Your problems, his profits

If you own a PC, you know the meaning of frustration. So does Gordon Eubanks, who has built a software empire on their shortcomings. Ian Grayson talks to the CEO of Symantec
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Almost everyone who uses a personal computer understands the meaning of frustration. Sudden system crashes, lost files and obscure error messages always seem to happen at the worst possible time. It is as though something meant to reduce work and make life easier often does just the opposite. No wonder people feel like throwing their computers out of the window.

Gordon Eubanks understands these feelings. But rather than a frustration, for him they have been a huge opportunity. For the past 15 years he has worked to find ways to make computers more usable - to remove their technical hassles and allow people to get on with work. In the process he has built the world's sixth-largest software company, Symantec.

Founded in 1982, Symantec Corporation has annual revenues of more than $500m. The company has achieved rapid growth through an aggressive programme of mergers and acquisitions - 18 in all - and now ranks as one of the industry's biggest players.

This is no mean effort. To succeed in today's software industry requires foresight, determination and an ability to work well under pressure - skills Eubanks developed early in his career.

Before entering the turbulent waters of the software industry, Eubanks honed his talents in a very different environment. Working as an officer aboard a American nuclear submarine, he took part in military missions in oceans around the world.

"It was very good training," he says. "I learned to work hard and work under pressure. On a typical two-month voyage you'd average around four or five hours' sleep per day. You soon learn how to function under stress and just how far you can go."

Eubanks's fascination with computers began well before he dived beneath the waves. While at university he took a series of summer jobs, one of which was at IBM. Immediately captivated by computer technology and its potential, he accepted a full-time position.

There was little time to learn the ropes. After a brief introductory session, Eubanks found himself facing his first challenge. "I came back [from the training] and they said: `OK, here are two books. They will tell you how to program a 360 in assembly language and here's the address you're going to on Monday. We told them you're an expert in this.'

"I spent the whole weekend studying the books and got through it. I actually ended up enjoying programming."

Eubanks continued his technical career after being drafted into the Navy. As part of a computer science masters degree in 1976 he wrote a compiler program that was released as a commercial product. Unable to provide the service and support necessary to ensure its success while on missions, Eubanks enlisted the help of his mother. While he chased Russian submarines around the world she built up and ran the company he had established. Once out of the Navy, he sold his company to Digital Research, where he worked for two years before buying Symantec.

In its early days, Symantec was a one-product organisation. Acquired by Eubanks in 1984, the company sold a low-end integrated software package incorporating a word processor, report writer and database. While this was a profitable area for the company for the next few years, things were to change. During 1988 it became clear to Eubanks that Microsoft was going to dominate the integrated application market with its Office software suite.

Suddenly the future looked bleak. Faced with a rapidly declining market share and the might of Microsoft, Symantec needed to change tack fast. It was then that Eubanks made a move that was to determine the future of the company. He decided to expand into computer utilities.

Utilities are not the most exciting of software products. They don't create fancy graphics, help to design documents or play great games. They are essentially house-keeping programs that keeps computers healthy and running as they should.

Symantec's drive into the utilities market took a major leap forward when the company acquired Peter Norton Computing, a leading developer of PC utilities and anti-virus products, in 1990. This was a crucial acquisition, as it provided the company with an expanded range of utility products and gave it entry into the rapidly growing anti-virus market.

"It's interesting that what we started out being successful at we completely walked away from when we moved into utilities," says Eubanks. "In retrospect, that turned out to be the right decision for us. I see our vision now as being able to increase our customers' productivity, and make their computers safer and more reliable. This is where our expertise lies."

Determined not to repeat history, Eubanks has ensured that Symantec has not become overly reliant on one product group. In 1993, the company acquired Contact Software, developer of a contact management package called ACT! Designed with sophisticated features, ACT! has become a popular product among sales people needing a way to organise large numbers of customer contacts.

In 1995, Symantec acquired Delrina, a communications software company with products designed for laptop computer users. Sales in this area have continued to expand.

Eubanks is confident Symantec's impressive growth rate can be maintained. He has restructured the company to ensure it maintains focus on the three customer groups it serves: desktop and laptop computer users needing security and assistance, mobile professionals, and Internet and intranet developers. He feels this three-pronged approach will ensure Symantec is still in business for many years to come.

"What motivates me is to create a company that endures for a long time," he says. "It's easy to say it is not the money, but in a way it really isn't the money - it's also the fact that you are creating jobs and opportunities for people.

"If I was just looking for how much money I could make, I would take a whole different strategy. This isn't about maximising individual wealth but about the long-term success of the organisation."

Eubanks believes that enduring companies share two key characteristics. First, they value people over assets. Second, they allow "invention in the margin" - enabling staff to explore new and unproven ideas and areas in the belief that profits will follow.

Gordon Eubanks is full of enthusiasm for the future. Although not actively looking for further commercial acquisitions, he does not rule out more purchases further down the track. "It's a bit like fishing," he says. "You keep your line in the water to see what is there."

Of the trends shaping the software industry as it moves towards the Millennium, Eubanks identifies two elements as being particularly important.

"One of the biggest is the Internet. Some of the predictions we make about it will not eventuate, sure, but that doesn't take away the importance and the huge impact it will have."

The second is the development of a pervasive, high-capacity communications infrastructure. "We are going to see a lot more high-bandwidth communication channels available and this will have a big impact on all our lives."

Watching and reacting to such trends is critical for Symantec. Being an industry leader today does not guarantee success in the future. But with an ex-submariner at the helm, the company seems unlikely to find itself in over its headn

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