SAP: Choosing the Future

In the Hutong
Choking on a Centrum
1923 hrs.

Renee Ferguson over at eWeek wonders whether Shai Agassi’s departure from SAP signals that SAP will “sink back into stodginess.”

I’ve spent a little time working with the folks at SAP on stuff here in Asia (though not anymore), and I think both the markets (SAP dropped 2.4% at one point following the announcement) and eWeek are making a big deal out of nothing.

A Team of Leaders

Sure, Shai Agassi loves to jump in and mix it up a bit in press conferences and the like. Agassi stood alone among SAP’s leadership in his willingness to talk trash about the competition, especially Larry Ellison and the rest of the San Mateo Mafia. That kind of stuff makes for good copy, and tech journalists like Ferguson understandably like good copy.

I think what eWeek is worried about is not SAP’s stodginess: she’s worried about finding somebody colorful to write about.

Frankly, SAP’s management team has plenty of colorful characters. I continue to be a big fan of Henning Kagermann, the current CEO, who comes off as friendly, professorial, and brilliant. His quiet, strong leadership is probably best likened to that of Reuben Mark, the anti-celebrity CEO of Colgate-Palmolive who eschews the limelight in favor of – get this – actually leading the company and driving performance.

People also may not realize that Leo Apotheker is a no-nonsense guy who is every bit as capable as Agassi of colorful talk. That he keeps it restrained is more of a reflection of SAP’s desire to avoid dancing on the heads of competitors. The company was born as an underdog, and triumphalism does not suit them. Watch Leo in an SAP sales conference, however, and you get the feeling that the troops adore him.

What Plays In Peoria

Finally, most of the Valley crowd has yet to figure out that the sort of broadsides that Ellison likes to hurl tend to backfire outside of American – and perhaps European – culture. For all of his Japanophilia, Ellison seems to have trouble with something the SAP team seems to know instinctively: in the enterprise software business, you sell to the world, not just to Americans. The remarks that bring guffaws in New York and San Francisco can elicit little more than shaking heads in large parts of Asia. One man’s F.U.D. is another man’s silly trash-talk. As any company in the enterprise software industry will tell you, Asia is where the growth is, both in licensing and service. Over here, strong, silent, mature confidence wins over more decision makers than dissing – or suing – the competition.

Here’s my question: what happens if you match up, man-for-man, the leadership teams at Oracle and SAP? Which company – lawsuits and recent forecasts notwithstanding – looks like the better bet in the long term?

SAP should be applauded for being ready to sacrifice such an important executive to something far more important – the long term stability of the company and its products and services, which together form a platform on which many of the worlds biggest (and smallest) businesses depend. Journalists and analysts must remember that in the end, SAP made a choice that put its customers ahead of the stock price.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
This entry was posted in Software. Bookmark the permalink.