Managing the maelstrom Featured

9:52am EDT July 22, 2002
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Bill Forquer found himself in the midst of a whirlwind when his company was purchased in June 1997.

It wasn’t the first time. The then-president and CEO of Information Dimensions Inc. already had seen two ownership changes and several management reorganizations in his company, founded through Battelle in 1986.

This change, however, was different.

“On Day 1, we had a $23 million business, but we had no HR department, we had no legal staff, we had no financial system in place, we had no bank accounts, we had no cash and we had no building,” he recalls.

The company’s previous owners, Battelle and OCLC, had provided those operational structures. But new owner Gores Technology Group expected the established software companies it invested in to operate as stand-alone businesses. So in the first 90 days, Forquer had to establish an entire business infrastructure while continuing to market the Dublin-based company’s information management software and help employees adjust to a new compensation plan.

“That was just a really challenging period, but also a very rewarding and satisfying one, because we did very well,” Forquer says.

Maybe too well, in fact. Within just one year, Information Dimensions exceeded the financial goals of its investors, who decided the time was ripe for a sale — to Ontario, Canada-based Open Text Corp.

“I had my first meeting with them the first week of April,” Forquer recalls. “By the first week of May, we had a letter of intent, and by the first week of June, the deal was done.”

The new ownership meant Forquer’s title and duties would change for at least the sixth time since 1993 and employees and customers would adjust to yet another management strategy.

Each change brought its own challenges. At times, leadership issues and company culture differences tempted Forquer to abandon ship. In addition, the company's financial performance was erratic between 1990 and 1995, affected by market conditions and the product line, as well as the ownership situations.

Through it all, however, Forquer’s dedication to the product and to his fellow employees kept him with the organization. To weather the continual changes, he’s sought constants: the culture of the organization, a focus on the product and a dedication to the customers.

The personnel factor

One reason Forquer stayed through the tumult is the people within the organization. Indeed, about 60 of the 100-plus local employees have stayed as long as Forquer.

“There is a strong fabric and culture to this organization that has been the strength,” he says. “I think it’s a culture of innovation, of one where you’re not necessarily saying all the same things the rest of the world is saying. There’s a bit of cowboy or renegade culture. Part of this is because our products have always been on that leading edge.”

Forquer also credits original management for establishing that culture and previous owners for respecting it.

“Nobody did anything to screw that up,” he says. “I think everyone recognized that as a strong asset of the organization and made sure it was protected.”

Forquer also took strides to protect employees and earn their trust. When he took over as president in 1996, while the company was with OCLC, he initiated Hat Chats, Friday all-hands meetings to talk about projects and the operation of the business. He even shared the company’s financials so employees could see how they were contributing to profitability.

He credits this open book management approach with holding the company together through other changes. Under Gores, for instance, the employees’ base compensation was rolled back in exchange for lucrative profit sharing, a move that resulted in a few employee departures but a renewed focus on profitability for those who remained. Those employees also felt empowered by the fact that Information Dimensions had become a stand-alone company under the Gores’ ownership.

Whenever possible, Forquer gave employees timetables for upcoming changes so they’d know when — and whether — they’d have a job under the new ownership.

“Delivering bad news or even the possibility of bad news is better than not saying anything or leaving people up to their own devices of what may happen,” Forquer says. “And I think you have to earn the trust of employees that you’re looking out for their best interests. When you’ve earned that, people are more likely to accept the fact if your answer is, ‘I can’t tell you.’”

About 10 of Information Dimensions’ 100-plus employees lost their jobs during the changeover to Open Text, but that number would have been more than double that had Forquer and Open Text not taken steps to find places for as many employees as possible.

For example, Open Text was subcontracting its shipping work, so to save money — and jobs — that task was transferred to someone already handling similar duties within Information Dimensions.

“One guy told me I reminded him of the governor of Ohio,” Forquer says. “I was out stumping through Open Text trying to bring jobs to Dublin.”

Confidence in the product

Any executive whose company faces a set of changes needs to focus heavily on current sources of revenue and income, Forquer says.

“If they screw that up, the amount of change is going to be significantly more than the changes you think you’re going through now,” he says.

Despite all the company changes Forquer has weathered, the product, BASIS— Information Dimensions’ entire revenue stream — has remained essentially the same: Technology for business systems such as records management centers, corporate libraries or research centers.

What has changed, Forquer says, is affordability of the applications and the ways of generating content. Research Forquer worked on while Information Dimensions was part of OCLC, for example, uncovered the importance of using Web technology to deliver the same product.

“We took an immediate right turn and changed the product plans we had been pursuing,” he says.

Another product development has come with the latest ownership change as Information Dimensions finishes its first year as Open Text’s BASIS division, named after Information Dimensions’ product line. Employees spent 12 months integrating the products — and themselves — into Open Text, and now they’ll begin cross-selling Open Text products as well.

Money talks

Hand in hand with focusing on revenue sources during an ownership change comes an emphasis on current customers, Forquer says.

“If you’re going through change and feel like you’re on the sideline of that change and it’s going to run over you and you can’t do anything about it, money talks, and the financial situation of an organization talks,” Forquer says. “When you’re sick, you go home, and home for a business is its current customers.”

Just as he did with employees, Forquer provided as much information as possible to customers. Fortunately, most of the changes did not affect them, he says, because they saw a familiar set of names and faces.

Because the company kept its Information Dimensions name through most of the changes, customers reacted with, “Fine, you got sold again. Big deal,” Forquer says.

In some ways, the most recent change is more visible to customers because the corporate identity is now Open Text. The product identity, BASIS, remains strong, however, which helps. So does the fact that the BASIS division continues to host all-customer annual meetings to discuss products and changes.

“The other thing we did is we came out early on, because there had been so many ownership changes, and told them what we were doing,” Forquer says. “We distributed a white paper of plans for the year to customers. By the time of the meeting, we showed them where we were, and have continued to operate and beat what we said we were going to do.”

Forquer has also spent a lot of time in the past year traveling to customer companies, such as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in North Carolina; DuPont in Wilmington, Del.; Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta; and a host of businesses in Europe, to keep them informed about the changes.

Forquer’s focus on customers and the company’s product came as a result of choosing his battles carefully, despite the fact he sometimes felt he had no control over the myriad ownership changes.

“There’s change you can initiate, there’s change that’s going to happen regardless, and there’s change you can affect the way it goes,” Forquer says. “I think every executive has to learn to read a situation and know what situation they’re in and how to adapt to that.”

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com)is a reporter for SBN.

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