Dell's new focus: Don't look back

With a new management team in place, the computer maker could be preparing to make changes to some of its core ideals.

After a year spent discussing the sins of the past, Dell could finally be ready to focus on the future.

Dell is expected to unveil its financial report for its 2007 fiscal year Thursday after the stock market closes, bringing an end to one of the worst years in the company's history. It's also expected to disclose some of the findings from an internal investigation into its accounting practices, one of the darker clouds hanging over the company.

A lot has changed at Dell over the last fiscal year. Kevin Rollins, the management wizard brought in a decade ago to help run the company, is spending more time with his family after resigning in January. Rollins is just one of several Dell executives to head for the exits after a tumultuous year that included several earnings misses, an enormous battery recall, the accounting investigation, and the loss of its status as the leading PC company on the planet.

"For years they didn't have to (change) because they kept winning."
--Richard Shim,
IDC analyst

So what's next? With a new management team in place, Dell & Co. are likely to focus on strategy. The company has already warned investors that its fourth-quarter revenue and profits would be worse than expected, but Dell has shown a penchant for making big product announcements along with bad earnings news, such as adopting Advanced Micro Devices' processors and sinking $150 million into new customer support problems.

While it's hard to say if another big announcement is coming, it's clear to some that Dell has to show it can change, maybe even tweak its devotion to selling directly to customers and controlling as much of its own manufacturing process as possible.

"For years they didn't have to do that," said Richard Shim, an analyst with IDC, "because they kept winning."

During its rise to the top of the PC market, Dell boasted of its manufacturing and supply-chain efficiency. It still builds just about all of its

But Dell and the market have changed. Notebooks make up an increasing percentage of PC sales, and Dell's costs to build a notebook itself are actually a little higher than those elsewhere in the industry. And for all the talk about efficiency, Dell has lost a little of its momentum in this area and is actively looking for ways to improve, said Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates.

Enter Michael Cannon, the former CEO of outsourcing powerhouse Solectron. Cannon was given control of Dell's entire manufacturing organization, which was previously run on a regional basis. Given his background, Cannon's appointment has touched off a lively discussion within Dell about the merits of how far Dell should go in a potential shift toward using more of the "ODM (original design manufacturer)" model used by HP and others, Kay said.

But the most prominent change at Dell could involve a change in its distribution model. The company has been experimenting with a Dell-branded store in Dallas, and plans to open others in upstate New York and Austin later this year. These stores don't carry inventory, but allow consumers to get their hands on Dell's products before making a purchase.

This is especially important for products like notebooks and gaming desktops like Dell's XPS line, which look better in person than they do on a Web page. But these types of stores don't allow for instant gratification, always high on a shopper's mind, said Samir Bhavnani, an analyst with Current Analysis that tracks the retail PC industry.

If Dell wants to reach more consumers--and decides to shed the direct-model dogma--there are a few routes it could take, Bhavnani said.

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