by Thomas Wailgum

So Long, SAP’s Leo Apotheker, We Hardly Knew Ye

Feb 07, 2010
Enterprise Applications

SAP's CEO is out of a job: What Leo's doomed administration had in common with U.S. President Barack Obama's reign.

On a winter Sunday that’s known mostly for the rather large football game in the United States, news broke in Germany of an executive shakeup at ERP juggernaut SAP. SAP CEO Leo Apotheker, less than a year into his tenure as SAP’s sole chief, was sacked out of his job.

It seems like just yesterday Apotheker gave his debut CEO keynote at SAP Sapphire 2009. His speech, which highlighted BusinessObjects Explorer, lasted roughly 75 minutes.

To Apotheker, his time in the top spot probably seems as brief as that speech. And though the timing of his departure was a little surprising, the move was not.

Rumors swirled around his noticeable absence at SAP’s 2009 Influencer Summit in December. Disappointing Q4 and 2009 financial results most likely cemented his fate.

Did he inspire? Did he play well with the Board? Did he fully understand the difficult transition SAP needs to make right now to have a successful future? Good questions.

There were missteps, for sure: The ‘Olive Branch’ to Larry Ellison (re: Sun and European holdup) that backfired; the ill-advised “pledge” to get to 10,000 Business ByDesign customers by 2010; the maintenance embarrassment and flap with SUGEN; and simply not having the ability to anticipate and act on the historic transformation happening in enterprise software, and why Big ERP is D.O.A.

But somebody at the top had to be out, right? Somebody had to be the fall guy, right? Somebody needed to be blamed for SAP’s misfortunes, right?

In many respects, I always felt like Apotheker’s reign was similar to U.S. President Barack Obama—both men inherited a glamorous, high-profile position that was in a world of hurt when they were sworn in. They were the top dogs, for sure, but their predecessors did them no favors by shackling them to the ideologies and strategies of the previous old-school regime. They’ve been “in the suck” ever since.

Back in the spring of 2009, I wrote an article for that examined the mysterious world of tech CEO succession planning. The article offered an instructive contrast between SAP’s and Oracle’s succession planning strategies (among other vendors).

Herbert Heitmann, chief communications officer and head of SAP global communications, walked me through the carefully orchestrated, years-long talent management and planning process that SAP follows—from Dietmar Hopp to Hasso Plattner to Henning Kagermann and finally to Apotheker.

This methodical and transparent process stood in stark contrast to that of its chief competitor Oracle. For decades, Oracle has been reluctant to even hint at a potential successor for legendary CEO Larry Ellison, and heirs apparent have been reticent to talk about their futures, lest they become too much of a superstar for the ego-driven Ellison’s liking and find themselves shown to the door.

In Apotheker’s case, the succession planning process doesn’t seem as methodically purposeful and well-aged as in years past, with the CEO on the way out and the CEO on the way in “co-CEOing” with each other for a year or so.

SAP is, in fact, returning to its co-CEO model, and the competition or co-opetition (pick whichever you like) between head of field organization Bill McDermott (a polished exec) and head of product development Jim Hagemann Snabe (a product chief) has begun. Good luck, gentlemen.

And to you, Leo, auf Wiedersehen.

Follow me on Twitter @twailgum.