Meet the CEO Trying to Make Business Software...Beautiful?
By Vanessa Fuhrmans
Charles Phillips is no stranger to reinvention. A captain in the Marine Corps in his 20s, he went on to become one of the dot-com boom's most influential sages as a technology analyst for Morgan Stanley. In 2003, Larry Ellison plucked him to be Oracle Corp.'s president and lead a seven-year, $35-billion acquisition spree.
Mr. Phillips' latest transformation has him turning the privately held business-software provider he joined as chief executive in 2010, Infor Inc., into a formidable, albeit smaller, rival to Oracle, in part by designing products with a more intuitive feel and building applications for industry-specific processes.
Infor, for instance, created a software tool for brewers that measures the quality of hops and ensures vats are full to maximize productivity. To recruit more software-engineering and design talent, he relocated the firm to New York City from Alpharetta, Ga., in 2012.
Infor is now taking the approach to a vast array of businesses at Koch Industries Inc. Early this year, the conglomerate -- widely known for the conservative political agenda of the brothers who control it, Charles and David Koch -- invested more than $2 billion in Infor, a stake that values the software firm at roughly $10.5 billion. Infor is designing and developing software for the shareholder.
Mr. Phillips, who is active in Democratic politics and planning to start a nonpartisan political-action committee with other African-American executives, says the partnership doesn't change Infor's strategy.
"It just gives us a lot more ways to get there," says Mr. Phillips, who recently sat down with The Wall Street Journal in New York. Here are edited excerpts:
The Wall Street Journal: Did the investment from Koch spur questions from employees?
Mr. Phillips: Initially a couple customers and employees asked about that, but far less than I thought. I've been active politically for so many years and supporting many Democratic candidates and other causes, I already had a known view that people knew wasn't going to change. [The questions] went away after the first couple of weeks.
WSJ: You and your executive team have an unusual office arrangement. How does that work?
Mr. Phillips: None of us have offices. We have basically an oversize square table, and the entire executive staff sits around it. There are no secrets, if you're sitting around each other every day. We move a lot faster than a normal company. We don't have to wait three weeks to call a meeting for an hour. We're just doing it on the fly.
WSJ: You created an in-house design firm to make business software more elegant and intuitive. What's driving that?
Mr. Phillips: The users who grew up using Apple devices and smartphones -- at some point, they are going to demand that. Your personal computing devices are better than what businesses build and use, at least from the user standpoint. It's a different type of person who understands how to build applications that are beautiful and exciting. That's one of the reasons we moved to New York -- because a lot of people come to New York to study and work in design.
WSJ: As a technology analyst, you used a toll-free number to network with industry executives. Does 1-800-MR-CHUCK still work?
Mr. Phillips: I give it to clients. A lot of these customers, they're CEOs or CFOs trying to buy something they view as risky. They don't really understand technology. I write it down on the back of my card, say 'Call me if you get nervous, anytime -- 24/7.' That goes a long way with people.
WSJ: What lessons did you take from working with Larry Ellison at Oracle?
Mr. Phillips: The best thing I learned at Oracle was speed. Speed is better than perfection. If you're sitting around for six months debating something, usually the thing you're debating has changed over that time. You're never going to get a consensus, so let's make a decision and go and we'll, of course, correct it if we have to.
WSJ: What did you decide to differently at Infor?
Mr. Phillips: I'm a bit more hands on, engaging with people at all levels of the company, making people feel a sense of purpose. The best leaders in the Marine Corps were the guys who created a relationship with the people in their unit so that those people didn't want to disappoint them. That is hard to get in business, but the military has that and I try to draw from that more.
WSJ: You've switched careers several times, occasionally with personal and professional setbacks. Take us into your mind-set as you've made those big transitions.
Mr. Phillips: One of the things my father taught me is: Do things that can be measured, because you can't rely on people liking you. You won't have the same access as maybe some other people, but if you can perform and demonstrate that you can perform, people will always take the next step with you. That's been instrumental for me because I could always demonstrate numbers-wise or something technical that worked.
Write to Vanessa Fuhrmans at firstname.lastname@example.org