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Bob Dutkowsky - Conversations with a CEO

By Alyssa Clementi

Bob Dutkowsky and Moez Limayem

TAMPA (Nov. 17, 2016) -- When Bob Dutkowsky enrolled in Cornell University, he had only one priority: to pitch for the Ivy League school's baseball team.

His determination and competitiveness helped him succeed on the baseball diamond, but when it became clear he wasn't going to pitch in the majors, he had to get serious about college. But his love of baseball never waned, and, as it turned out, figured prominently in his career.

Dutkowsky, now the CEO of Tech Data, based in Clearwater and pulling in more than $26 billion a year in net sales, took time out to speak to more than 100 business leaders and University of South Florida faculty and students at a USF Muma College of Business's third Conversation with a CEO series in the Centre Club near downtown Tampa. On deck for the next conversations are Shelley Broader, CEO of Chico's, and Troy Taylor, CEO of Coca-Cola Florida.

The purpose of the series is to give young alumni and friends of the college a chance to learn from someone whom they might not normally get to meet and to glean insight from seasoned professionals who are willing to share some life lessons.

"I find I always learn something new when I have a chance to converse with area business leaders," said Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem, who led the conversation with Dutkowsky. "I thought, wouldn't it be great if young people could listen in in this conversation."

At the outset of the conversation, Dutkowsky gave credit to his family, which reminds him every day that even though he is in charge of a massive company that makes billions of dollars and employs 9,000 people all across the globe, that he's just a guy, really no different than anyone else.

But, back to baseball.

Starting out, he said, he had no sales experience when he interviewed with IBM, a company where his father had worked for 44 years.

"I remember I walked in and sat down with this IBM sales executive, and he asked me 'Why do you like baseball? Why do you like being a pitcher?'" said Dutkowsky.

"Because the game doesn't start until I throw the ball," Dutkowsky replied.

He was hired on the spot.

That was one of the down-to-earth stories the personable Dutkowsky recalled of his career and his life, giving a rare glimpse into the personality of this merchandising giant. The informal, casual setting had him sitting at a table with Limayem, who engaged the CEO in insightful conversation throughout the session.

With nearly 40 years of executive experience under his belt, Dutkowsky has been the chief executive officer of Tech Data for the past 10 years. The company is one of the world's largest wholesale distributors of technology products, services and solutions. On the Fortune 500, McDonalds is just below Tech Data and Nike a few spots above.

The business of Tech Data is this: It helps companies such as Apple, HP, Cisco, Sony, Microsoft – and hundreds of others – bring their products to market and it works with more than 105,000 IT resellers who support end users in more than 100 countries.

"We have a supply chain with logistics capability that is literally unparalleled in the industry," said Dutkowsky. "If you order from Tech Data by 5 p.m. anywhere in the world, we will have that product to you 99.9 percent of the time, the next day."

The company is ranked No. 108 on the Fortune 500, with Dutkowsky himself ranking No. 16 on Forbes' list of top executives in technology, hardware and equipment sector. Dutkowsky credits his work experience with IBM, and especially his CEO and mentor, Lou Gerstner, for his ever growing knowledge of business.

"Lou was one of the most visionary, smart, brilliant executives that I had ever met," said Dukowsky. "He was also a really hard person to be around, because he was so smart. Everyone around him was, by definition, incapable of keeping up."

Dukowsky said that working for IBM, and around such a wide variety of personalities taught him the keys to success.

He offered up a foolproof formula for success: a need to focus, the ability to execute, the importance of bringing urgency to the table, the capability of being a team player, and lastly, having a balance between work and a personal life.

"Don't be what you're not," he said. "Be what you are and focus on that. Really invest in the pieces that you're good at. Then surround yourself with people who fill in your weaknesses."

As CEO, he oversees all aspects of Tech Data's extensive worldwide operations. The company's success can be measured through its profits: $26.4 billion in net sales for the fiscal year that ended Jan. 31. Tech Data has been named one of Fortune's "World's Most Admired Companies" for seven straight years.

"Every morning we come in and turn on the lights and find $120 million worth of sales," he said. "We have to convince customers to buy $120 million worth of stuff and ship it before we turn off the lights at the end of the day,"

Tech Data is expected to jump to approximately No. 80 on the Fortune 500 after the recent acquisition of a Avnet's Technology Solutions business. Dutkowsky says Tech Data was looking for a way to skyrocket its business, and the $2.6 billion deal was the perfect opportunity.

Dutkowsky backs his reasoning, saying technology spending is in its prime and only growing. Previously, 60 percent of Tech Data's revenue came from Europe, with the remaining 40 percent coming from the United States. This new venture will spread revenue to the Asia-Pacific region, which was untouched before the acquisition.

Dutkowsky may not play baseball anymore, but he hit a homerun with Tech Data.

"It's all about creating an environment where people will excel," he said. "If you put people out of their comfort zone, just slightly, magic happens."

View photos from the Nov. 17 conversation.