Ex-SAP CEO talks about 'the next big thing' in IT

Léo Apotheker is pushing hard for inter-company collaboration

Ex-SAP CEO Léo Apotheker isn't interested in talking too much about his former employer, from which he departed abruptly in February after the vendor's board decided not to renew his contract.

Apotheker had a fairly brief, bumpy ride in the top slot at SAP, marked by slowing sales exacerbated by the global recession, as well as protracted user outcry due to a support price hike. He has been succeeded by two co-CEOs, Jim Hagemann Snabe and Bill McDermott.

But in an exclusive interview with IDG News Service on Tuesday, Apotheker was willing to discuss the future, particularly the concept of collaborative "agile business networks" and his recent move to join the board of SCM (supply chain management) vendor GT Nexus.

"The next big thing is not so much optimizing processes within a company, but optimizing inter-company processes, and it can only be done on collaborative platforms," Apotheker said.

GT Nexus markets a cloud-based portal where users interact and share information with customers and partners in their supply chain. A network of some 40,000 workers at 15,000 companies are using it, and hundreds of companies have tied in their back-end systems, according to GT Nexus.

"There's nothing more collaborative than supply chain," Apotheker said. "When I looked around, GT Nexus popped up many times way up on the radar screen, and when they asked me to join, I was more than happy to comply. I really want to help these guys."

Apotheker sees GT Nexus as tied into a larger trend.

"SAP, and in fact all large software companies are coming out of a software model that is essentially client-server and that was built towards optimizing an enterprise. To the credit of SAP and many others, a great job was done," he added. But "the Internet is the lifeblood of globalization and global trade. Therefore, the classical IT systems need to change as well."

Apotheker discussed the recent Icelandic volcano eruption, which brought European air travel to a painful standstill for days. Stronger business-to-business collaboration tools could have helped transportation companies work more effectively to find alternatives for stranded travelers, he said.

Apotheker's vision doesn't constitute a total reboot of existing enterprise software concepts, said 451 Group analyst China Martens. Instead, it's more about "taking what you have and thinking about how you would apply collaboration to it," she said.

It's unclear whether Apotheker will attempt to fulfill his ideas by assuming the leadership of another vendor.

"SAP does seem to be a very hierarchal company, and that's where he'd fit well. You couldn't see him doing a startup or anything like that," Martens said. Apotheker could also be very effective for a U.S.-centric business hoping to make inroads into Europe, she added.

Apotheker declined to say whether he is seeking another CEO job, but it seems likely that if it happens, he'd prefer the top spot all to himself.

In general terms, the co-CEO model "works reasonably well in times of transition," Apotheker said. "Once that transition is done, companies usually have a single-CEO structure. But there are always exceptions to the rule."

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Chris Kanaracus

IDG News Service

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