Xerox CEO: 'If You Don't Transform, You're Stuck'

May 23, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 7:14 am

Xerox is one of America's most venerable companies. Founded in 1906, its name is virtually synonymous with "photocopy."

But in recent years, in an era of email and paperless offices, Xerox has struggled to stay relevant. Today, the company is trying to turn itself around and thrive in the digital age.

Leading Xerox through that transformation is Ursula Burns, a woman who has undergone tremendous change in her own life. Burns, 53, grew up in New York City's Lower East Side, an area she has described as a tough, drug-infested ghetto.

Burns began her career at Xerox in 1980 as an intern, after completing her Master's degree in mechanical engineering. She rose through the ranks to become the company's CEO — and the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company — at a time when less than 20 percent of corporate executives are female.

Burns talks with NPR's Renee Montagne about her journey from young engineer to CEO and her efforts to transform Xerox from a manufacturing icon into a thriving international services provider.


Interview Highlights

On why she has stayed with Xerox

"I didn't think, when I walked into the company, that I would be the CEO. I did expect to be successful, though. My mother raised us to think that if we worked hard, and if we put our end of the bargain in, it would work out OK for us. And I loved the place, they seemed to like me well enough, so a marriage was formed, and I've been there ever since. ...

"What I found there was an organization that accepted me for whom I was. They actually tried to round out some edges — which I think they did a reasonably good job at — without taking away the person that they hired."

On being young, black and female in corporate America

"Race and gender definitely came up occasionally in my life at work. But the bigger challenge that I had was age. I took roles earlier in my career than people expected, and so a lot of what I got was, 'Do you actually know enough to do this?' I was always a little bit younger and I got a lot of pushback for that. I think that was a big issue for me. ...

"As you move up — as you engage more and more people in the company and take on broader roles — this idea of quote-unquote "looking the part" becomes more and more of a challenge when you don't look the part.

"But there's nothing I can do, or wanted to do, about being a black female — I kind of like both of those things. So at the end of the day, the people who were around me had to do a little bit more adjusting than I did. ... And if you're faced with people who can't deal with it, there's not much I can do.

"Now, I got beat up for doing bad things or not moving fast enough, but never for trying stuff or for being a woman or for being black. It's just not a part of the way that we operated."

On the growing number of services Xerox provides

"A lot of people enjoy the benefit of E-ZPass, which means when you go through a toll, you don't have to stop and put cash into those things. ... Xerox manages the infrastructure of E-ZPass for a large number of states. ... So when you say E-ZPass, or get some bill from E-ZPass, or call and ask a question, you're talking to a Xerox person. We manage that infrastructure.

"If you get a ticket for running a red light in certain states ... Xerox actually provides the installation and management of the camera systems [and] the back-office system to assure that we're sending the ticket to the right place. ...

"If you live in the state of California and you have anything to do with Medicaid, the entire communication — the statement of benefits and the locking together of the services provided and the payments that you got — is done by Xerox Corporation."

On the imperative to transform

"The world is changing. We all know this. And as that world changes, if you don't transform your company, you're stuck. Even if you could figure out a way to be profitable and reasonably successful, I think you would be under-using your assets if you don't figure out a way to become more relevant as the world transforms and evolves ...

"When we started, our mission was to automate work processes. We became so good at this one ... business process that we didn't think about all the rest of them that were out there. So as the market started to change, and as customers said 'Can you do more for us?' they also said, 'You're already engaged here — why don't you get engaged with the ... benefit forms? Why don't you generate the things?' ...

"So I think [the shift to providing services] was a really easy transformation ... because we didn't have to go from making food to making airplanes. It was pretty close — it was in our neighborhood."

On an international corporation's responsibility to American workers

"I think that Xerox, as an American company, has a responsibility to have jobs in the U.S. But we also have a huge business in the U.K.; I have a responsibility to have jobs in the U.K. I have a growing business in India; I have a responsibility to have jobs in India. I have a big business in Russia. ... So, I don't look at is as myopically or as single-focused as providing jobs in the U.S. only.

"I think that because we are here, I will bring back jobs, we do bring back jobs, we bring jobs into the United States, as long as the U.S. can continue to be competitive. And we can. We are an innovative group of people in the United States, and we can be competitive in both cost but also in quality and ... innovativeness."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An American corporation, best known for its association with paper, is trying to turn itself around in the digital age. Leading Xerox through this transformation is a woman who's experienced her own share of change. Ursula Burns joined the company right out of college. As a top executive a decade ago, she helped pull Xerox back from the verge of bankruptcy. When she became CEO in 2009, Xerox was doing better, but the economy was struggling to come out of a deep recession.

Ursula Burns is now the rarest of corporate leaders, an African American and a woman heading a Fortune 500 company. She joined us to talk about her company and her career.

Good morning.

URSULA BURNS: Good morning. I'm very pleased to be with you.

MONTAGNE: It is graduation season, and for a lot of graduates their working life begins with an internship. You started as an intern 32 years ago at Xerox. Tell us who you were then and would you have ever dreamed that you would CEO of Xerox one day?

BURNS: I was a pretty fresh, rough engineer. And I was born and raised in Lower East side of Manhattan, so I was a Lower East side of Manhattan mechanical engineer descending on this great American corporation called Xerox Corporation.

And what I found there, was an organization that accepted me for whom I was. They actually tried to round out some edges without taking away the person that they hired. You know, my impatience, my quote, unquote, "bravado", all of the - you know, they actually accepted all of that.

Now I didn't think, when I walked into the company, that I would be the CEO. I did expect to be successful, though. My mother raised us to think that if we worked hard, and if we put our end of the bargain in, it would work out OK for us. And I loved the place, they seemed to like me well enough, so a marriage was formed, and, you know, I've been there ever since.

MONTAGNE: You know, you mentioned the Lower East Side, and back in 1980 approximately it wasn't the fancy sort of East Village area that it is today.

BURNS: No, the Lower East Side when I was growing up was the ghetto. It was tough. It was drug infested. So my mother created, in this environment that, you know, wasn't great when you walked out the door, she created an environment that was just fine inside. And she spent a lot of money to send my sister, my brother, and I to Catholic school. It's the best education that we could get at that time.

But when I think about it in hindsight, it was just fine. And I was never wanting for encouragement, that's for sure.

MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder then, was there a moment ever where you found that being a woman was a hurdle for you as you moved up?

BURNS: Race and gender definitely came up, occasionally, in my life at work. But the bigger challenge that I had was age. I took roles earlier in my career than people expected, and so a lot of what I got was, do you actually know enough to do this?

Gender and race, as you move up, this idea of looking the part becomes more of a challenge when you don't look the part.

But, you know, there's nothing I can do or wanted to do, about being a black female - I kind of like both of those things. So at the end of the day, the people who were around me had to do a little bit more adjusting to that than I did. I did no adjusting to that.

Now, I got beat up for doing bad things or not moving fast enough, but never for being a woman or for being black. It's just not a part of the way that we operated. You know, I was - I benefited from that for sure. It was a great place to start.

MONTAGNE: As CEO, you are in the midst of transforming this iconic company that's been known - or is known for copiers - so much so that Xeroxing meaning copying. Give us an example of one of the things that Xerox does now that's very big for the company that many of us out here wouldn't have a clue that you were doing.

BURNS: Yeah, I'll give you two, two examples. One, transportation. So a lot of people enjoy the benefit of E-ZPass, which means when you go through a toll, you don't have to stop...

MONTAGNE: Right.

BURNS: ...and put cash into those things, et cetera.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, for toll roads and things like that.

BURNS: For toll roads, right. Xerox manages the infrastructure of E-ZPass for a large number of states. So when you say E-ZPass, and get some bill from E-ZPass, or call and ask a question about E-ZPass, you're talking to a Xerox person.

If you get a ticket for running a red light in certain states around this nation, Xerox actually provides the installation and management of the camera systems with the back-office system to assure that we're sending the ticket to the right place, et cetera et cetera.

So we do everything from customer care infrastructures, finance and accounting infrastructures, to Medicaid back-office systems. And what I'm leading now is a broadening back to where we started. First one was copying, now we're into transportation and so on and so forth.

MONTAGNE: And circling back, because in these last decades, Xerox went through a rough patch.

BURNS: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: It needed maybe less visibility and more viability.

BURNS: The world is changing. We all know this. And as that world changes, if you don't transform your company, you're stuck. I mean, even if you could figure out a way to be profitable and reasonably successful, I think you would be under-using your assets if you don't figure out a way to become more relevant as the world transforms and evolves. And that's what - a big piece of what a CEO does.

And so as we look at our mission now, just like our mission was when we started, our mission was to automate work processes. We became so good at this one business process that we didn't think like all the rest of them that were out there.

And so as the market started to change, and as customers said can you do more for us? They also said, hey, can you manage - you know, you're already engaged here. Why don't you get engaged with the statement and benefit forms? Why don't you generate the thing? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

So we - I think that it was a really easy transformation from that standpoint, because we didn't have to go from making food to making airplanes. It was pretty close. It was in our neighborhood.

MONTAGNE: You know, Xerox now has nearly 140,000 employees. More than half of those employees are operating out of the United States. And I'm wondering if - do you think corporations like Xerox have an obligation to provide jobs for Americans?

BURNS: This idea about a responsibility is an interesting statement. Xerox, as an American company, has a responsibility to have jobs in the U.S. But we also have a huge business in the U.K.; I have a responsibility to have jobs in the U.K. I have a growing business in India; I have a responsibility to have jobs in India. I have a big business in the Soviet - in Russia, et cetera, et cetera. So, I don't look at it as myopically or as single-focused as providing jobs in the U.S. only.

I think that because we are here, I will bring back jobs, we do bring back jobs, we bring jobs into the United States, as long as the U.S. can continue to be competitive. And we can. We are an innovative group of people in the United States, and we can be competitive in both cost, but also in quality, and as I said, in innovativeness.

MONTAGNE: Ursula Burns is the CEO for Xerox. Thank you very much for joining us.

BURNS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.