Weaving the Tech Team for Hancock Fabrics

James Hayes motivated the staff to overhaul the company’s IT infrastructure and made it shine

Growing up as the son of an “IBM-er,” James Hayes wanted nothing more than a life apart from the arduous hours his father spent fixing cables and computers. So, while he appreciated his dad’s commitment to a career in tech—all forty years of it—Hayes was determined to make his mark in the business world, instead.

After earning his business degree, he landed at a human resources agency, Manpower. His career plan drastically changed when a supervisor asked a seemingly innocuous question: “Does anybody here know about computers?” This question led him to a challenging, yet rewarding IT career, including a role at Hancock Fabrics that he could never have predicted.

Hayes begrudgingly fit the bill. It was 1990, and unlike most of his colleagues—some of whom had never even used a computer—he easily grasped the era’s professional software programs.

Not only did I have to change hardware but I also had to change attitudes. I got to watch my team come out of their shells.”

“I’d been around computers all my life,” Hayes says. He then switched from interviewer to technical trainer at the company. “As I got into it and started teaching people, I realized that I really had a knack for it, and that led me to my first IT job.” Over three decades, Hayes built a renowned IT career, including various roles at an insurance agency, a newspaper, a nursing home management company, and a regional bank. These days, however, his work is cut from a very different cloth—as vice president of IT at Hancock Fabrics.

As the leader of Hancock Fabrics’s technology team, Hayes’s role is wide-ranging. His job requires aligning technology with the company’s business goals and, as he puts it, configuring “anything that plugs into a wall or beeps.” For the first six months at Hancock Fabrics, there was a lot of beeping.

When Hayes arrived at the company three years ago, Hancock Fabrics was in desperate need of a technological transformation. The retail chain was positioning to capture the younger DIY-culture demographic with a revamped e-commerce website. Yet its servers could scarcely offer up the power to give its customers a seamless transaction.

Heeding the risk of alienating shoppers, Hayes had a few ideas on how to repair the company’s IT network, but first, he says, he had to rescue an alienated IT staff. “One of the things I first noticed was that walls were up, and, literally, the lights were turned off,” Hayes recalls. “At first I thought, ‘IT people like the dark.’ Then I realized the lightbulbs had never been replaced. People were huddled in their cubicles. Cubicles were full of old equipment. There was no pride in the workplace.”

In fact, the IT department was more reminiscent of Hayes’s earlier days in IT, when he says IT workers were often relegated to the janitor’s closet. “My first IT closet was in the same room with the sink,” he says. “When I began, IT was always an afterthought.”

It appeared his new team was experiencing similar sentiment. “[Previously] IT was a necessary evil,” Hayes adds. “Companies knew they had to have us, but they didn’t really want to engage with us. Now, IT has to be considered in every decision, because everything runs on technology. We used to sit at the kiddie table, and now we’re at the big table.”

Hayes immediately contacted maintenance to replace the light bulbs and helped his team clean up the space. After improving the physical space, he got to work improving employee morale. He started having regular meetings in order to gather feedback and provide direction, and reinstated celebratory lunches to get to know his staff. “Not only did I have to change hardware, but I also had to change attitudes,” Hayes says. “I got to watch my team members come out of their shells. It was the little stuff when I got here.” This especially focused on allowing them to share their ideas for improvements.

Hayes brought his own management style and IT philosophy to Hancock. His passion to solve business problems and add value to the company through technology is only surpassed by his genuine concern for people—in this case, his internal and external “customers” and his staff. Hayes has been in IT long enough to know that his staff is his greatest resource. Hayes has also led by example. His staff would attest to his willingness to work alongside them at any task. “I have employees from other departments asking me often if I have openings in my department,” he says. “Everyone wants to work in IT. I have other managers asking me how I have developed such an environment.”

Once Hayes was able to engage more fully with his team, he put together a three-year plan to overhaul Hancock’s outdated infrastructure. While the company had functioning POS systems in place, and technically, an e-commerce site up and running, both mechanisms were severely malfunctioned—not to mention more reminiscent of technologies from 2003. “We were running 256 stores on equipment that was ten years old,” Hayes says. “Things were being held together with chewing gum and rubber bands.”

For months, Hayes received calls late into the night, when his team members would sound off on a laundry list of IT issues: coupons weren’t working, prices weren’t right, email and the Intranet were down, and servers needed rebooting. To add to the conundrum, Hayes had inherited a switch network that was a “hand-me-down”  from a predecessor company. “We spent a lot of time putting out fires. We needed to stabilize the system. A lot of that was moving toward a virtual environment,” Hayes says.

Hayes began changing out Hancock’s infrastructure by prioritizing the essentials while staying within a tight budget. Servers (physical and virtual), storage (on-premises and cloud), switches (wired and wireless), and the phone systems were replaced. Using different software packages, the team became proactive rather than reactive. Though the process took more than two years, the difference in performance and stability are night and day.

During that time, Hayes also was facilitating between several vendors and in-house teams for the revamped e-commerce site. The site “looked like an original website,” and was far from user-friendly, something that not only confused and frustrated the company’s older consumers, but also dissuaded tech-savvy younger shoppers entirely. Hayes wanted to make it functional and mobile-friendly.

Knowing that Hancock Fabrics was missing revenue opportunities every day, he set an aggressive six-month deadline for the project. For Hayes, it was more than just a redesign. It was also a test in maximizing margins in a digital environment that can easily cut into profits. “In IT, you know that this service pays ‘x,’” Hayes explains. “In e-commerce, it’s all percentages. Every transaction that we do, the person who got you to that site will get a piece. You have to understand all of those metrics, and work with your partners to make it more palpable. Otherwise you have no margin.”

The new website launched ahead of the holiday season in 2014—just two weeks over his six-month goal. Today, sales are up 238 percent from 2014.

Everything that Hayes set out to do in the IT department three years ago is now complete. Hayes admits he wouldn’t have been able to change anything at Hancock Fabrics if he had not taken the time to invest in the people who make up his talented IT team.

“You can understand all the technology that you want, but one of the biggest roles as a leader in IT is making sure your staff is motivated to give their best at their work every day. It’s about turning off your computer monitor and looking them in the eye.”