Dassault Systemes (DASTY ) is a master of virtual reality. But there's nothing make-believe about the Paris company's grip on its niche: making sophisticated three-dimensional imaging software for product design and manufacturing. With Boeing Co. (BA ) and Airbus Industrie both using its software, Dassault has no serious competition in the aerospace business. It's also the top software player in the global auto industry, with a 50% market share. Only last year, it scored a major automotive win by wooing Ford Motor Co. (F ) away from its top competitor, Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS ).
An offspring of French aerospace company Avions Marcel Dassault, Dassault excels at tackling complex technical challenges. Airbus used Dassault software to create a digital mock-up incorporating millions of specifications for the A380 double-decker, the biggest commercial plane ever built. More than a drafting tool, the software feeds data to factory equipment, improving quality control. Now, Dassault is developing software for Boeing's new 7E7 "Dreamliner" aircraft.
Chief Executive Bernard Charlès, who took the helm in 1995, runs a lean operation, keeping labor costs down by recruiting specialists for its operations in 21 countries, from mathematicians in Russia to software developers in India.
Dassault's next challenge is in product life-cycle management -- that is, creating software that allows manufacturers to interact with suppliers and customers not only during design and construction but also during maintenance and modifications of equipment. "We want to handle the management of all the parts," says Charlès, 46.
Dassault hasn't escaped the global downturn. It expects 2003 sales to grow less than 6%. But the company is gaining market share, and its stock has rebounded sharply. That's the kind of virtual reality investors can live with.
By Carol Matlack in Paris