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Getting SASsy with the statisticians...

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18th May 2006
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SAS. The statistical software company. The one that has the user conferences full of eager and enthused bean counters and statisticians. Well, that's the way it used to be - or at least that's the way my memory conjures up the firm.

It's a totally unfair and inaccurate recollection of course, time playing tricks on this increasingly bewildered, hyped-out, PR exhausted old mind. SAS is 30 years old this year, celebrating nearly 26 years in business in Europe and one the most successful and yet most elusive software firms in the world. CRM, performance management, business intelligence - it's all going on.

Elusive? Yes, that's the word. SAS does't exactly hide its light under a bushel, but it does do an awful lot of things without any of the fevered marketing propaganda of certain other software giants. This doesn't always serve it well. For example, last week's announcement that it has been offering hosted BI solutions for years was seemingly only prompted by a more aggressive marketing campaign from Business Objects which decided to stake a claim to market leadership in this sector.

It also differs from many other firms in being able to boast thousands of happy customers. Now as a journalist I inevitably view every glass as half empty, but in truth it's hard to find a 'half empty' SAS user. This week's SAS Forum in Geneva was no exception: HSBC, HBOS, Barclays, Home Depot, the list went on and on and on.

You can tell they're happy as the SAS executives are only too willing to allow the media to wander around and talk to them. Believe me, there are certain other higher profile, sexier software firms that are terrified of a journalist getting within a country mile of one of their customers at a user event. One vendor once ferried the media down one corridor while shooing the users up another like cattle, desperate to avoid any contact between the two.

One of the reasons that SAS differs from other giants in the software industry is its status as a privately held company. CEO Jim Goodnight remains in tight control - and pockets a lot of money from the profits as a result. He can also lay himself and his company open in a way that the Ellisons and Benioffs cannot do without the wrath of the Securities and Exchange Commission coming down on him. It also means of course that he can choose not to reveal things if he doesn't want to as well...

Nonetheless, in a week in which SSA fell to a takeover bid - oh, the irony, the irony!!! - and looks set to be taken private itself by its new owners, Goodnight can rest assured that the direction in which SAS sails is firmly under his control and not the fickle whims of Wall Street investors who are all too ready to punish successful firms like Microsoft for not matching the greed of their expectations.

It's tempting to wonder how much longer it can go on of course. It's 16 years since I went to my first SAS user meeting. In those days they were called Seugi - which was very amusing at midnight in the bar when you amusingly decided to rename them Soggy, but I digress - and Goodnight was on stage doing live demos just as he was this week.

But without wishing him any harm, it can't last forever. Goodnight's in his late 60s. He's going to want to slow down at some point. He joked himself that the past 30 years had shot by and he was rather hoping the next 30 would be somewhat slower. The cliched question to ask Goodnight over the years has been when he plans to take the firm public; a more pertinent one these days is what the succession planning is going forward?

The continuity and stability that SAS has enjoyed for three decades has served it and its customer base very well. But companies that are built as reflections of their founders need to plan for the time when that founder is no longer at the fore. Inside Oracle, there is a special committee that thinks about life after Larry; Microsoft managed a seamless transition from Gates to Ballmer; Sun seems to be pulling off the same trick with McNealy and Schwartz. Let's hope SAS can do the same when the time comes.

It's nice to think that in an age in which hardly a month goes by without some consolidation in the marketplace there is a vendor that carries on its own sweet way and manages to retain a degree of independence that many other vendors can only envy.

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Stuart Lauchlan
News & Analysis Editor
[email protected]

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