Dell's Man on Deck How Kevin Rollins, Michael's No. 2, is trying to help a fast-paced company find inner harmony.
By Paul Sloan

(Business 2.0) – A few years back, when the personal computer business seemed limitless and company parties had that boom-time feel, Kevin Rollins took the stage at Austin's Erwin Center to fire up his Dell colleagues--with music. His fiddle cradled beneath his chin, Rollins belted out the opening bars of the Charlie Daniels hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." The lyrics, though, were about cross-state rival Compaq, and as he began to sing "the devil went down to Houston...," the crowd, thousands strong, went wild.

Nowadays, company get-togethers aren't so boisterous. Dell is the PC sales champ, and the former No. 1, Houston-based Compaq, looks a lot less devilish since it sold out to Hewlett-Packard. But as Dell moves to attack a broad array of more lucrative markets, Rollins, Dell's president and COO, has never been more center stage.

While Michael Dell still holds the title of CEO, Rollins isn't exactly second fiddle. Dell himself is spending most of his team time dreaming up broad strategic thrusts, leaving Rollins to run the company day to day. In 2001, Rollins instigated a punishing price war, sharply cutting Dell's prices. He oversaw the layoff of 5,700 employees, the first in Dell's history--a painful but vital step that enabled the company to keep its famously low costs lower than rivals', ensuring that they would suffer more than Dell. Those efforts helped convince Compaq that it couldn't compete with Dell, and have left other competitors like Gateway badly wounded.

These days Rollins says he's focused on the less martial mission of creating a place that no longer gets characterized as a "teenage company." In the boom years, he says, employees were overly focused on the soaring stock, and management's biggest worry was how to handle the growth. "Unfortunately," Rollins says, "our culture was not one of our priorities."

As the market began to slow, Rollins began to look inward. When he talks about carrying Dell's 38,000 employees through adolescence, he seems part concerned parent and part management geek. (Both make sense: He's the father of four, and he landed at Dell in 1996 after working there as a consultant with Bain & Co.). In early 2001, Rollins launched an initiative called "The Soul of Dell," which led to an employee guidebook about Dell's ideals--everything from relentless concern for the customer to zero tolerance for unethical behavior. "'The Soul of Dell' suggests we have a higher purpose as individuals in a company," says Rollins, who's 50. "We're trying to teach the ethic of responsibility. We need to make sure our employees know this is a standard we hold them to."

As part of the effort, Dell has asked employees to share criticisms anonymously. To Rollins's dismay, many respondents say they don't feel loyal to the company, which is likely a legacy of the cost cutting. Dell also has been seeking business proposals from the ranks; the company says so many ideas have bubbled up that it is currently implementing more than a thousand. And Dell has been working with managers to ensure that they respond to their staffs' needs outside the office.

For that work-life balance trick, Dell-ites have no better role model than Rollins himself. He's an avid skier and runner, and he recently took up motocross, something he hadn't done since he was a kid growing up in Utah. He's active in the Mormon church and, in his downtime, has been reading up on the Founding Fathers for leadership lessons. Says Darrell Rigby, a Bain director who hired Rollins as an MBA fresh out of Brigham Young University: "You just don't meet many people who are as well-rounded as Kevin Rollins."

And, of course, there's the music--singing, playing keyboards, and that trusty violin, which Rollins can always pull out if folks at Dell once again feel like dancing. He's given up penning potshots at competitors, though. "You don't do that sort of thing," he says, "when you're No. 1." --PAUL SLOAN