Commentary: SAP's Software Visionary Bows Out

It didn't get much notice, but should have. On Mar. 13, Hasso Plattner, co-founder and longtime chief executive of Germany's SAP (SAP ), announced he would step down as co-CEO in May and become chairman of the company's board. Plattner, a youthful 59, has achieved something remarkable: In an industry where the U.S. is undisputed king, he took a small company located in dairy country outside Heidelberg and turned it into the world's third-largest software maker.

Plattner is not nearly so well-known as William H. Gates III of Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ) or Andrew S. Grove of Intel Corp. (INTC ), but his impact on corporate computing compares with their influence on the PC world. Before Plattner, run-the-company software was custom-made for each corporation and housed on expensive mainframe computers. SAP delivered packages that companies could install, adapt to their needs, and run on less-expensive Unix and Windows machines. It meant that tens of thousands of companies could acquire the world's most powerful computing systems at a fraction of the cost. This enabled a generation of CEOs to reengineer operations around SAP's software. "He's a seminal figure in the development of the modern software industry," says analyst Bruce Richardson of AMR Research Inc.

And he has picked a rotten time to leave. At SAP, in addition to his role as software visionary, Plattner was the chief marketer, risk-taker, and internal change agent. The tech industry is in a lull right now, with tepid growth and lackluster innovation. It needs leaders like Plattner to get it back on the fast track. "It's not clear who will lead the next wave of change," says WorldCom Inc. CEO Michael D. Capellas, who had run Compaq Computer Corp.

Plattner has never lacked for vision -- or drama. At SAP's huge user conference last June, for instance, he set aside his script and, echoing Ronald Reagan's challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev, he urged Gates to "tear that wall down" and adopt the Java programming language -- which lets software programs from different companies work better together. Sure, he could be over the top. Once, during a sailboat race against rival Lawrence J. Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corp. (ORCL ), he mooned Ellison's support boat when it didn't stop to help after Plattner's mast broke and a crew member was seriously injured. But Plattner's virtues far outweigh his high jinks.

Why did he choose now to step down? He says it was part of a succession plan. And he looks forward to focusing on technology without being saddled with day-to-day duties. But you have to think the tedium of the tech recession must have something to do with his decision.

To be sure, Plattner is leaving SAP in able hands. His co-CEO, Henning Kagermann, is a superb manager. While Plattner handled marketing and innovation, Kagermann made the trains run on time. He also shifted the company's 9,000-strong field sales and service organization from selling technology to solving customers' pressing problems.

The question is whether SAP without Plattner will be nimble enough to adjust to changes ahead. Plattner was slow to realize the importance of the Internet, but, once he got it, he forced a staid German engineering culture to jump on a Net bandwagon traveling 90 mph. "What he does is, he questions everything. He doesn't have sacred cows," says Kevin S. McKay, who was CEO of SAP America Inc. from 1998 to 2000. "But it's one thing to have a founder who is willing to shake the tree. It's harder for other people to do that."

The designated tree-shaker now is Shai Agassi, a 34-year-old Israeli entrepreneur Plattner brought in two years ago. He's in charge of new-product innovation. Agassi calls himself SAP's "odd bird," since he's an outsider based in Palo Alto, Calif. But he says the engineering leaders back at headquarters in Walldorf, Germany, consider his ideas, even if they don't accept all of them.

That may be fine -- for now. It's O.K. for Plattner to spend his spare time on his boat, Morning Glory. But when the computer industry's innovation engine starts cranking up, Hasso Plattner may be sorely missed.

By Steve Hamm

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