It's a long way from West Helena, Ark., to just about anywhere. But the length of the journey and an uncertain destination didn't intimidate Bill Conner. By way of Ivy League schools and Fortune 100 corporations, Conner ultimately followed his
passion for technology from his hometown of West Helena to his current position with telecommunications giant, Nortel in Northern California.
As president of Nortel eBusiness Solutions, Conner sits at the confluence of telecommunication and e-business technologies. In a rapidly evolving, highly competitive market, he and his team at Nortel are merging the two into a customer-centric solution that redefines both e-commerce and CRM. "Not all the players in the CRM space can be right," he observes. "Our challenge is to create a new space, pick the right priorities and get the job done right."
Getting the job done right in an uncertain world is a challenge for which Conner is uniquely prepared. "Three years ago I would never have said I would be working in the e-business space," he says. "But I like to ride the waves and be where I'm challenged, where there is the most discontinuity and change."
Conner's life and career have been a study in change. From an early age, he seemed destined for a life beyond West Helena. "In high school, I had an interest in energy conversion," Conner says casually, as if in the early '70s, all the kids growing up along the Mississippi River shared his fascination with nuclear fusion. Needless to say, they didn't: Conner was selected as one of two top math and science students in the state. What's more, a local paper, the Memphis Press Scimiter, named him "Teenager of the Year."
From this unique launch pad, Conner catapulted to Princeton, where he majored in engineering and researched alternative fuels. The final step in his educational journey took him to the Executive MBA program at the Wharton School of Business. Upon graduating, he didn't know exactly what he wanted to do, but he eventually accepted a position with what was then the biggest name in telecommunications, AT&T. "When I looked at telecommunications, I thought it was an area that would change dramatically," he says. "AT&T offered a high potential management program. It was a high-risk, high-reward job that sounded good to me."
High reward, indeed. That first telecommunications job eventually led Conner to Nortel, where he has become the driving force behind the company's formidable
Nortel is a company in transition. When Conner arrived, the century-old maker of telephone equipment was retooling to enter the information age, which, of course, means developing e-business and CRM solutions. To this effort, Nortel adds its own formidable technological prowess to those of recent acquisitions, including high-end CRM/call center vendor Clarify, service commerce solutions vendor Architel, and data center solutions vendor Alteon Websystems.
"We are focused on creating a portal building block around e-business," Conner explains. "People ask me if we're in the software business or the infrastructure business. I say 'both.' We take software that used to reside in servers, distribute it across networks and make them seamless."
In discussing his work at Nortel, Conner repeatedly uses the word "seamless," as if it were the key to some indecipherable puzzle. And in fact, it is. Conner envisions a seamless e-business communications portal that ties in essential e-business functionality with cutting-edge CRM tools to meet the unique needs of B2B and B2C trading partners. "It is essential to differentiate users in these spaces and tailor solutions to their needs," he says. "That's where I believe CRM is absolutely fundamental in managing that end user touch point across the B2B and B2C models."
Creating applications that not only meet unique customer needs, but lead a rapidly evolving industry is no small undertaking, a fact of which Conner is only too aware. "I feel the pressure not just to do it quickly, but to do it right," he says.
But this pressure, he says, is just another part of a job he truly enjoys. "If you cannot get up every morning and love what you are doing, you are in the wrong job."