EN PASSANT: The unbearable progress of being

EN PASSANT: The unbearable progress of being

They say he is one of the most careless dressers among Amercian CEOs. Anecdotes have him wearing trousers too short and suits that don't fit to the point of appearing scruffy.

But Joe Alsop is not exactly eccentric, not enough to make fashion history, anyhow. Were he not part of the East Coast establishment and living the part, one would be tempted to say he merely doesn't conform. But, in a culture that has made appearance an object of worship, he is a CEO of a multimillion dollar company with a dress sense unusual enough to be noticed. Does Alsop care? Probably not.

Bar the famously narcissistic and fashion-conscious Larry Ellison, not many in Alsop's industry do. It's the wonderful weird world of technology where no one dresses to impress and being careless about one's looks is a cultural code warranting instant recognition. It is also a world where "techies" are lumped into an aesthetic category referring to a person who rates technological savvy above social conformity, thus sanctifying fashion crimes before they're even committed. And the consensus is that Alsop, the founder and CEO of application software company Progress Software, is a techie at heart.

The eternal bridesmaid

If this wasn't his life's calling, Alsop's fascination with science and technology would probably be seen as another quirk. Long before he started Data Language, a 4GL (fourth generation language) tools company which would become Progress Software, his brother Stewart remembers him spending time in the basement of the Alsop family house immersed in the world of "oscilloscopes, chemicals and other scientific paraphernalia". Fast forward a few decades to the early days of the Palm Pilot and you may find yourself listening to a similarly "Alsopian" anecdote. "He had one - as he would," recalls Graham Sowden, former MD of Progress Australia. "At the time, Outlook Mail was the only mail system that was integrating with the Palm Pilot and [1200 Progress employees] were all going to move to Outlook Mail so that Joe could synchronise his [toy]."

Within this consuming passion for innovation lie the seeds of Alsop's business philosophy. The first company he founded fresh out of college (and sold to Logicon Inc in the early 1970s) built clinical lab automation systems and a disk storage system long before business automation became a management mantra. Later, his frustration with the difficulties in building business applications would prompt him and three company co-founders to turn rapid application development into Progress's raison d'etre.

But his commitment to excellence may well have cost Progress Software what would be a rightfully deserved spot higher up the ladder of sexy big boys in the software industry. Then again, to a person as unassuming as Joe Alsop, bigger and sexier might not be high on the priority list. "Progress, sexy? Hmmm, nobody ever made that connection," he reflects. Yet many would like to.

"They are a company with very exciting and solid products and a very strong, powerful following," says Sowden. "Unfortunately, they were too late with some of their products and so they don't have the corresponding market share." Alsop's brother Stewart, an influential IT analyst now working in the venture capital arena, disagrees. "[It all] depends on what you find sexy," he counters. "Right now, consistent performance over 20 years is looking a whole lot more alluring than lousy performance and bankruptcy in 20 months."

Indeed, neither Progress Software's shareholders, nor its customers should have a reason to complain. With revenues in excess of $US270 million and market capitalisation of slightly more than $US560 million, Progress is one of the most consistent performers on the market, and is currently delivering earnings of around $.68 per share. They have weathered the market storm, recovering from a 52-week low of $10.938 at the peak of NASDAQ's dot crash to a solid, if undervalued, range of around $16 per share. With the exception of the 2000 financial year, their revenue has increased year on year for the last four years, and with their channel remaining stable, they are likely to return to growth.

Meanwhile, industry research regularly rates Progress ahead of Microsoft and Oracle for the reliability, scalability and low cost of ownership of its database products. The oft-quoted figure of 2000 ISVs and ASPs using Progress products is telling enough. But market share and, perhaps more importantly, market perception of Progress remains a thorny issue. As Sowden, a Progress shareholder himself, puts it: "They're a bit of a bridesmaid, but never the bride.

Bold and sassy

Timing - or being ahead of the times - seems to have played an important role in Progress's inability to make it to the altar. In 1997, they snapped up a hot California-based Java startup Apptivity for a mere $US13 million to "round out its database and developer tools for heterogeneous, distributed Web-based networks". By comparison, in the same period Sun Microsystems spent $US160 million on acquiring NetDynamics and Netscape paid $US180 million for Kiwa Software. Many thought Progress had a winner. But, if this was the battle for a piece of the application server market, Progress picked a fight with a sharp-horned pack. BEA Systems, IBM, iPlanet, SilverStream and Sybase remain the mighty ringleaders, with Progress watching from the sidelines.

Then came the ASPEN program. Bold and sassy, the initiative was designed to leverage the existing investment in Progress technology by helping its ISV partners make an early entry into what was then seen as a potentially lucrative market segment. "The Internet presents enormous opportunities for our partners to ASP-enable their Progress applications . . . We expect to achieve the same level of penetration into the ASP market as we did in the embedded database market, [with] revenue growth between 25 and 50 per cent," Sowden was quoted as saying at the initiative's launch and while heading Progress's Australian operations. "I still believe ASPEN is a great program," Sowden says now. "But, I don't see much uptake in the ASP market yet."

However, ASPEN remains Alsop's pet project, though he communicates his commitment to making Progress master of the ASP playground in a typically understated way. "There is this tendency in the IT to overhype new developments in the euphoria phase, " he says. "But the cost of maintaining computing infrastructure has become very expensive - people-expensive - and businesses are looking at ways of economising. The ASP model is in line with this cost-reduction trend."

Natural progression

This line of argument illustrates what Stewart Alsop describes as "Joe's old-style approach to business - providing real value to customers over the long term, rather than trying to leverage the business to gain short-term shareholder value". And the younger Alsop is convinced "that's a good way to do business".

Sowden agrees. "Well, I haven't flogged my shares yet," he laughs. If anything, Sowden believes Alsop and Progress have got what it takes to make it big. Or bigger, to be precise. "They have some talented people and exciting emerging products - their messaging product [SonicMQ] looks particularly sexy, but they're going to have to crack it."

Whatever the future holds, one thing is clear - Alsop likes to follow the path of natural progression. "The last few years have been a very frustrating time to run a company," he says. "We have gone from having to justify ourselves for not being a dot com to being an employer of choice. Things have quieted down over the last 12 months because the market has shaken off the weaker players and people have a lot more realistic assessment of the impact of the Internet."

For Progress, this - as always -means figuring out how to bring value to the market. And Sonic, the company Progress has set up as part of its recent reorganisation designed to address the market in a three-pronged attack, may just be it.

But what of the story of jackets and pantaloons? Well, it could be just one of the colourful tales that tend to attach themselves to the Alsop family name. Sipping coffee on the 21th floor of the Sheraton on the Park on a rainy Sydney afternoon, Alsop has no reason to plead immunity before the fashion police. In fact, his jacket and trousers are impeccably matched - and not a centimetre too short.

He has just had lunch with Neil Gamble and faced the press several times over. Kind of ironic, given he's 's the newphew of one of America's powerbrokers of the Cold War era, the flamboyant journalist Joseph Wright Alsop V; and the son of equally influential Stewart Johonnot Oliver Alsop, whose name, as well as journalistic skill, were passed on to his brother Stewart Alsop II.

But Joe is no stranger to irony. Indeed, what could be more ironic than the fact that the Internet - the space both he and Stewart, the former editor in chief of InfoWorld, hold dear to their hearts - is full of conspiracy theories that connect earlier generations of the Alsop family with a web of political intrigue, espionage and even opium trade. Members of his entourage probably understand this all too well and comb the air with meaningful looks, intent on catching the culpable journalist in the act of asking too much. Or too little.

Meanwhile, Alsop chats away about the Polish customs officials who made him wash his hands "with some disgusting substance" when - a few days earlier - he went there to check up on one of Progress Software's global outposts. Prior to Poland, he was in the UK. Every subsequent stop at customs followed the same script of trying to convince the diligent keepers of continental health that his UK visit involved no farms. As he puts it, though part of a highly ‘viral' industry, he wasn't in the business of spreading foot-and-mouth disease. Hardly the stuff controversial interviews are made of. And much like Progress.

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