IBM Tune In Lotus Song

As
a good sign, when Al-Zollar recently took over as  Lotus’ President and
CEO, he found the business to be in pretty good shape. Despite a tough onslaught
from Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes and Domino continued to lead the groupware
market in the US. Zollar now plans to stay in front by focusing on IBM’s
strength: its decades-long relationships with the world’s biggest companies.

“We tend to be concentrated in Global 2000 kinds of
enterprises, companies that really have unique needs,” Zollar says.
“If you look at where Microsoft might have an advantage, it would tend to
be in smaller enterprises.”

This is the message that Zollar wanted to send when he hosted
IT journalists from around the world at the launch of IBM Mindspan Solutions, a
new business unit that will use Lotus’ popular Notes and Domino software to
help businesses train employees efficiently. Mundane as it sounds, IBM thinks it
will become a $12 billion market worldwide, and Zollar is in charge of making
sure Big Blue gets the lion’s share.

Zollar started as a systems engineer in IBM working on
computer networking jobs for retailers and banks. Zollar took assignments in San
Francisco and Chicago and, in 1986, he joined IBM’s corporate staff in White
Plains, New York. It was a time when IBM was at the top of the heap. Then, as
now, it was the world’s biggest computer firm. But in the 1980s, IBM was more
than that. Its very name was synonymous with big-time corporate computing.

But in Zollar’s view, “It was also a time when I think
IBM fell out of something that had made IBM, which was staying close to the
customers…when you’re part of it, especially at the level that I was in the
company at the time, it’s hard to know exactly what the problem is, but you
feel that something’s not right.”

Zollar did perceive a key part of the problem–the rise of
the PC. Though IBM itself had made the personal computer a standard tool in
corporate America, the company was never able to dominate that market as it did
with giant mainframe computers. More important, IBM didn’t grasp how cheap
desktop computing would spawn new and mighty rivals like Intel Corp, Compaq
Computer Corp, and above all, Microsoft Corp.

In 1989, Zollar drew his first front-line managerial
assignment, overseeing quality assurance at IBM’s Santa Teresa lab, where the
company developed its DB2 relational database software and code-writing tools
for programmers. “I was in an environment where there were some of the top
technologists in the database industry,” Zollar says. That’s no surprise–IBM
scientists had invented the relational database.

Yet, the company failed to capitalize on its technical
mastery. Upstart database company Oracle took the lead, and IBM’s DB2 has
never caught up.

“Under the leadership in IBM at that time, we
stalled,” Zollar admits. One reason was that the company was in the throes
of its failed deal with Microsoft to develop a new operating system, OS/2.
“We were a little bit restrained on our ability to fully exploit the
Windows platform,” Zollar says, because company policy mandated
that DB2 be primarily designed for OS/2.

His appointment to the big chair at Lotus makes Zollar a
member of IBM’s senior management, and a possible successor to CEO Lou
Gerstner, who is 58. Zollar laughs at the thought–not for lack of ambition,
but because he does not approach each new job as a stepping stone to the next
one.

“I don’t worry about what the next job is,” he
says. “I act like this is the last job I’m ever going to have.”

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