HP strikes back at Oracle with SAP CEO pick
Apotheker more Hurd than Hurd
Comment Let's see, now. If I was a big Oracle partner and I really wanted Larry Ellison to go ballistic, what's the worse thing I could do?
How about elect the former CEO of SAP – one of his most hated rivals – as my CEO?
Well, that's what Hewlett-Packard has done  in what looks an awful lot like a strike back at Ellison after he attacked the HP board for booting his friend and tennis buddy Mark Hurd. In a final fuck-you to HP's board, Ellison hired Hurd at Oracle.
Such a strike must be the only reason HP has put Leo Apotheker at the helm, because the clutch of clichéd reasons the company has given for Apotheker's recruitment just don't stand up.
According to HP, Apotheker is a "strategic thinker" with "global experience", "proven operational discipline", and a "strong track record of driving technological innovation." The world's second largest PC company said Apotheker helped SAP to 18 consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth between 2004 and 2009.
Apotheker is "operational" all right, and in the post-Fiorina era, HP certainly wants operational types in the CEO role – i.e. people unlikely to hog a stage with Gwen Stefani  in Las Vegas.
Before he ascended to the top of SAP, Apotheker served as president of customer solutions and operations at the company. A 20-year SAP veteran, he joined as CEO of SAP France in 1988, and he was a field man managing partners and customers.
A remarkable leader he's not, and he's certainly no visionary. He shares responsibly for the fact that SAP is now banging its head on the inside walls of the enterprise IT cage, with no real clue how to get out.
And he wasn't CEO of SAP for very long. Apotheker only became SAP's CEO in May 2009, having taken over as deputy CEO in April 2007 and then as co-CEO with Henning Kagermann in April 2008.
When Kagermann went Apotheker took on the role full time, but by February 2010 things hadn't gone as expected and there was a "mutual agreement " with the board that his contract would not be renewed. He was unwilling to again share the CEO's position, and SAP promptly reverted to co-CEO leadership under former head of field organization Bill McDermott and product development head Jim Hagemann Snabe.
Strike one: Apotheker lacks solo-top leadership experience.
During his time near the top, Apotheker - along with the rest of SAP's conservative leadership - failed to predict the transition to software delivered online and the swing away from monolithic suites of software running on the server sweeping through SAP's customer base.
And the company ended up losing business to Salesforce.com.
Customers not first
Apotheker talked of putting customers first , but SAP's true loyalty was to its systems integrators and consultants. These companies make a lot of money customizing the notoriously complicated set of modules that comprise SAP, tailoring it to customers' needs. Often, if you hear of an ERP implementation going awry, it's an SAP implementation. And by "awry," we mean late and over budget – and quite probably scrapped.
SAP didn't champion customers, it squeezed them. During Apotheker's co-CEO tenure, SAP raised its software maintenance and support fees, ignoring the software-as-a-service revolution.
In 2008, SAP introduced an increase in the basic software support package from 17 per cent of a customer's standard licensee fee to 22 per cent - a move that sparked a revolt and went on to hurt SAP financially.
Is this a vision is see before me? No.
Apotheker – along with the rest of SAP's top management – must also shoulder the blame for SAP being eclipsed by Oracle on the strategic front. Ellison's beast has been on an M&A and growth tear since 2005. The idea is to build an integrated stack of software, and now hardware, and to drive growth by acquiring companies – and their customers.
Apotheker had three years to serve Oracle with an aggressive counter vision during his various deputy, co-CEO, and solo CEO roles, but nothing happened. Instead, SAP spent $5.8bn on Sybase this year, and this week, there's talk of the company acquiring Sage – i.e. serving more of the same small-to-mid-market that Business By Design was supposed to serve.
Under Apotheker, SAP has suffered through myopia and laziness. It milks its existing, fat client-server business, but that's about it.
The result? So much for those 18 quarters of growth. In October 2008, having failed to diversify out of its existing business and having tightened the screws, SAP was hit by a "surprise" drop in corporate spending as the economy went south in mid-2008 and customers started cutting back. In SAP's fourth quarter  of 2009, reported in January this year, SAP's quarterly and annual revenues fell by nearly 10 per cent each. Meanwhile, Oracle posted increases.
Apotheker was gone from the CEO's position a month after the results were published.
SAP's great answer, when it finally came, was SAP's Business By Design online ERP suite. But delivery was dogged by slide ware and stage-managed events designed only to convince people SAP really did have an answer as delivery seemed to drag.
When it arrived three years ago, SAP claimed that Business By Design would land 10,000 customers by 2010. In September this year, analysts put total number of customers at 100 .
The problem here: Apotheker's inability to think outside of the existing SAP box or established bureaucratic lines.
If vision and execution have been burdens, so has Apotheker's apparent knack for embarrassing his employers in their dealings with - guess who? - Oracle.
In 2009, while he was CEO, Apotheker wrote to Ellison asking for a meeting to discuss "significant concerns" over Oracle's proposed purchase of Sun Microsystems. The letter leaked and raised questions about whether Apotheker – as head of the world's largest business software company – was offering to have a word in the ear of the European Union investigating the Sun deal to call off the probe in exchange for something, er, unspecified in return.
At the time, Oracle was prosecuting SAP, claiming the TomorrowNow subsidiary had been guilty of stealing Oracle's proprietary secrets and documents to take PeopleSoft customers. SAP denied there'd been anything improper and said Apotheker's letter referred to concerns it had about the future of the Java programming language.
Oracle and HP were in damage-limitation mode at the database giant's OpenWorld last week, following their Oracle CEO versus HP board spat over Hurd. Ellison had called HP's prosecution of Hurd potentially damaging to its relationship with Oracle. At OpenWorld, Oracle president Safra Catz and HP's enterprise business executive vice president Ann Livermore talked about the companies' great relationship.
Apotheker's hiring would suggest HP hasn't forgiven Ellison's remarks or forgotten. In fact, it has put a big fat reminder in Ellison's face about who it's dealing with by hiring some SAP blue blood. Apotheker's presence reminds Oracle that HP is its own company and his presence suggests HP will leverage its business' relationship with SAP in joint customers and work to deliver SAP apps on HP hardware as an alternative to Oracle.
Or at least, that's what HP wants Ellison to think and it's keeping him on his toes. ®