The European channel is a narrow and tricky strait that IBM is having a hard time navigating.
The best laid plans of mice and men, as the Scottish bard said, gang aft a-gley. That, translated, means wrong. And if it's difficult for the captain of an ocean-going liner to turn it round on a small coin, how much harder is it for the CEO of IBM to push his trade through the small, but hard to negotiate, European channel?
While chairman Lou Gerstner was undoubtedly serious at San Diego in February that he wanted to push most of IBM's business through distribution, he probably reckoned without the necessarily narrow interests of his workers abroad.
Gerstner's dream is for IBM to be the monolith it once represented, but it's hard for him to wipe out the legacy of wasted years when each of the business units had to live, or die, by their efforts. Instead, we saw some of the units flourish by pursuing a largely direct role while others - the bright star among them being the RS group - took a channel approach and exceeded most observer's expectations. That resulted in former head of the RS group, Val Rahmani, becoming one of Gerstner's executive assistants two months ago.
But Gerstner insists that all of the business units follow a model which pares down costs and so towards the end of last year, the EMEA organisation recruited Nick Coutts, formerly at Azlan, to mastermind the rest of the transition.
The problem is that the IBM PC Company, which for some time operated as a quasi-autonomous group, was pulled - some say screaming and kicking - back into the monolithic Big Blue fold. It sells network interface cards (NICs), which the networks division also wants to sell. Azlan wants to sell plenty more too.
So what's the kerfuffle? After a series of disastrous years in which first Howard Ford, and then Steve Rowley, failed to produce the results that Gerstner wanted, IBM brought in former Toshiba head Mike Lunch to give the PC Company the channel spin it wanted.
Behind the scenes, all is clearly not well. The IBM PC Company has abandoned its plans to appoint a pan-European distributor, so clearly delineated by David Winn to PC Dealer at Las Vegas last year.
A representative said: 'C2000, Merisel and Ingram are collectively our distributors and they're as pan-European as anyone can be.' That's a trifle disingenuous and also leaves quite a few question marks not only about IBM's EMEA but also its UK distribution strategy.
One of the biggest questions has to be exactly what role Azlan will occupy in future plans for PC Company products? IBM has to steer its European twin-tiered ship of distribution through some narrow shoals without unexpected winds blowing it way off course.
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