When enterprise software veteran Graeme Riley replaced long-serving country manager Ian Black at SAP, he stepped into a business outperforming its global counterparts amid worsening economic gloom.
Overall revenues grew 22 percent in New Zealand in 2008, with consistent growth on both sides of the Tasman since 2003. But 2009 is set to present difficulties for SAP, with an international workforce reduction of 3500 planned.
But where others could be daunted, Riley is excited about the challenging environment. “These are really interesting times, I don’t mean interesting negative, I mean interesting positive. Difficult times are when we really have a chance to shine and perform.
“If we can keep the business performing in the way it has been, that’s no mean feat. To keep it kicking without missing a beat, that’s probably my greatest challenge.”
Riley believes SAP can stay ahead at a time when all companies are suffering. “These times aren’t challenging just to SAP, but to every business out there. So if we can execute as well as we have been or raise it a couple of notches ahead of our competitors, we’re going to get this market share win.
“I wouldn’t necessarily have dialled up this challenge on the ‘most desirable’ meter, but it is exciting. If these had been really good times and it was all ‘same old’, it wouldn’t have been so. Ian [Black] has done such a good job, so you have to be very innovative about how you go to the next level, and it gives me more to play with.”
Having worked in bureau businesses in the 1970s, and for major enterprise software corporations since 1988, Riley has learned the lessons and acquired the skills needed to apply to his current position at SAP.
One of these is the value of the service ethic in holding on to customers.
Beginning as a computer operator at Databank in 1971, Riley progressed into programming for New Zealand Motor Corporation and then Computer Consultants. “All my early days through the 1970s were bureau businesses. It taught me this wonderful service ethic around customers’ needs. In a bureau business you get paid every month based on your performance the month before. It’s not like doing an annual customer satisfaction survey, it’s instantaneous feedback every month. People might say, ‘We’re not paying the bill because you did a terrible job'.”
Later, the ERP (enterprise resource planning) software market would teach him the importance of proving the value of technology.
As country manager for Geac in the 1990s (which was one of four similarly large ERP vendors bought by Infor the following decade), he found customers’ loyalty had to be earned. In an eight to nine-year period, Geac had made 14 acquisitions, says Riley.
“As an industry we keep making the same mistake – if you have two packages in the same space, we keep thinking we can shut down one and customers will upgrade to the others and love you for it. That’s 180 degrees wrong. If you can’t demonstrate value then a customer has another choice. We don’t realise there are competitors out there and a customer will look at the whole market.”
He says in those days customers would talk more directly to him through personal contact at roadshows, whereas today’s feedback methods are more indirect.
Because of the acquisitions, Riley describes his years at Geac as dynamic and invigorating. “With every acquisition it changed the company and created more interest. It started broadening my view of what ERP could be.”
Geac became a comparatively large business in New Zealand, and with the buyouts Riley took on many lessons about successfully integrating firms.
“There’s so much to be won and lost in that process,” he says. “I see so many acquisitions and the theory is 1+1 should equal 2.2. It’s possible, but you have to be so skilled at it. Companies that aren’t end up with so much less than the sum of the parts.
“It’s about the people and you need to spend the time with them. It needs to be dealt with carefully and respectfully.”
While Geac’s growth was driven by acquisitions, it was the company itself that would be subsequently acquired by fellow industry player Infor, along with the company Riley left Geac for – SSA Global.
After four years with Geac in Australia, running the Asia-Pacific and Japan business, Riley was appointed as SSA’s New Zealand managing director in 2004, taking over the Pacific region for SSA in 2006.
Later that year, Infor began its buying spree, acquiring SSA, Systems Union and Geac.
“It would be the most challenging and adventurous acquisition you could ever do. Infor was third in size of the four so it was almost the minority company pulling four disparate organisations together at one time,” says Riley. “It was either long digestion or the thing’s going to choke you. Culturally they were poles apart.”
He says the four companies are still getting through the process of working out the new culture and systems.
Riley felt as if he had worked for the same company for almost 20 years, given his past work at Geac and SSA.
After working for Infor in Australia, Riley progressed to the role of Asia Pacific vice president, based in Hong Kong.
The combined company had more than 250 products in its portfolio, says Riley. “It was a really interesting time working out how to position them and what’s the messaging to the customers.”
His role involved specialising in developing businesses with unrealised potential to make large sales.
However, Riley saw few advancement opportunities at Infor in Asia where, he says, they “didn’t do expats”, and so he sought new paths.
However, he says there were few advancement opportunities with Infor in Asia, and discussed roles with SAP in Singapore and Australia, but wanted to return to New Zealand.
He describes his current job as the best in the industry. “I knew the New Zealand market, I’d been in ERP and competed with SAP all my life. The only new component to me was the company.
“Ironically two of my colleagues from SSA are also in the company, running New South Wales and Queensland/West Australia. There were people who had made the transition [to SAP] and were proof it could work.”
Now that he’s home, Riley sees opportunities for a more spacious lifestyle. He had traditionally lived in apartments in Australia and Asia, and is currently doing so in Auckland. He now plans to buy a vineyard, which will be a chance to get into the outdoors, as well as satisfy his passion for a good sauvignon blanc.