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Close-up: Erna Adelson

Results-oriented direct sales pioneer at Sony

As a 5-year-old growing up in North Carolina, Erna Adelson saved her pocket money and stowed it away in her piggy bank. Her father explained to her how she could own a part of a company by buying shares in the stock market, so she decided to buy one share of Duke Power.

The utility made an exception by selling her that one share and got some publicity out of it, and her photo appeared in the local newspaper.

"I've always been interested in financial services and I did end up working on Wall Street for quite a few years and it was fun," said Adelson, who is the senior director of information systems at Sony Network Entertainment.

The oldest of four children, she moved with her family to South Carolina where her father began his own business as a stage equipment supplier for regional theaters. She counts him as an early influence that had a lasting impact on her.

"Although I was a girl, he didn't particularly focus on that, he focused on hard work and education and told me I could do what ever I set my mind to doing," she said. "He didn't believe in limiting someone by superficial attributes."

A Princeton alumnus, her father took her on a tour of the university to inspire her to set high goals and open her eyes to the possibilities. She eventually went to Princeton, following in his footsteps.

"He also made me pay for one year of college, so I had to work -- this was for senior year, because I had three (siblings) behind me. Thank God that was then and not now," she said.

Did she imagine a career in information systems technology back then? She laughed, saying she had no idea what it was then, but that she was always interested in how to run a business and the financial side of things.

She began her career at Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) in the early 1980s -- when the company first began computerizing back office operations -- and was looking for analysts who could understand the business from the technology perspective, bottom-up from the data center and also do some programming.

After six years, she moved on to Salomon Brothers where she worked for nearly a decade before a stint at Merrill Lynch.

The technology revolution continued while she was at Salomon, where stock orders moved from being executed via faxes to the exchanges' network. She spent six months working in Tokyo, when Salomon became the first foreign member of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

After 15 years on Wall Street, she left because she wanted to do something different. "I'm really excited when I'm contributing but also when I'm learning," she said. "You know, there was the Internet out there." Adelson then went to a mid-size technology consulting firm.

When she reconnected with her former boss at Salomon, a mentor who had taken Adelson under her wing, Emily Susskind had moved on to Sony Corp. of America (NYSE: SNE) and recommended Adelson for the position of CIO of Sonystyle.com (or Sony eSolutions), which was the e-commerce subsidiary of Sony Electronics.

"When I joined Sony, I was very deliberate about joining a small company within a large company," Adelson said. "I personally prefer to stay on the leading edge of what a company is doing, so the move to Sony Network Entertainment -- which initially was a division but is now a company -- is because this is where the new part of Sony is, bringing together the value proposition."

Although it's common practice now, back then Sony was among the first to venture into direct sales and bypass the retailer.

Igor von Nyssen, a software architect at Sony who has worked with Adelson for 10 years, said she was responsible for leading the effort to select the tools and implement the systems for direct sales.

"Selling a TV over the Internet was unthinkable back then, but she spearheaded those efforts," von Nyssen said. "Within the Sony sales organization there was a lot of skepticism, but her vision provided the technology base so we could establish a direct sales business."

When asked about her pioneering role in direct sales, Adelson insisted she was one of several behind the effort, not the only one.

"She doesn't boast, because she continuously underestimates her contribution," von Nyssen said.

Adelson had been a New Yorker for many years when Sony asked her to move to San Diego in 2004. She had an established network of colleagues and friends in financial services but here, she did not know any one outside the company, so she joined Athena, a professional network for women executives.

She wanted to establish a network of peers outside of work, who she could seek out for mentoring and advice, and she achieved that with Athena. Today she's a board member of the group and has mentored other women coming up through the ranks.

For women looking to rise to the top in IT or any other field, she has this advice:

"If you really want to get to the executive ranks, you need to have P&L (profit and loss) experience. If you are not going to run that route but want to run a business, you still have to look at where the company is placing its bets, where's the value, and you have to be able to take risks."

Adelson said one of the challenges for women is the long hours that are necessary to climb the rungs, since the typical 9-to-5 won't cut it. (She is married and has two grown children.)

In her current role, Adelson is responsible for the financial reporting and business applications surrounding the PlayStation video game system. She counts her boss, Fumi Kanagawa, the CFO of Sony Network Entertainment, as one of her mentors.

"Mentoring is more than just about career progress. Fumi is the best mentor because he coaches me," Adelson said. "A mentor also has to be someone who is respected within the company that can vouch for you and open doors for you. Obviously, you have to be good enough and you have to deliver."

Her colleagues definitely think she can deliver.

"She's very no-nonsense, very driven, very results oriented," von Nyssen said. "She gives a lot of attention to mentoring, makes sure that she explains things clearly; she's very keen on bringing people on and helping them understand situations. One of her best qualities is her mentorship for women. Her impact within the company is tremendous."

*****

Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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