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No-nonsense approach underlies Dell's success

A visit to Dell Computer headquarters demonstrates the no-frills attitude behind the company's success.

AUSTIN, Texas--My maternal grandfather was a hard-working man from New Brunswick who spoke with a thick French accent and espoused the virtues of common sense.

He had to be that way. The old plumber couldn't have carved out a living without attacking jobs directly and sensibly. In the cold reaches of northern Maine, where 100 inches of snow falls a year, he couldn't afford to be out on the street (or in a snow bank).

Maybe Maine and Texas aren't so culturally different. Or maybe there are some ancestors. Because in attending Dell Computer's DirectConnect conference this week, common sense was, well, common.

Arriving at Dell's Round Rock, Texas, headquarters Wednesday for a meeting with Dell's chief financial officer, Jim Schneider, I was struck by the company's common-sense approach. The décor of the buildings, for example, was tasteful but timeless. I met the CFO in a conference room that doubled as a library and station for conference calls.

I also observed employees hard at work, but not overly stressed, such as two people discussing a forthcoming product in the snack bar outside the company store, austerely dubbed "The Company Store."

Schneider kicked back and spoke a lot about giving customers what they want, in a way that not only makes money but also cuts costs. In an era when Internet start-ups burn through venture capital dollars at a breakneck pace, Schneider's no-nonsense approaching to making money by not wasting it was refreshing.

"We're really focused on cost management," he said. "You keep your cost the lowest. You get great products, direct to the customer. That is really it for us in terms of why we've been successful."

That common-sense message of listening to customers, giving them what they want and doing so in a cost-efficient manner would dominate every Dell keynote, presentation and press briefing I attended.

During his keynote, Dell CEO Michael Dell spoke about managing PC inventory not in weeks like competitors Compaq Computer or Hewlett-Packard but in hours. He unveiled a new Web-based supply-chain management system that lets Dell and its component suppliers monitor in two-hour intervals. The system reduced inventory backlog not by one or two weeks but to seven hours from 13 hours.

Later, during a press briefing, Dell spoke about something so novel it lighted a spark with the many companies churning out products based on what sounds cool rather than what customers want.

"We use a phrase in our company; we call it 'relevant technology,'" Dell said. "We try to think about which of these inventions are meaningful and important."

What an amazing concept.

Still, Dell is trying to break out of the mold a little. Beige, boxy PCs make a lot of sense from a cost point of view, but they don't do much for office aesthetics. And the PC design revolution spurred by Apple Computer's iMac shows consumers want more than beige.

Knowing that Dell planned to introduce a new chassis design at the show, booting beige for dark gray, I couldn't resist showing off an example of the style so many PC companies are trying to imitate.

So I attended the conference carting not a Dell Inspiron or Latitude notebook but an Apple PowerBook. It's a Maine thing, this cruel, wry sense of humor. Stephen King knows.

Living in a state well known for its hospitality, Dell executives took the brazen offense in stride. No one said a word about the breach of protocol, akin to drinking Pepsi at Coca-Cola headquarters. But I couldn't resist referring to that PowerBook in interviews, because Apple's laptop represents something Dell wants: style.

Borrowed Apple ideas are everywhere in Dell's new PC design and a new line of Latitude notebooks with integrated wireless networking. Dell's new PC chassis, for example, opens like a suitcase, rather than sliding off as it does on most PCs. Apple introduced a similar style with the PowerMac G3.

While Mac enthusiasts may delight in Dell's apparent trailblazing through Apple territory, they shouldn't snicker too much. Dell leads U.S. desktop and portable sales over other PC makers by a healthy margin and commands market share Apple can only dream of.

Dell's new chassis may be seem dull compared with Apple's G4 Cube, but the company's dominance means many businesses and consumers will be seeing dark gray and not Apple's translucent logo.