How Bill Priemer makes the tough choices that keep Hyland growing

Bill Priemer was COO of Hyland, creator of OnBase, a few years back and something was troubling him about a new venture the enterprise content management (ECM) software company was launching in Japan. Sales weren’t hitting the objectives even though preparations and precautions had been taken — and Hyland had a Japanese partner, too.

“When we first entered the Japanese market, an organization came to us to represent our product here,” Priemer says. “We did a lot of due diligence on this company, and it was a fine company.”

So the Hyland team went ahead and translated the software, localized the materials and hired Japanese-speaking people to supply support to users.

“It turned out we did not succeed with that partner; we did not come close,” Priemer says.

But there was the proverbial silver lining in the cloud, or as they might say in the software industry, an Easter egg.

Hyland’s efforts drew the interest of a larger organization that represented similar types of technology in Japan. The organization was impressed with the preparations Hyland had made and wanted to take the software to market in Japan.

“So we partnered with them, and they delivered to us hundreds of customers, and they still are our primary partner in the country and region,” says Priemer, who became CEO and president of Hyland in 2013. “They have generated enough business to justify Tokyo as a regional office and tech support center for all our Asia-Pacific business.”

While it may seem that everything just fell into place, if the Hyland team hadn’t given the venture enough time to prosper — and had pulled the plug prematurely — it would never have drawn the second organization’s interest.

“That’s a really important point,” Priemer says. “You have to be honest with yourself as to how an initiative is going. You can’t fool yourself into thinking that something is working, that you’re having success when you are not.”

By taking an honest assessment of how the business is going and using restraint before pulling the plug, you give it a chance to succeed — or you give yourself an opportunity to find that next thing that will be even more successful than the first.

“That initial opportunity and risk assessment might have been given a lower confidence rate based on several considerations,” Priemer says. “We might have said we don’t know if this is going to work, if this company has done this before, if the company was big enough to have pulled this off or if the company had ever successfully taken an American product to market in Japan.”

All the questions could have expressed enough doubt that Hyland might have backed off on its decision to enter the Japanese market.

“But such a decision wouldn’t have led to the thing that worked and ended up being so important to our business,” Priemer says. “I see that scenario playing out time and time again over the course of the history of our company.”

With successes like that, it’s easy to see how Hyland has grown by a compound annual growth rate for the last decade of between 15 and 20 percent per year. With 1,800 employees, including 1,330 in its Westlake headquarters, the company is realizing more than $300 million in annual revenue.

Here’s how Priemer directs the growth plans at Hyland, the second largest ECM company in the world, whose sights are set on becoming the No. 1 ECM global player .

Hyland2Find the confidence factor

Business leaders take great pains to turn over all the stones when evaluating the potential success of an acquisition, new product, a foreign market or other project. By assigning a confidence factor to an initiative designed to grow a company, several ideas can be considered at a time.

But how company leaders decide on a project’s fate often takes some gut-wrenching decisions.

Hyland frequently finds that a route of familiarity is a valuable path to follow. Priemer says proximity in geography or similarity in function is weighed heavily.

“Is it an immediately adjacent market, or is it an application of a technology similar to something that we have done?” Priemer says. “The farther afield you get, and if it is something we haven’t already done and had success at, that’s where our confidence threshold has to be reduced a little.”

In markets where a company already has a good footprint and a strong customer base, it’s a relatively straightforward process to determine what additional operational challenges can be solved in that environment.

“For example, in financial services, health care and higher education, we have a lot of customers already,” Priemer says. “All we have to do is ask them the right questions, listen to what they are telling us, involve them in the process — ‘What if the product or the solution did this? Or it did this?’ Show it to them. ‘Does this make sense? Is this resonating?’

“Get some of them to collaborate in the process, to be early adopters of the solution. Then creating new products or solutions should be relatively straightforward and low risk.”

For those cases in which it appears financial projections over three years may not be met after launch, executives need to acknowledge that likelihood.

“But I lean toward trying and if I hear a compelling business idea or a market opportunity, I absolutely endorse trying,” Priemer says. “One thing I know is, if you don’t try, nothing will transpire; you’re not going to produce anything.”

Look for the core

While there is so much to consider when thinking about business growth — what to look for, what to do, what to prevent, how it will be received, how any initial sparks can be fanned into a roaring fire — the key is to sort out the noise and get to the core.

Priemer finds that examination of “big bets,” those potentially lucrative investments needing significant resources to launch and maintain, need to consider these areas:

  • Trends.
  • Culture.
  • Competitive landscape.
  • Newness of the company to the market.

Meanwhile, there are risks to keep in mind. These three represent what Priemer finds are often the most evident:

  • Not hitting the revenue targets.
  • Not getting customer adoption.
  • Not getting the desired return on that investment.

“In addition, don’t take risks that will put in jeopardy your financial solvency, the reputation of your company or your ability to deliver on commitments already made to existing customers,” he says.

Priemer says your gut feeling has to be taken into account as well when it is decision time.

“Your gut then may kick in, as well as a little bit of courage in your conviction that this is going to work, or ‘we are going to find a way to make it work or an opportunity that does work,’” he says.

“If neither happens, you are going to have learned a great deal to apply to the next situation that has some similarities.”

Get tuned in

Certain businesses have an easier time expanding just by the nature of their product or service. The less hardware, machinery and property needed, the more cost effective it is to venture geographically.

By being in the software business, Hyland realizes the advantage of being in an industry that doesn’t have to set up new machinery when launching a new venture.

“You can actually enter a new market or new customer segment with a contained amount of effort and cost,” Priemer says. “It might just need some slight modifications of the product.

“So we are apt to just go ahead and do something and see if we get traction in that market. We’ll keep doing it if we see light at the end of the tunnel and modify our approach to see if something will happen there, or abandon it if it is not working. We do undertakings like that all the time.”

For the bigger bets, in the last several years Hyland has instituted a formal strategic planning team. The team assesses trends, the size of the market and the competitive landscape. Projections are made of how a project may succeed financially over the next three years, and critical dependencies are identified that would enable that success.

The strategic planning team approach was launched about the time Hyland entered the health care systems market. An organization had approached Hyland, wanting to market the company’s product into hospital systems.

“So we had to invest in product capabilities, in sales and support people; we didn’t know anything about health care at the time,” Priemer says. “The organization proposed OnBase to one of the largest hospital networks in the country, but it was going to stretch our company capabilities.”

The partner organization, however, had already worked with that customer and together felt confident the business arrangement between all parties could be done.

But there was a glitch in the matter.

“That partner organization ended up being bought by another technology company, and it decided to stop the effort entirely,” Priemer says. “There was the first risk right there — that this partner organization we were relying on would back out, or in this case, was acquired.”

Hyland had to decide if it was going to continue to pursue this business in health care and support one of largest hospital networks in the country with a relatively new, relatively unproven solution.

“We decided that we would; it took a lot of work, but we succeeded,” Priemer says. “That organization is still a customer of ours today. It was so well-known in the health care market that it served as our primary reference site when we went to sell the second hospital, and the third and the fourth and so on.”

Today, Hyland supports 1,600 health care organizations.

“It started with that relationship and that customer, both which had risk involved with them. It proved to be a springboard for what is today the largest segment of our business — the health care market,” he says.

Timing is critical

When Priemer says the biggest task that growth presents is the people challenge, it’s about the training and ramp-up side — and its timing. It’s not just about an employee’s experience.

“There is really not a role within Hyland in which we expect someone to be really productive in less than six months,” he says.

“Our core values and core competencies are both invaluable in helping us manage growth because if we can be clear with the company goals and objectives, and we can identify, hire and retain, and hopefully get some inspiration to, people who will act in line with the core values, and then have the core competencies as part of their fabric — if we do those two things alone, we are going to succeed.

“Those core values are our family, our customers, our partners and our solutions are configurable and intuitive to use, and you’ve got passionate people who are very excited about what they are doing,” Priemer says.

When a new growth initiative is about to embark, the entire package has to be there. In any given solution, whether it’s a geographic or technology area, you need people to specialize in those areas.

“All your company capabilities have to be there at the right time,” Priemer says. “So you can be out in front with marketing a given solution, but if you don’t have enough salespeople trained to follow up on the demand, you’re going to be wasting your money.

“If you succeed in both, you will generate a lot of demand, but now you have to implement what you have sold. So do you have enough consultants trained to install that kind of solution?

“You can do all that, and then you have to support it. If you are doing all that, is the product and its components that make up the solution ready for prime time? Are all the features and functions there? Is this fully tested?”

This all has to come together at the right time if you are trying to expand your business in a growing company, a new customer segment in global trade organizations or a new technology area.

“In new areas, it’s not just hiring a couple of people,” Priemer says. “It’s hiring the people across the spectrum of capabilities and getting ready. If you don’t get the timing right, it’s going to be a burden on other people. It’s going to be frustrating. You risk disappointing your customers. With the new initiative, you just don’t have any tolerance for that.”

How to reach: Hyland, creator of OnBase, (888) 495-2638 or

  • Determine the confidence factor for new ventures, and it will help your decision.
  • Opportunities arise even out of failing projects.
  • Proper timing is critical for any “big bet” to have a fighting chance.

The Priemer file

Name: Bill Priemer
Title: President and CEO
Company: Hyland, creator of OnBase

Born: Cleveland. I grew up in University Heights.

Education: St. Ignatius High School, and then Boston College. I had a double major in political science and English. Then I went to Northwestern University to get my master’s degree in marketing.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

I caddied. I think you learn the value of customer service. You are trying to get a tip, and to be polite, respectful and all those things. Then I had an exterior painting company in college. That was my first exposure to entrepreneurship and my first exposure to the power of the team and an organization.

Who do you admire in business?

A couple of people. My father, Gordon Priemer, is an entrepreneur; his work was in commercial and industrial real estate, and you have to be a risk-taker in that business. I would also say my colleagues at Hyland, Packy Hyland Jr. and his father Packy Hyland Sr., and my predecessor, A.J. Hyland, who is Packy Hyland Jr.’s brother. He was the one that felt identifying our core values and our adhering to them was going to be of paramount importance. I think he was also the one who said if we take care of our people and make Hyland a fantastic place to work and to grow your career, then we will be able to attract and keep phenomenal people. That is going to translate into phenomenal products, great customer service and customers that just rave about us.

What is your definition of business success?

I think it is about individuals within our organization making the most of their potential, becoming the best versions of themselves that they can be, making as much of an impact on the company and on others around them that they can possibly make. It’s also helping your customers achieve their missions, and making the most of their organizations’ potential. If we do that for our customers, our organization and the people of our organization, that is going to be business success.