At the end of the week in which he became CEO of quote-to-cash vendor Apttus, Frank Holland got on the phone Friday with diginomica for his first media encounter in the job. It's been a tumultuous six months for the company after founding CEO Kirk Krappe left abruptly in July, followed by a private equity buyout by Thoma Bravo, which closed in October. What Apttus most needs at the helm now is what we Brits call 'a safe pair of hands' to steer a steady course.
Holland is certainly an impressive catch for Apttus. The twenty-year Microsoft veteran was previously Corporate Vice President of the vendor's multi-billion-dollar Dynamics business software division, and prior to that ran Microsoft's $4 billion-a-year ad sales business. This is a track record that demonstrates his credentials as a "growth operator," he tells me.
But Apttus may need more deft handling than that implies. The Thoma Bravo acquisition brought a leadership shake-up that's already seen the company appoint a new CFO, Controller, Chief People Officer and Chief Legal Officer, while the Chief Strategy Officer has left without a replacement being named. Meanwhile, the optimism expressed when Thoma Bravo closed the deal was overshadowed within a matter of weeks when a Business Insider story surfaced troubling allegations of "dysfunction and unprofessional conduct" under Krappe's leadership.
Holland is clearly keen to see the company move on from this turbulence. When asked whether morale has been dented by the allegations of impropriety, he replies that he's found a positive atmosphere:
The morale that I've seen has been pretty strong, people seem very engaged. People see the opportunity and want to be a part of it ...
Whatever happened in the past, I don't see evidence of it being a problem now.
He's focused on three priorities, he tells me — operational excellence, customer focus, and creating a strong culture. In that, he adds, he'll be building on what's already been achieved under executive chairman David Murphy since the acquisition closed.
Partnerships and acquisitions
Given his long service at Microsoft, I'm curious what that background implies for the longstanding partnership Apttus has with Salesforce. The core Apttus product runs natively on the Salesforce platform, and although it was subsequently ported to also run on the Microsoft platform — and recently added IBM — the bulk of its business still comes from Salesforce customers. Holland says Apttus will continue to invest where customer demand dictates:
I am remarkably unbiased about this. You could tell me the majority of customers have moved to platform X, and that is where I'd say we should build out our capability. I've got just as large an ambition to work that way with Salesforce and IBM [as with Microsoft]. And deliver the most business value for our customers.
With the backing of a strong private equity investor, some are wondering if Apttus may embark on acquisitions to expand its functional or market footprint in what it terms the middle office space between traditional CRM and ERP. Holland tells me Apttus may want to enter other areas beyond its core offerings of configure price quote (CPQ) and contract lifecycle management (CLM), such as revenue management, but doesn't offer any specifics:
We do want to be a leader and we understand there may not be organic opportunities we can satisfy. There may be technology we should be taking a look at. But I don't have an opinion on where those might be right now.
Middle office and Max
The priority for now is to properly define the company's messaging around what middle office means for customers, he says, as well as applying its technologies such as its AI-powered digital assistant, Max. Each of those has the potential to make a big impact over the coming year, he believes:
If we do those things right — define the middle office as a real value center for customers and deliver technology like Max that helps business value accrue to customers — if we could show that happening at customers in a year's time, that would look like an enormous amount of success.
That was what motivated him to take the job, he says, when Murphy and the Thoma Bravo team first approached him in November:
Apttus has a pretty deep technology moat around its solution, and the market's pretty difficult to enter. That appealed to me because of the journey [the company] has had.
The objective is to get the leadership position in the middle office, which someone is going to have ... There's a real leadership mantle Apttus holds now and the ability to grow into a dominant player.
My sense is that Apttus is wary of giving too much credence to the allegations that have been reported, but whatever has gone on, the company does need to clear the air. In an open letter on the company's website, executive chairman David Murphy writes of "a commitment to improving the areas where Apttus may have fallen short." That's welcome, but even better would be an unambiguous statement of the standards Apttus now upholds.
Having said that, Holland is a substantial hire who, with his Microsoft background, brings what you might call "grown-up" credentials from leading a multi-billion-dollar business unit in a respected, established technology vendor. Thoma Bravo is living up to its pledge to bring professional leadership into Apttus.
Holland will now have to prove his mettle in the rather different environment of a SaaS unicorn. His mission is to help Apttus grow up as a business while accelerating the pace of its growth. That's going to be quite an achievement if he can pull it off.
From our perspective, it's particularly pleasing to hear him talk about customer proof points. We're keen to hear those stories too, and look forward to the opportunity to do so over the coming year.