'Cooking' Up a Challenge

By Peter Horner, editor

Now is probably not the best time in the world to take a job with a software development company whose major clients are all airlines, yet that is exactly what Tom Cook did. In January, Cook, the president-elect of INFORMS, was named chairman and CEO of Austin, Texas-based CALEB Technologies Corp. CALEB makes and markets "disruption recovery and resource planning systems for complex, mission-critical applications." Cook's long-term mission/vision: make CALEB the "world's leading provider of decision-support solutions."

If those words have a familiar ring to them, it's because they accurately describe Cook's former place of employment, Sabre Technology Solutions. Cook, of course, is well known as the architect of the famed operations research group at Sabre that thrust in-house client American Airlines to the top of the airline industry through its innovative use of OR-empowered decision technology. Sabre's showcase application, revenue management, altered the way all airlines do business and stands as arguably the most significant OR application of the past 20 years.

Can Cook capture lightening in a bottle a second time at CALEB? That's what we wanted to know when we interviewed Cook and other CALEB officials from their Austin headquarters shortly after Cook was put in charge. At this point, it's too early to tell, but Cook is clearly looking forward to the challenge. ("Looking Out for No. 1").

This is another of those "best of times, worst of times" stories. Certainly the events of Sept. 11 delivered a crushing blow to the airline industry. Fearful passengers stayed away in droves, and the airlines responded by cutting schedules by 20 percent. The industry might not make a full recovery for years. At the same time, the shattering events that grounded the nation's air transport system for three days also shined a spotlight on the value of the kind of disruption management software that operations research can empower.

"It's probably not the optimal time to be providing solutions to the airline industry," Cook says when asked about his new job. "On the other hand, we're providing a solution they need very badly."

A champion of applied OR work who has long preached what he practiced, Cook successfully ran for the presidency of INFORMS last year on a pledge to "identify and implement changes to existing INFORMS programs/products and initiate new activities [that would] transform the discipline [into one that is] more applied." Cook, who will serve a year as president-elect before assuming the presidency in 2003, will become the first full-time practitioner president of INFORMS since the 1995 merger of ORSA and TIMS. Transforming a 50-year-old institution is not easy, especially when you're trying to build a world-class company at the same time. How does Cook plan to pull it off? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, INFORMS will mark "50 years of operations research" in 2002. President Mike Trick will preside over the year-long celebration, which commemorates the founding of ORSA in 1952. Clearly, there are many accomplishments to celebrate... and many challenges to meet.