My business heroes

Feb 08 issue

I met Greg Brown at a restaurant in Laguna Beach, California. He had just taken over as CEO of Micromuse and the shares were at rock bottom trading at just $8, having been floated at $40 just six months before, writes
Michael Jackson

The company was in trouble. Key employees were threatening to leave as share options became worthless. This was the late 1990s and the internet technology boom was at its peak.

I was immediately charmed. Greg is one of the most charismatic men I have ever met. In just two years the company was recording record quarterly sales and profits, with the shares climbing to $400.

Greg has many qualities, but his most extraordinary talent is his understanding of the value of a deal to the end-user. The price book was irrelevant to Greg as time and again he would come back with an order many times bigger than his salesmen’s most optimistic expectations.

‘I knew they had to have it and I justified to them why the price was right,’ he would say, inspiring his salesmen by leading from the front. It is no surprise to me that he is now CEO of Motorola, one of the largest companies in the US.

Infuriating optimism

Greg would sign off his voicemail with: ‘Meanwhile, I shall be having a great and productive day.’ I remember how this message, which I adopted, used to annoy Philip Green (now Sir Philip).

You see, Philip personally held me responsible for his losing £1 million in a venture-backed company of which I was chairman. So I was regularly summoned to his offices at BHS on Marylebone Road to be read the riot act – Philip Green style.

It was here I realised how hands-on he really is in his approach. He had a clothes rack in his office full of dresses and skirts and a senior buyer with a clipboard telling him what the sales of each item had been last week. ‘Buy some more, reduce the price by 20 per cent, put it in the sale,’ barked Philip – I’m not sure you can be more involved in your business.

By the same token, here was the man who regularly negotiates billion-pound deals to expand his retail empire. Attention to detail while retaining the ability to see the bigger picture is a rare talent. Philip Green certainly has it.

I recently re-met Sir Richard Branson on his Caribbean retreat, Necker Island. Controversial and publicity seeking he may be, but what is particularly impressive is that he has been successful in a variety of sectors. He picked areas in which one would have thought competition from incumbents was particularly strong.

I guess he is successful because he is a true marketeer who really researches what customers want and then innovates to boot.

His innovation in the airline service sector now seems old hat, but let’s not forget he brought us free limo services, check-in from your car and an airport lounge that included haircuts and a massage.

As for his publicity stunts, hearing them from him first hand makes you realise that they may be stunts, but you need some guts to pull them off.

Marketing sage
When it comes to marketing, I am afraid I have to mention my predecessor as chairman of Sage, David Goldman.

David had no experience of software and was a printer by trade. He got into software because a visiting professor persuaded him to pay for the development of an estimating package for his own print works. This led to a costing system and then accounts.

It was his lack of IT experience that laid the foundation for Sage’s huge success. Uniquely, he was customer centric from the start. Even today, a lot of IT companies develop what they think the customer wants. Not David; he asked his support and help-desk people what the customers said they wanted and then told the development team to build it.

His recognition of the importance of recurring revenue from the outset was the catalyst for Sage’s fearsomely effective installed base revenue model such as upgrades and maintenance contracts.

Last but not least, he was brave. In the early days of Sage he spent some 40 per cent of revenues on marketing, which was unheard of outside the US in those days – the early 80s.

So there you have it – four different, yet dynamic business heroes. All entrepreneurial, successful and rich and not an accountant among them!