A hard turnaround for software

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.


Software companies caught in a downward spiral find it exceptionally difficult to escape. Yet a determined few succeed.

Mark Blumling, Kevin A. Frick, and William F. Meehan IIIThe McKinsey Quarterly, 2002 Number 3 While executing a turnaround in any industry can be a difficult task, digging a software business out of trouble is a Herculean one. Certain product, financial, and labor market forces unique to the sector reinforce one another when a software company is performing well and also when things start to go wrong. With the right formula, companies can ride a wave to fantastic success. When the environment changes, they must battle mightily to avoid being sucked into the abyss.

The odds against turning a software company around are thus extremely high. A McKinsey study showed that out of 492 companies defined as struggling, only 13 percent were subsequently able to revive themselves (seesidebar, ”

About the research“) an unusually low proportion. Yet turnaroundsarepossible, and the rewards make the effort worthwhile.

Why is it so difficult?

Software turnarounds are tough because, at the first signs of trouble, forces specific to the industry can combine to create a deadly downward spiral.

Take product market forces. Software is a winner-takes-all business in which three factors the need for compatible technology in networked environments, high switching costs, and increasing returns to scale unite to ensure that only a small number of players in most market segments survive in the long run. SAP, the German provider of enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) software, illustrates the phenomenon: by the mid-1990s, it was such a clear leader in its market segment that it was able to claim, “We spend more on R&D than our competitors have revenues.” This winner-takes-all phenomenon favors companies as they race toward market leadership but exacerbates the difficulties of companies that fall on hard times. Switching costs, for example, are high because software is expensive to integrate into corporate IT systems; this hurts the losers because once a network has been configured around new software and employees have been trained to use it, the company isn t likely to switch to a vendor that might not be around to provide upgrades and service in years to come.

Forces in financial markets are another consideration. The volatility of share prices in the software sector reflects the cyclical nature of demand for information technology and, more important, the intangible nature of assets such as employees, customer relationships, and technology. The importance of these intangible assets the essential drivers of economic value for software companies is magnified by their s calable character and the winner-takes-all dynamic of the business. But it is notoriously difficult to price them, so investors must rely on revenue and earnings streams as proxies for their value. Software companies benefit when their performance is rising, as their return on invested capital can exceed 50 percent and grows extremely quickly. During a downturn, however, they are hit twice once for their actual financial performance and again for what it implies about the value of their assets. If insolvency looms, investors flee because there are few residual assets to divide.

Finally, labor market forces contribute to the spiral. In most software companies, stock options form a large part of the employees compensation. Once a company starts to fail, it can suffer a massive attrition of its workforce as options lose their appeal. The most valuable employees tend to leave first, diluting the company s intangible-asset base at the time of greatest need. If the company tries to hang on to this talent by increasing pay, net income suffers, thus further reinforcing the vicious cycle.

How to turn around a software company

To escape from this spiral, a company must address huge challenges: revitalizing its core business, investing in new category killers, and ruthlessly cutting everywhere else. It must also regain the trust of financial markets by achieving liquidity, profitability, and growth. Finally, to attract and retain talent and to create a commitment-based culture and organization, the company must staff a core turnaround team and enable it to act quickly. This is a tall order, but companies such as PeopleSoft and Intuit have shown that it can be done.

Revitalize the core business

During boom times, the “land grab” mentality of most software companies drives them headlong into new geographies, products, channels, and customer segments. Given the overriding importance of scale within the industry, this approach is not only sensible but frequently imperative. When changing market conditions, strategic mistakes, new technologies, or shifts in customer demand abruptly end the boom, though, companies that have grown unselectively or neglected their core business find themselves saddled with bloated costs and with poorly defined products and services.

The first requirement for such a company is to peel back the layers it added during the land grab phase and to locate the distinctive part of its business the part that once made it a market leader. This is usually the core software product, along with the customer and network relationships and the customer channels connected with it. More often than not, it suffered from neglect and underinvestment as the company expanded into other areas.

A practical starting point is the use of a handful of key customers preferably leaders in the industry to guide the company s redirection of its business. The loyalty of this group will also provide a base of customers who can serve as references for new business. Such endorsements are very important in software, since it is an “experienced-based” product. PeopleSoft, which suffered from overexpansion and a downturn in the ERP market in 1998, revived its core ERP business by responding to the demand of its leading customers that it replace the client-server architecture of its previous products with a new World Wide Web-enabled product, PeopleSoft 8.

Ariba too is working with leading customers in an effort to restore itself to health. The company saw its market capitalization dive to $1 billion, from $40 billion, between October 2000 and October 2001 as the bottom fell out of the market for e-marketplaces, in which it had invested heavily. Ariba had neglected its core franchise: the provision of enterprise procurement software to help businesses manage their spending on office supplies. The company has now turned to its customers to discover what really drives procurement savings limitations on purchases from nonapproved suppliers, for example so that it can prioritize its R&D investments and so refine its principal offering.

Software companies targeting the broader consumer market should also examine ways to develop their core franchise. Intuit fell on hard times in the mid-1990s, when the market for consumer financial software began to mature and the company s Quicken software for personal financial management was challenged by a powerful new competitor: Microsoft Money. After Intuit found that its customers increasingly used the Internet for financial services, it responded by investing heavily in the development of server-based financial-services software through the Web. The resulting Quicken.com software was one of the first successful on-line offerings in the consumer and small-office segment. Because the package was quick to access and easy to integrate with on-line financial services, it became a great success.

Invest in new category killers

Revitalizing the core business is just the first step. Software companies also need to come up with new category killers: products that will claim a market share of at least 30 percent. As with efforts to revitalize the core franchise, senior managers should draw on the views of leading customers, analysts, and partners.

Choosing investment opportunities is important, of course, but in all likelihood the most difficult challenge for senior managers will be actually turning these investments into concrete and distinctive successes. To have even a chance of winning against specialized competitors in this highly competitive industry, a company must have tremendous financial and human resources as well as a keen focus. Most unsuccessful companies handicap themselves by diluting their efforts across a variety of growth options.

Growth initiatives can be generated internally. Lotus, for example, suffered in the late 1980s, when Microsoft Excel challenged its core franchise: the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. The company responded by investing heavily in programmer Ray Ozzie s vision of a software platform that would foster collaboration in large networked organizations. The result, Lotus Notes, became one of the most widely used enterprise software applications in the industry s history.

Some companies have difficulty creating growth options in-house. In these cases, mergers and acquisitions, though fraught with risk, can offer a quick way to establish a position in a new market. When PeopleSoft looked for a product to complement its ERP package, it decided that its weak position in the fast-growing area of customer relationship management warranted the strategic acquisition of Vantive, then the second-largest firm in that sphere. PeopleSoft paid $426 million quite a sizable amount relative to its market capitalization. But the resulting marriage of front-office (customer relations) and back-office (ERP) applications created a comprehensive e-business suite that no rival could match. Coupled with the introduction of PeopleSoft 8, the acquisition helped the company s share price to rebound from $16 in June 1999 to $43 two years later.

An acquisition also helped revive Manugistics, a developer of supply-chain-optimization software. The company hit a low point in 1998, when its stock price plunged by 72 percent, to $12.50. In 2000 it acquired Talus Solutions with the aim of expanding into the nascent field of pricing- and revenue-optimization products and services. Manugistics built its complete e-business supply-and-demand network by integrating its original product with Talus s profitability-optim ization solutions, which fine-tune the scheduling and pricing of processing time. That same year, the stock price of Manugistics soared to $241.

Cut ruthlessly everywhere else

Heavy investment in winning products must be paid for with cuts elsewhere. PeopleSoft, for instance, halted three of its large product-development projects, laid off 15 percent of its workforce, and redirected its remaining 1,500 engineers to develop PeopleSoft 8. The same relentless focus is necessary when a company develops new category killers. Any project that lacks the potential to achieve hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue must be scrutinized and, probably, eliminated. A company that fails to make these hard decisions has a poor shot at restoring its business to health.

Win back the trust of financial markets

A software company can reestablish its credibility with investors by setting clear expectations and consistently delivering on them. The most pressing need is often to establish liquidity through a one-off infusion of cash because where tangible assets are few, equity investors can become skittish if a lack of cash becomes an issue.

Improving the use of working capital is the usual way of generating a one-off infusion of capital internally. A company can shorten its collections process for receivables and extend the process for payables, to give an example, while making sale and leaseback arrangements for its few fixed assets. Externally, short-term loans can sometimes be secured against the value of receivables. Given the lack of tangible assets, long-term debt options tend to be limited. But issuing new equity or equity-linked instruments is a possibility albeit not a cheap one, since investors tend to buy at a discount when companies are in trouble.

As a second step, a company must increase its profitability. Profits are a measure of the health of intangible assets; without profits, investors will question whether the company really has a successful franchise in a market where leadership is crucial. Profitability and liquidity are also essential to make the financial community believe in businesses that compete in an industry in which 90 percent of a growing company s share value may reflect cash flows that will be generated more than ten years in the future. Moreover, a higher share price is vital if cash-strapped companies are to improve their strategic growth possibilities, such as mergers and acquisitions, because it provides a currency they can use to execute deals.

There are several ways to improve profitability in short order. A company can change the scope of its operations by eliminating products, customer segments, distribution channels, and geographies that are not linked tightly to its core franchise or growth options. It can increase its efficiency by improving the deployment and processes of its staff. And it can control outlays on IT equipment, office supplies, travel, and outside services areas that might account for 30 to 40 percent of overall spending but that are often overlooked in the search for cost cuts. On such items, our experience demonstrates, savings of from 10 to 20 percent can be achieved, thereby enhancing a company s operating income by 3 to 8 percent. With a view to reducing total expenditures by 15 to 20 percent, PeopleSoft, for instance, reduced perks such as catered lunches and took a hard look at spending on telecommunications, travel, and information technology.

Appoint a turnaround team

Regaining the confidence of the market is one thing, but companies must look to their own organizations as well. When a company is sliding, senior executives tend to los e credibility, attrition within the ranks becomes rampant, and organizational discipline grows slack owing to poor management during the land grab years, when growth at all costs was rewarded.

To put all this right, a company must give a turnaround team the power to act fast. First, the board of directors should decide whether the current CEO who often has an entrepreneurial mind-set and might have forfeited the respect of customers, investors, and employees by making too many unfulfilled promises has the skills to execute the transition from growth to cost cutting and organizational discipline. The worse the situation, the more probable it is that the CEO will be forced out and an outsider brought in to manage the turnaround.1

A CEO hired from outside is likely to turn over the management of the company in order to change its skill sets and improve its credibility. He or she must first select five to ten senior lieutenants, who, whether old or new to the company, must receive professional and financial incentives to stay for at least two years (usually the time interval needed to reestablish stability) as well as the latitude to act quickly.2When the time came to arrest the declining fortunes of PeopleSoft, for example, founder and CEO Dave Duffield recognized that his dislike of bureaucracy and budgets did not make him the best-qualified person to provide day-to-day operational discipline. He brought in as CEO Craig Conway, an experienced software chief executive with strong operating skills who promptly replaced two-thirds of the company s senior managers with more seasoned executives.

As soon as the turnaround team is in place, the company should identify and secure the loyalty of its top 25 to 50 leaders in product development, sales and marketing, and services, for they can represent a substantial part of its intangible capital. The presence of these people, whose skills, charisma, and leadership qualities set an example for other staff members, usually helps stem the tide of defections. To retain and attract crucial talent, the company must offer career opportunities, financial incentives, and a compelling vision of its future. PeopleSoft, for instance, gave vitally important employees a special retention bonus of share options and cut the vesting time3in half.

Impose organizational discipline

With this top talent secured, the company has to introduce a disciplined organizational framework. The product-development unit, for example, must ensure that it meets its release deadlines no matter what external pressures emerge in the market, while the sales unit must implement rigorous account-management processes. At PeopleSoft, Conway quickly imposed strict accounting controls that prevented any investment greater than $100,000 from being made without his approval.

Tightening the reins is essential to turnarounds in any industry. The difference in software is that companies often need to put essential skills and controls in placebeforestarting to tighten discipline. One provider of enterprise application software, with revenues of almost $1 billion, had to institute a budgeting process before it could rein in spending.

Only one software turnaround in eight suc ceeds. While the principles we have outlined provide a blueprint for recovery, management s commitment is just as important. Checking boxes isn t enough; success depends upon making the truly hard decisions.

About the research

To determine the probability that a software company could achieve a successful turnaround, we studied the ups and downs of all US publicly traded software companies in business for two or more years from 1990 to 2001, a time frame that covers varying economic climates, several product generations, the popularization of the Internet, and the dot-com boom and bust. Of 814 companies, the total returns to shareholders of 492 declined by 50 percent over a two-year period relative to the S&P Computer Software & Services Index. Using the 50 percent figure as the baseline, we then analyzed the performance of these 492 troubled software companies over the subsequent two years.

Only 13 percent (64) had a successful turnaround, defined as a 30 percent or more increase in total returns to shareholders relative to the index. Included were companies (such as BEA Systems, Oracle, and PeopleSoft) that have since claimed a place among the world s 25 most valuable software companies. Another 13 percent halted further declines in value, while 15 percent were acquired. The value of 59 percent continued to erode (exhibit).

Return to reference



Mark Blumling is an alumnus of McKinsey s Silicon Valley office, where Kevin Frick is a consultant; Bill Meehan is a director in the San Francisco office.

1A McKinsey study of the performance of more than 200 companies from 1986 to 1996 showed that those whose CEOs had been forced out performed three times as badly (as measured by share price performance relative to the index) in the run-up to their departure as companies whose CEOs left voluntarily. The odds of bringing in an outsider as CEO were five times greater when a departure was forced, indicating that boards are truly looking for a new approach.

2George C. Mueller and Vincent L. Barker, in “Upper echelons and board characteristics of turnaround and nonturnaround declining firms,”Journal of Business Research, 39 (2) 1997, pp. 119 34, note that companies in turnarounds are more likely to have CEOs who also hold the title of chairman, indicating that they have greater authority.

3The time period after which the employee gains the right to the options.


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