Stephen Horton – Dunavant Enterprises Inc.
Try to catch Stephen Horton in a down moment. No, really—that’s a challenge.
Every morning when the director of IT heads into Dunavant Enterprises Inc., he creates a daily to-do list, and then ticks it off as he goes along. “If I start out the day with 10 tasks, I may only get two of them done,” he acknowledges. “But the goal is to always knock things off that list.”
And then when he goes home for the night? He spends 3 to 4 hours working on his dissertation for his doctorate in IT. That is, when he’s not dealing with the occasional interruption of an IT service call—sometimes at midnight or later.
“Progress, getting things done little by little—whether it’s personally or professionally, that defines success for me,” says Horton.
Streamlining transportation, workflows
This tenacious work ethic and emphasis on tangible outcomes suits him well at Dunavant, a rapidly-growing transportation, logistics and supply chain management company. Headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, Dunavant is one of the largest global commodities distributors, with 20 locations in the U.S., China and Puerto Rico.
As Horton explains, the company continues to expand and acquire other entities around the world to meet customer demand, improve supply chain and intermodal management, and provide new and customized services.
For Horton and his team, this means regularly merging and consolidating infrastructure, networks, ISPs, phone systems, apps and vendors into a cohesive platform that can support continued growth. They have migrated company servers to Office 365, upgraded VOIP and cloud systems, and are looking at capabilities with SD-WAN to improve reliability in network connectivity.
Just as crucially, Horton is focused on internal organization. To help make his lean, six-person IT department more efficient, he is working to redefine roles and processes. This will also enable expected department growth, he says.
“We’re constantly growing and putting up new sites, so we have to readjust our IT strategy to make sure we stay aligned with business goals,” he explains.
Horton is also focusing efforts around cybersecurity awareness and training, and says he hopes to incorporate AI, machine learning and analytics into the company’s tracking capabilities. Simply put, these days customers expect to know where their products are, and they want access as well as regular updates.
“Transportation can be a complex industry involving transport across air, sea and land—sometimes you have to use several different applications to satisfy different needs,” he notes. “To find better ways of doing things is my goal. How can we improve? How can we be more efficient? How can the IT department assist the company in being successful?”
Why not technology?
Successful as he is in IT, though, it wasn’t Horton’s first career choice. Throughout college, he worked as a pharmacy technician, and he was pre-med until his junior year. It was then, facing the possibility of three-hour chemistry labs during an accelerated summer course, that he recognized his severe dislike of the discipline.
“Subjecting myself to [chemistry] that much made me really evaluate what I wanted to do with my life,” he says with a laugh. But ultimately, the shift turned out to be quite simple. “I knew that I loved computers,” he says. “So why not do something in technology?”
He started out as a network engineer with an IT managed services company, a job that made for a lot of traveling to project sites—sometimes a half-dozen or so a day.
So when he joined Dunavant in September 2013, it “gave me a home, I guess you could say, with a single location to work at,” he explains, “Dunavant is a family-owned organization. They treat employees like family. That’s one of the best things about the culture.”
The company has also fostered his drive to continually expand his knowledge. In 2015, he began studying for his doctorate through Walden University, maintaining a busy class schedule while working full-time. He’s happy to report that he’s finally moved on to his dissertation phase. His topic? IT employee retention—a mounting challenge not just in technology companies, but across just about every industry with an IT department.
With so many opportunities for IT professionals, it’s understandable that they can tend to move around frequently, he posits. But the question is, how to keep them? Is it higher salaries? Strong morale? Providing paths to promotion or other incentives?
“What I’ve learned personally is that employees who stay usually have some type of emotional bond with an organization,” Horton says. “Whether it’s a matter of how they are treated, how they fit in with, or like, the people or the culture of the company.”
Even as he’s wrapping up his work on his degree, things don’t look to be slowing down anytime soon—either at Dunavant or in his personal life. Right around the time he expects to collect his diploma, in fact, he and his wife are expecting the couple’s first child.
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