Foster, Kent B. 1944–
Kent B. Foster
Chief executive officer and chairman of the board, Ingram Micro
Born: 1944, in North Carolina.
Education: North Carolina State University, BS, 1965; University of Southern California, MBA, 1969.
Family: Married; children.
Career: GTE Corporation, 1970–1976, supervising engineer; 1976–1977, vice president of operations; 1977–1978, regional vice president of network engineering and construction; 1978–1980, vice president of network planning, engineering, and construction; 1980–1981, vice president of planning and analysis; GTE Telephone Operations, 1981–1983, vice president of marketing and business planning; GTE Northwest, 1983–1985, president; GTE Telephone Operations, 1985–1989, group vice president; 1989–1995, president; 1993–1999, vice chairman of the board; GTE Corporation, 1995–1999, president; Ingram Micro, 2000–2001, president; 2000–, chief executive officer and chairman.
Awards: Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award, North Carolina State University, 1993.
■ After a career spanning nearly 30 years at GTE Corporation, Kent B. Foster became the president, CEO, and chairman of Ingram Micro, the world's largest wholesale provider of information technology (IT) products and services. Foster had helped to transform GTE from a local telephone service provider to a global leader in telecommunications services. After assuming leadership of Ingram Micro in 2000, Foster guided his new company through an unsettled period to stand on solid ground with a strong profit margin. Industry analysts described Foster's management style as calm, self-effacing, and focused on long-term goals rather than short-term changes.
STRONG RECORD AT GTE
A native of North Carolina, Foster attended North Carolina State University and received a degree in electrical engineering. After graduating, he served for three years in the U.S. Air Force and attained the rank of captain. He also earned an MBA from the University of Southern California during his military service. After leaving the Air Force, he became a supervising engineer with GTE Corporation. Foster quickly demonstrated his leadership skills at GTE, where he was appointed in 1976 to his first executive position as vice president of operations.
Foster proved himself over the next several years in different positions in network engineering and construction, corporate planning and development, and marketing and business planning. He was named president of GTE Northwest in 1983 when he was only 38, becoming the youngest operating president in the company's history. He served as group vice president of GTE Telephone Operations from 1985 to 1989 and as group president from 1989 to 1995. Foster became the CEO of GTE in 1995, a position he held until late 1999, when he retired after merger talks between GTE and Bell Atlantic. According to industry analysts, Foster decided to leave when he learned that he would not be part of the management of the merged companies.
Despite his decision to leave GTE, Foster had earned a reputation as a competent leader who had helped to make the corporation a leading telecommunications company offering a broad array of products and services, including local telephone service, nationwide long-distance wireless service, and directory and networking services ranging from dial-up Internet access to Web-based applications. He redirected GTE's focus to the Internet and data services and led the company's reentry into long-distance telephone services. Another major accomplishment was Foster's decision to change the company's cost structure to make it a more efficient competitor for local telephone business during deregulation. This change turned around GTE's core wireline business, which represented about 60 percent of its operating revenue. Industry analysts noted that Foster was able to keep GTE on an even keel through bad as well as good times, including one period of downsizing and other periods of rapid revenue growth and expansion. One industry analyst told reporter Scott Campbell, "He kept earnings growing at a pretty consistent clip" (Computer Reseller News, March 13, 2000).
A SHORT-LIVED RETIREMENT
After Foster had retired from GTE, he planned to relax for a few months and think about what he wanted to do next. In January 2000, however, he received a call from Jerre Stead, the chairman of Ingram Micro. Foster had known Stead as a former customer during the early 1990s, when Stead had served as the executive vice president of AT&T Global Information Solutions. Stead offered Foster the opportunity to replace him as CEO and president of Ingram Micro. Foster was approved by the company's board after two months of interviews and negotiations. He was also slated to become chairman when Stead retired in May 2001. Stead remarked that the board thought the job was a good fit with Foster's experience, which included "implementing an Internet strategy from a service standpoint," something Foster did at GTE (Computer Reseller News, March 13, 2000).
Many industry analysts were reserved at first about Foster's appointment, citing his lack of experience with product distribution. Foster, however, was pleased and optimistic about his new opportunity. Ingram Micro's long-term objective was to become the leading service provider of logistics and business automation, thus leveraging the company's worldwide infrastructure in 34 countries to support its rapid growth. Foster had the task of making this vision a reality. The AsianPulse News quoted Foster as saying, "Our objective will be to develop the opportunities and changes required in this rapid-fire industry to take this company to the next level" (March 7, 2000).
A CHALLENGING BUSINESS CLIMATE
Despite his initial optimism, Foster and his new company confronted a tumultuous market. By the time he arrived in 2000, Ingram Micro was already losing market share and many of its top-level executives as it struggled with the Internet's threat to traditional distribution channels. Furthermore, the entire global economy was experiencing a significant slowdown, especially the American technology market.
Over the next year Ingram Micro's sales and profits continued to lag as a result of the slow economy, but Foster began to win the praise of industry analysts for placing the company on a steadier footing. Before Foster's arrival, Ingram Micro had made a number of cutbacks that led to smaller-market clients taking their business elsewhere because of high turnover among Ingram Micro's sales account managers. At times these clients had difficulty getting any attention from the company's account managers. In response to complaints, Foster emphasized the importance of timely and efficient service to the management team at Ingram Micro. He guided the company into developing new support services aimed at small- and medium-size businesses, which represented a rapidly growing segment of the market. Industry analysts praised Foster for repairing frayed relationships with the solution provider executives who had criticized Ingram Micro for ignoring them in favor of large dot-com businesses. Tommy Wald, the president and CEO of Netforce Technologies and an Ingram Micro customer, commented, "I've been very impressed with [Foster's] ability to understand our issues as a reseller and develop strategic policies that will help us be more successful" (Computer Reseller News, November 12, 2001).
Although Ingram Micro had posted $31 billion in sales in 2000 and Foster had answered many of its customers' complaints, the company continued to struggle that year with the most challenging business environment in its history. Foster noted in an interview, "This is the sharpest downturn in the economy I have ever seen. It was almost as if in the latter part of November  something happened and no one can put their finger on it" (Computer Reseller News, March 12, 2001).
Worse was to come. The company's sales fell 13 percent to $16.6 billion during the first nine months of 2002, while operating income fell 22 percent to $54.2. Ingram Micro lost a total of $264.9 million during this troubled period. Foster worked hard to keep customers, investors, and employees calm as he consolidated company facilities and laid off employees. He also led the company through a close examination of its various products, vendors, customers, and countries of operation. Despite the cloudy economic picture, analysts credited Foster with strengthening Ingram Micro's overall balance sheet. Moreover, the company's gross margins steadily improved during the first two years of his leadership, rising from 4.7 percent in 2000 to 5.5 percent in 2002. The industry analyst Robert Anastasi said in an interview, "You have to give the company a decent grade—[Foster] and the company—on where they are. I was very encouraged with the details of their restructuring plan" (Computer Reseller News, November 18, 2002).
TURNAROUND AND RECOVERY
Foster was soon recognized by his peers as an effective chief executive. Ingram Micro won several industry awards in the first two years of Foster's leadership, including being listed in 2002 by Fortune as one of America's most admired companies and by IBM as Distributor of the Year in six of seven categories.
Foster worked throughout 2003 on making Ingram Micro the leading provider of information technology solutions. His second goal for the year was to continue increasing the flexibility of the company's cost structure and maximizing its operating income. In 2004 the company announced that its firstquarter earnings were $37.6 million, or 24 cents a share, which met the analysts' mean estimate and bracketed the company's own figure of 23 to 25 cents a share. Ingram Micro had improved significantly on its record from the previous year, when first-quarter earnings had been $10.1 million or 7 cents a share including charges. Ingram Micro's overall first-quarter sales rose 15 percent in 2004 from $5.47 billion to $6.28 billion. Foster commented, "We're starting to see demand for [information technology] products emerge" (Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2004).
Even though Foster expected less impressive results for Ingram Micro in the second and third quarters of 2004, he remained optimistic about the future of the world's largest IT provider. He was particularly enthusiastic about the company's new Choice Advantage program, which refurbished virtually every aspect of its customer service offerings. The program grouped pricing, shipping, sales, and technical support features into three levels that allowed clients to select the range of services best suited to their businesses. Foster commented in an interview in Computer Reseller News, "We felt there had to be a better way of custom-fitting our services to our customers" (April 12, 2004).
Industry analysts observed that Foster's approach to management gave his executives considerable leeway in making decisions. He was also considered a consensus-oriented team builder who helped his executives concentrate their attention on the most important tasks. One reporter commented, "Foster's mantra to his management team [is]: ask each and every day what Ingram Micro can do to make solution providers more successful in the marketplace" (Computer Reseller News, March 26, 2001).
Considered a highly competent executive, Foster was also known for his low-key approach to management. Although he was regarded as soft-spoken, colleagues and analysts alike remarked that he did not back away from a challenge. He proved himself to be an effective leader with a strong entrepreneurial spirit and an ability to keep his focus. When Foster was appointed president and CEO of Ingram Micro, his predecessor Jerre Stead commented in AsiaPulse, "He has a track record of successfully uniting multiple business units made up of more than 100,000 employees behind a single purpose and objective to enable change, encourage team work and deliver consistent results" (March 7, 2000). Foster was asked on one occasion whether he had some advice for new managers. He responded, "The group needs to have a common understanding of where they are and where they want to be and when…. Once you do those two things, the manager's job is pretty much finished" (Computer Reseller News, November 18, 2002).
Foster also acquired a reputation for being straightforward with management, customers, and even reporters. When he took the job at Ingram Micro, he never pretended that he knew everything about the business or the industry in general. As one journalist noted, Foster didn't come aboard outlining grand schemes for the future, predicting growth rates, or presenting glorious images of his abilities and accomplishments. Foster said during the interview, "I don't want to talk about myself or my prior job because it is irrelevant" (Computer Reseller News, March 20, 2000).
Foster maintained a steady hand in guiding Ingram Micro and continued to emphasize better customer service as the most effective way to improve his business. Known for his interest in reading as well as physical fitness, Foster was especially fond of biographies of the first presidents of the United States. He often spoke of his admiration for Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and other leaders of the young republic. He said on one occasion, "As I look back, I wonder why we were so lucky to have this group of people" (Computer Reseller News, November 18, 2002).
See also entries on Bell Atlantic Corporation, GTE Corporation, and Ingram Micro Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories.
sources for further information
Burke, Steven, "The Final Cut—Foster's Sharp Focus," Computer Reseller News, March 26, 2001, p. 22.
Campbell, Scott, "Ingram Micro's Future Lies in New CEO's Hands," Computer Reseller News, March 13, 2000, p. 116.
"CRN Interview: Kent Foster, CEO, Ingram Micro," Computer Reseller News, March 12, 2001, p. 108.
"CRN Interview: Kent Foster, CEO, Ingram Micro," Computer Reseller News, April 12, 2004, p. 22.
Crux, Mike, and Eric Hausman, "15—Kent Foster: Chairman & CEO, Ingram Micro—Foster Is Respected and Has Brought a Certain Calmness to the Distributor," Computer Reseller News, November 12, 2001, p. 113.
"Ingram Names New CEO," AsianPulse News, March 7, 2000.
Longwell, John, "No. 19—Kent Foster," Computer Reseller News, November 18, 2002, p. 126.
Markowitz, Elliot, "Knowing When to Say Nothing," Computer Reseller News, March 20, 2000, p. 15.
Pham, Alex, "Ingram Posts Threefold Rise in Quarterly Profit," Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2004.