|Home - CEO Spotlight - Sep 03 Issue
CEO Spotlight: Gerald Cohen, Information Builders
By Angel Mehta, Managing Director, Sterling-Hoffman Executive Search
Angel Mehta: You started Information Builders back before the category of 'business intelligence" even existed…tell me about the early days of the market…how did you get involved in 'business intelligence" applications in the first place?
Gerry Cohen: I actually graduated as an engineer doing what was called, “Operations Research” which is essentially the application of mathematics to business problems. One of my early jobs was with a company that had a customer who needed a lot of information processing. We came out with some code that really was an early version of what we would call today a business intelligence application. We eventually developed that into a product called, “Ramis” and I suppose that I was the original author.
In '75, we formed Information Builders and we released a new product called “FOCUS”, a real 4th Generation language…
Angel Mehta: That must have been quite a break through at the time…
Gerry Cohen: It was. So I suppose I'm actually the author of the idea of 4th Generation languages…28 years ago, everything was done in COBOL, so even getting a report was difficult. The system analyst would describe the report to a COBOL programmer, and then the COBOL programmer would write code to get a report. So we said, “Gee that's silly….You ought to have a very simple way of getting what you want! Without using a programmer”….So a 4th Generation Language was a way of using ordinary English to get the report. We were the first English processor, in fact.
Angel Mehta: The demand must have been huge.
Gerry Cohen: It took off like wild fire. In those days IBM mainframe was the dominant player, so we had a HUGE marketplace right there. When the mini computer was introduced, we moved Focus to the mini computer marketplace. When client server came in we moved to the client server….Then of course, when the Internet came in we had success with products like WebFOCUS which would allow a person to use a browser to interrogate a database in real time….
Angel Mehta: So how would you define Information Builders" place in the business intelligence sector?
Gerry Cohen: We're in the space that's probably best called, “Enterprise Reporting” The marketplace has sectors like analytics, OLAP, data mining – we're in the sector that is basically information delivery.
Angel Mehta: You've been CEO of Information Builders for probably over 20 years, which is obviously quite a bit longer than the average CEO tenure. Why do you think you've lasted so long?
Gerry Cohen: First of all, private companies very often have long tenured executives; I'm not unique. A majority of our upper-management team has tenure that exceeds 10 years.
Angel Mehta: Is there something you can point to about Information Builders that has allowed it's executives to stay with the company for that amount of time?
Gerry Cohen: A couple of things. First, we're a private company not a public company. Second, we're New York City-based not Silicon Valley-based. It's a different culture here. Silicon Valley's approach is more of a “get rich quick” mentality. You know, change jobs and get big stock options…cash out and move on. Whereas on the east coast I think there's a somewhat different ethic. It's more of a long-term view, a building mentality. Plus, Information Builders doesn't have these large ups and downs to deal with…our people are not going out looking at their stock price everyday or trying to figure out how much their options are worth. They just focus on creating value.
Angel Mehta: Have you found it more difficult to attract new executives to the management team as a result of remaining private?
Gerry Cohen: No. The only time we had problems was in the height of the dotcom era and everyone wanted options. But now, we've got waiting lists of people who want to come to work for us. Options create other problems. Look at Microsoft. Microsoft lost a whole ton of guys who got rich on their options and just left because they got too rich to bother working. How does that help Microsoft? I mean, do you think they stopped giving stock options out just because the rules have changed? I think they had too many rich guys that just left and said, “I'm rich I don't have to work here anymore”. There's a huge change in regards to the people that we used to deal with that wanted options all the time; they're all gone.
Today, we get more stable employees. We treat them well and they like working here. We're not out all obsessed over the next quarters earnings so that everybody's under pressure and worried about getting fired because you didn't make your numbers. Which is not to say that we don't manage earnings or targets – we do. But I think the general culture in the private company is more congenial.
Angel Mehta: So given the opportunity, and obviously you did have the opportunity in the bubble to do an IPO, did you face pressure internally from some of your staff to go public?
Gerry Cohen: Everybody was calling us up and wanting to know when we were going to do it. They were like, 'Gee, you're crazy – now is the time to do it!" And hey, maybe I was wrong…maybe we should have gone public in that era. However, I always say to people: you never know. Nothing is stopping us from doing an IPO in the future…. I don't know what will happen in the next five years. It's likely that some of them could still happen.