When you first meet Infor CEO Charles Phillips, you can’t help but notice that he’s a tall (6′ 3″), graceful, and impeccably dressed man. Years ago, before he was a tech mogul, he was a captain in the Marines and it still shows.
But hang with him for a while and you’ll soon realise, besides being a CEO, a marine, a lawyer, an ex-Morgan Stanley Wall Street MBA, a computer programmer, and the former No. 2 guy to Larry Ellison at Oracle — deep down, he’s really just a geek.
He’ll be the first to admit it. “I’m a gadget guy,” he laughs. “I’m addicted.”
He always carries at least two cell phones that run on two networks because he’s an email/IM addict and service in New York is spotty. (A Samsung Galaxy Note II on AT&T and an iPhone 5 on Verizon.) Both phones can stream music from his private cloud music server that holds 45,800 songs, which he set up himself using Subsonic.
Sometimes he wears his Pebble watch, too. His most recent purchase? A Leap Motion controller for playing hands-free video games at home.
We recently spent a day with Phillips at Infor’s modern new Manhattan headquarters and at one of his New York charity events, too. (Disclosure: Infor paid our travel expenses.)
A Surprising Guy
Phillips was constantly surprising us. For instance, even though a driver ferried us around Manhattan in a Jaguar sedan, that’s not how Phillips usually commutes.
Most days, he just takes the subway. (“It’s faster, less traffic.”) This, although he can well afford to travel in style every day. He earned $US3.2 million last year and about $30 million a year from 2008-10 when he was at Oracle.
We were also surprised to learn that like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Phillips always answers his own email. He wants his employees to instant message him. No assistant. No kidding.
Another thing that surprised us was the company that Phillips keeps. On the one hand, it’s not shocking that Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, is his close friend. Salesforce is an investor in Infor and a big partner.
But about once a month, Phillips gets together with fellow basketball fans Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst and SAP’s co-CEO (and native New Yorker) Bill McDermott, to watch a game.
He does this even though SAP is one of Infor’s biggest competitors. (The other is Oracle.)
“Business software is a small club,” he says.
A ‘Steve Jobs’ Approach
Infor makes enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. This is software that tracks all the moving pieces of a business and makes sure a company has enough supplies to meet sales.
Infor’s claim to fame is specialisation. For instance, it has a version just for bakers, one is just for brewers, one for shoemakers. Ditto for other industries like health care, textiles/apparel, automotive, finance, tech, etc.
Normal ERP software is ugly. It looks like a spreadsheet or a form.
But, when Phillips joined the company in 2010, a few months after he resigned from Oracle, he wanted to change that.
Phillips is an art, music, fashion, and design-lover and he wanted his company’s software to be beautiful.
Like Jobs, Phillips approved every detail of the redesign right down to the icons.
After rejecting the icons’ redesign a bunch of times, he had an epiphany. He didn’t need technical help; he needed artists.
So he built an internal creative agency, called Hook & Loop, located at the company’s New York headquarters, and staffed it full of 80 writers, designers, developers, and filmmakers — not the usual assortment of people that create enterprise software.
“We didn’t just want to make icons look better, but to really look at what people were doing,” he said.
He sent these designers to customer sites to watch how people worked.
That’s also reminiscent of Jobs and his relationship with world-class product designer David Kelley, founder of the IDEO design lab. Kelley created Apple’s first mouse.
The Hook & Loop designers decided that ERP software needed to be more like Facebook than Microsoft Excel.
Instead of filling out a form, the software lets people chat while it automatically links to sales info, human resources, and purchasing orders. It spots problems and sends alerts.
It launched in July.
Next up: He envisions business software working with new types of devices like 3D printing, Google Glass, or and gesture controllers like Leap “for manufacturing and design,” he says.
Imagine Tony Stark’s lab, from the movie “Iron Man” and you’ll be on track.
Defending an ageing business model
That’s not to say all of his ideas are forward-thinking. He prefers the old enterprise software model of closed “proprietary” software. If a baker or shoemaker needs a special app, Phillips wants Infor to write that, maintain it and, ultimately, own it.
But there’s a huge developer movement that rose up in the past few years in backlash to the vendor-control model. It’s called open source software. With open source, code is visible and users have the legal rights to change it to suit their own needs.
While Phillips likes the open source concept, he’s not offering it to his customers. Some of Infor’s previous software was open source “but that pre-dates me” he told us.
He says his customers found the custom coding to be too expensive to do and maintain. “They had their turn at being software developers and they didn’t like it,” he says.
That’s a pretty controversial stance. Open source lovers, which includes many young developers, have an almost religious zeal about openness.
A hands-on leader
Infor has 13,000 employees in 38 countries, but Phillips has tried to make the company feel as small and nimble as he can.
When he joined Infor, he took a number of Oracle execs with him, including Duncan Angove who became Infor’s president of engineering; Stephan Scholl, Infor’s president of sales; and Pam Murphy, Infor’s chief operating officer.
In the new headquarters office he built, which opened in October, his office is on the main floor and it doesn’t have a door.
Instead, he and his top execs sit at a square table in an open room with built-in speakers that have fantastic acoustics. A wall-sized monitor controls a corporate music play list and various employees randomly get to select the tracks for the day.
Any employee can wander in, and often, visiting employees from offices in other locations do, too.
Phillips will personally hang with them and sometimes he’ll return the visit.
He just took a trip to the Philippines after one of the employees located there stopped by New York headquarters while she was on vacation. When she met Phillips, she invited him the office there and, much to her amazement, he took her up on it and immediately booked a trip.
So far, it seems to be working — Infor is growing.
Here are some stats:
- In 2013, Infor hit almost $US2.8 billion in revenues, up from $US2.2 billion when he first joined.
- It has nearly 13,000 employees worldwide in 38 countries, over half in the U.S., with 3,000 new-hires in the last 18 months.
- It has 70,000 customers in 194 countries, including Cigna, Adidas, Wells Fargo, BMW, and Intel.
- About 3 million people use Infor’s cloud software.
- In 2013, it landed 3,000 new customers.