How Bill Conner refocused Entrust Featured

8:01pm EDT September 30, 2011
How Bill Conner refocused Entrust

Bill Conner was constantly busy as the president and CEO of a publicly traded company.

In leading the security solutions company Entrust Inc., he and his team had so much to keep up with, and it was exhausting. So he decided to take the company back to being privately held about two years ago. It freed up his and a lot of other people’s time.

But the decision wasn’t just good from a time management perspective; it also gave them a new opportunity to really focus on new capabilities and customers and transform the business, which had more than $100 million in revenue last year.

Smart Business spoke with Conner about how he led the changes in his organization.

What’s the key to leading a transition in your organization?

Understand if your corporate strategy fits the environment you’re in. There are a lot of discussions about how big do you need to be to be public these days. I think that’s a real question.

We were certainly not big enough and simple enough to be a public company. Our products are very complex. Our customer base is 45, 50 percent government contracts. That’s hard to get predictability for an average investor or even a sophisticated investor, so understanding how your corporate capability and vision and industry fits and in what kind of market was the first thing we had to really look at in terms of assessing that and we did that.

Then really understand your customer and how you differentiate to that customer. Is it customer service or technical support, or is it your product or your sales and marketing and how you get your product to your customer?

How can you assess your business to know if you’re in the right environment?

The first thing is a good dose of reality. It’s always hard to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Yeah, I’m getting a few years older — the gray is showing.’ But you really have to have the ability to look at it and say, ‘What’s working and what’s not?’ and not take it personally, and take the personal action to get it out and see if the team agrees or disagrees with that.

What tips can you give for leaders to be brutally honest?

Always start with data and the numbers — good old GAAP. Some people think you can take them out, but they’re pretty good numbers. If your competition is doing better than you by the numbers, nine times out of 10, it’s not that they don’t have integrity and they’re faking their books — it’s they’re doing something different.

What we did here was look at the revenue line to see if maintenance was going the way it should, was product revenue going the way it should, and was professional service going the way it should. We measured all of those and then we looked at all our products and how they were doing. How are they competitive with the products out there? What were customers telling us about them? Then we looked at the cost side. Be brutally honest. Were we spending too much in sales? Was our sales force making their quotas? Who was the best? Who was not the best? Did they have a plan or were we going to get rid of them? R&D — is it working or are they just putting more features and functionality on there and it’s taking it longer?

Most people, if they’re honest in that first stage and do the analytics around that stage, the numbers aren’t going to lie. The only thing that’s going to lie is your own team, and that starts with you not lying about what you think is good and bad and communicating that, and them not lying to themselves or being conflict avoiders to avoid it.

How do you avoid lying to yourself?

It’s easy to do. It’s kind of like sand — you squeeze it in your hand, and the harder you squeeze it, the less it’s there. We try to say, ‘OK, our hands are pretty full of sand, let’s mold it and not try to squeeze it just because we’re stressed.’ We just try to control it. You have to control it but you have to control it in a different model, in a different framework.  

How to reach: Entrust Inc., (888) 690-2424 or www.entrust.com