How did Phil White get up yesterday morning? Put yourself in his place: the day before Informix Software Inc, the Menlo Park based database supplier he rescued, then ran very successfully for eight and a half years, had issued a press release informing the world that White was being kicked upstairs to the role of chairman, the job of running Informix day to day being turned over to a man who had never been in a software company before, Bob Finocchio, previously at 3Com Corp.
By Gary Flood
As of Tuesday, not one of Informix’s 4,169 employees worldwide report to him any more. This at a company where White’s stewardship included such landmarks as raising its stock price by 1,700% between 1991 and 1993, taking it out of its low-end (Informix SE) indirect sales model ghetto, overseeing a re- engineering of the Informix engine to make it a wickedly fast massively parallel and symmetric multi-processing beast. thus making it a serious corporate enterprise software player with Informix On-Line and its related Distributed Scalable Architecture, and growing it to just under a billion dollars ($939m) for its fiscal 1996, In 1994 Bill Gates just beat White for CEO of the year in a US business magazine. Yesterday morning none of that meant zip any more, because of White’s fatal decision to try and leapfrog rivals Sybase Inc and Oracle Corp with a truly revolutionary next generation database technology, the fused hybrid object-relational product roilled out last December, Universal Server. White has been asked by his board to pay the price for stumbling on the implementation of that ambition, and a bitter pill to swallow it must be. How did he manage to drive to the sixth annual Informix User Group Meeting and present the opening keynote to some of the 6,000 attendees, then introduce Finocchio (who he calls Bobby), the man who has usurped him, to the crowd? Innovation doesn’t always mean great things, said White yesterday, in a speech presented with sometimes painfully forced elan, in grim contrast to the bullishness of his presentation of Universal Server’s debut only seven months ago in New York.
Spun off the highway
White bet his reputation and position at Informix’s helm on the $400m gamble involved in buying Michael Stonebraker’s $5m turnover Illustra Technologies Inc in late 1994, merging it with Informix’s database, and then sitting back to wait fruitlessly for customers wanting richer content for their databases than numbers and characters. None came, or at least not enough; We tried to create a market and got partially there, he now says. The company soon span off the highway when it turned out none of its salesmen seem to have done anything other than proselytizing for Universal Server the first three months of the year. White failed to turn his troops on to the possibilities of NT – of which he now says We used to see NT as a threat, now we know it’s an opportunity – and he has his fingerprints all over a revenue recognition policy many people on Wall St seem to think a little soft (basically Informix books as sales software that it gives to its partners before they in turn sell it to John Q Public). White claims his contribution at Informix from now on is to work on maintaining the very relationships with customers and partners he helped forge for the benefit of Finocchio, who he will also be bringing up to speed as his successor. These relationships are all assets the company can use, and as long as they are there I can continue to be an asset. I have a lot invested in Informix both financially and personally. Ironically, White’s fate – and immediate future – could go one of the two paths trailblazed by the founders of both of the companies he has competed against so effectively these past few years, Mark Hoffman of Sybase or Larry Ellison of Oracle. Last July (CI No 2,959) Sybase’s board asked Hoffman to step aside as CEO in favor of Mitch Kertzman, and though he retained his nominal title of chairman there was no real job for him to do, and in weeks he was gone, recently re-emerging (CI No 3,182) as head of a new company and as of last week no longer even on the board of that relational database company he helped found in 1984. In contrast, Larry Ellison had to let go control of Oracle in the dark days of 1991, when the company hit a wall, and though he still retains the title of chairman Ray Lane, chief operating officer, actually runs the company. Ellison gets a lot of publicity with his talk of the information superhighway, massively parallel computers or the Network Computer, or buying Apple Computer Inc, and he gets profiled in Vanity Fair magazine, sure, but it must be remembered that in his time he failed as badly as White has just done. So is White going to be Hoffman or Ellison? White said yesterday that he will be neither: Hoffman wasn’t assigned a role and he wanted to found a company anyway. Plus, Mitchell [Kertzman] was pushing as well. So it is different in that sense. Our bet is White will fade away for a spell then re-emerge at the helm of another growing company. Though one place he won’t turn up is Cupertino: White says he isn’t interested in running Apple.