It seems now that the big question for SAP isn’t about new technology, or new competitors, or even new revenue streams. It’s about whether charismatic founder and co-chairman Hasso Plattner will be leaving soon.
The question came up again at SAP’s European user conference, and it has been the subject of a lot of ink. Of course, this isn’t just about whether Plattner deserves to spend his time sailing instead of selling. The real subtext is whether SAP can survive without Plattner, and who, if anyone, could fill his topsiders.
It’s a line of reasoning that is very U.S.-centric, and in order to understand the inside answer on how long Plattner will be around (which I’ll provide at the end of this column) it’s important to know why it really doesn’t matter that much what Plattner does.
We Americans have this tendency, particularly in high-tech, to embrace what the Soviets used to call the cult of personality. That tendency leads us to blur the lines between companies and their founders or CEOs: think Oracle and Larry Ellison, Microsoft and Bill Gates, Sun and Scott McNealy. We do this for a lot of reasons, most of them reflective of how important the “great man” theory was in the building of our nation.
The irony of this thinking is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: We believe so much in the model that we can’t imagine how Oracle would look without Larry, or Siebel without Tom. And if ever Larry or Tom should leave, every stock broker in the country would short the stock in a second.
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Europe doesn’t have this cultural heritage, and so the Plattner factor is, ironically, more about playing to American tastes than it is about reality. We, the media and analysts, invented Plattner’s importance in order to fit SAP into the mold of a software company like a Microsoft or an Oracle. He’s hugely important, make no mistake about it, but he’s more important to us, the American audience, than he is to SAP. Truth is, he’s hardly the only one running the show. In addition to Plattner’s co-chairman, Henning Kagermann (who is anything but a figurehead), German companies like SAP have both an executive board and a supervisory board, the former of which provides SAP with considerable bench strength for day-to-day management.
So what would happen if Plattner left tomorrow? From a PR and sales standpoint, Plattner would be missed. He energizes the company, helps cut the difficult deals, and makes outrageous statements while retaining an unmistakable charm. But I contend that from a management standpoint, there would be no gaping holes. Unlike most U.S. software companies, SAP’s executive ranks are filled with old-timers like Claus Heinrich and Peter Zencke, who have been running SAP for 15 and 18 years, respectively, not to mention Kagermann’s 20-year tenure. And there’s new blood as well: Shai Agassi and Leo Apotheker, the former at 34 one of the youngest-ever members of a German board, and the latter a 15-year veteran of SAP himself.
Sure, Plattner is important, essential even, to the perceptions of leadership that we ascribe to SAP. And he has been instrumental in building the company into a major force not just in software but in global business. It’s just that we’re talking about a German company, and a particularly well-managed one at that. If and when Plattner goes, he will be missed. But it simply won’t be the disaster for SAP that the departure of Larry or Tom would be for their respective companies.
So when is Plattner leaving SAP? Not any time soon. I’ve been watching him pretty closely for over 10 years, and while there is no doubt he’d often rather be sailing, running SAP is still essential to his personality. My honest guess is that the subtle management changes SAP started to set up this year — giving Kagermann and Apotheker more operational and sales responsibility and getting Agassi and Apotheker on the board — are part of a plan to let Plattner spend more time sailing and less time running SAP. But you’ll be seeing a lot of Hasso Plattner in coming years. He still got a lot of SAP left in him.