity of thoughts, diversity of ideas, diversity of the solutions that you provide.

Again, extremely important, it comes down to respect for people. People can work, especially during the pandemic, people can work wherever. We proven that we can be efficient by working everywhere around the world. We have to understand that, we have to respect that the world is very different place than it was a year ago. People are worried about their kids going to school that haven’t been vaccinated. People are worried about their families and they want to make sure that people stay safe. You have to respect that. So going back to work is never going to be going back to work. It’s going to be some hybrid of that. We have to accept that as employers, and the employees have to accept that as employees, it’s going to be different.

But one thing, you can take this to the bank, the world will change. And if we don’t embrace that change, then you will be left behind. Nine times out of 10. So it’s all around people. And it’s all about respecting the diversity of the folks and having faith in them as you move forward.

I had a conversation with my boss yesterday and, the one thing that you never want to worry about, and it’s always been important to me, and it’s important to a lot of my direct reports. I never want to worry about how I’m being compensated or how I’m being rewarded for the job that I’m doing. And that’s the job of the leader in the group. And if you can take that, worry away from your employees, give them the rope and tell them to go take those risks and move the needle forward because the needle is the most important thing that we have for our shareholders and our clients move that needle forward. If you could take the worry about their compensation and all that other stuff and just have their back as they move forward and take those risks. Believe me, things get much easier, much, much easier. And I was just having that conversation with my boss yesterday.

It’s all around people. And you know, I’ve often stood up in front of folks and said, you know, we have a lot of executives around here, we don’t have a lot of leaders. And it’s the leaders that have those attributes that make the difference in the business.