When Lawrence Weinbach (left), president and CEO of Unisys, took over the reins in September 1997, Unisys was viewed by many in the industry as a slow-footed dinosaur whose business was still centred on the mainframe. But during the past 18 months, he has sharpened Unisys' focus on services and products for Windows NT, and helped shape the organisation's systems integration and "repeatable solutions" businesses. Weinbach recently spoke with IDG's Ed Scannell about the keys to Unisys' remarkable turnaround - repeatable solutions and services, abandoning its PC business, and its love affair with Windows NT.
IDG: What is Unisys' strength in going up against other multibillion-dollar vendors, such as IBM and HP, which also offer total solutions?
Weinbach: It depends on what areas you are talking about. If you look at our repeatable solutions, we have tried to pick out those solutions where we aren't going head to head with everybody. We have picked out niches in the market.
But where we have come up with solutions, we feel they are best of breed and we have done it on our own or through partnerships. If we can't build as good a mousetrap as our best competitor, then I ask: "Why should I invest in this part of the business?"
Technically speaking, where do your strengths lie in comparison to your larger competitors?
In networking, the differentiator we have is that we are willing to do multi-vendor solutions.
Other vendors say they do, but if you look at IBM, they just do IBM, basically. HP basically supports HP. Compaq is moving Digital away from other organisations and into Compaq.
What is an example of a repeatable solution, and how is it different from anything else being offered today?
We have one in the publishing industry called Hermes, which enables a newspaper to change its editorial content on the desktop, almost right up to publishing time. It saves them about three hours from the old-fashioned method of getting the newspaper lined up. It ties all the desktops into a single system that has the flexibility of moving editorial content around that environment.
The fact that 120 newspapers around the world have bought it demonstrates its effectiveness.
A lot of larger solutions-oriented vendors are going after the NT services business. Where is the niche in that business for Unisys?
We are going after the very high-end, mission-critical kinds of applications that require scalability and availability, and we are doing it both from an application and hardware stance. You can buy services bundled or unbundled. You don't have to pick our hardware with it.
How hard or easy a decision was it for you to get out of the PC business last year?
It was not an easy decision. When I first came here, the organisation saw itself as a hardware company. I felt we had to transform into a services company with a hardware arm, not a hardware company with a services arm.
There was also a lot of internal emotion about the PC business. Being an outsider, and looking at the situation on an unemotional basis, I was able to look at the PC business and could ask: "How can we compete?" So if you can't compete, you might as well get out.
Do you have a vision for what electronic commerce should be and how to go after that opportunity?
Our vision is that we are not going to be dealing with consumers, we are going after the business-to-business opportunities. The goal is to have the capability to enable businesses to do business with a consumer or another business. Second, we will use e-commerce for our own business.
The middleware products we have are all business to business. Some look at e-commerce as a transaction where you buy something and pay for it. We look at e-commerce in a wider context than that.
You have said the ERP market has peaked and may be waning. Why do you think so?
There was an enormous demand for ERP coming into Y2K. People knew that they had to fix their old system and/or put in a new one. There was tremendous demand. I don't think [the ERP market] will go away entirely, but the demand will not continue to accelerate, it will flatten out. More and more customers are concluding, "now that I have my costs under control, I have to start worrying about the front office".
That is why CRM [customer relationship management] to me is going to be much more critical than ERP in the market.
As the president and CEO of a multinational company, are you concerned that the organisations Unisys does business with, including those from Asia, Africa, and South America, might be behind in their year 2000 solutions, which may adversely effect your business?
Asia is further behind, but you have to remember that in Asia you have to make a decision: do I want to survive or do I want to be Y2K compliant? I would survive and then worry about Y2K.
The implication is the supply chain though, because the stuff that comes out of Asia is very, very significant. If I had to put up my warning flag, it would be the third party coming into our company - the supply chain that we are getting out of the country where they have not done a lot of Y2K work.