Beware of startups run by dobermans

Jacqueline de Rojas is aiming to use people power to transform the data base company Informix into a serious internet player
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The Independent Online

Jacqueline de Rojas is a good example of a global citizen: her father was Chinese, she studied in Germany, was married to a Dane and a Colombian, and is now with a Gaelic-speaking Irishman.

These days, though, the managing director of Informix in the UK moves in less cosmopolitan circles and commutes to work in an industrial park near Heathrow from her home in unexotic High Wycombe. She has a much more pressing image problem - that of transforming a $1.3bn database company into a serious internet player.

Other IT giants such as Intel have striven to reinvent their brands and switch competencies over the years with varying degrees of success, but Informix's volte-face came relatively late - just three years ago after 17 years in the database business. Its approach has been to leverage "dumb data" into smart solutions: helping firms identify customers, cut inventory costs and set up shop on the web. Expanding into consultancy and incubation, it now takes equity in startups, powers sites for and the BBC, and is developing a product portfolio that includes GeoW@p, a City information system accessed by mobile phone, and Cloudsync, a data back-up system.

Jean-Yves Dexmier, the CEO of Informix, came up with the change in strategy and head-hunted de Rojas - at the time a senior vice-president at Computer Associates - to implement it. De Rojas recalls: "Jean-Yves told me, 'I can only meet you at a certain hotel at 6am and I have to be gone by 7.15am.' It was all rather mysterious but I've never met a more charming man. We chatted and he said, 'Will you join us?' I said, 'Absolutely not.' I didn't want to join a traditional database company. He said, 'That's good, because we're not.' He went on to talk about his vision and said, 'When you make a difference at Informix, it has your name on.' That made me feel very warm."

De Rojas, 37, was just as adaptable as the company she now heads. After studying European business, she took a job in recruitment, soon leaving it "because I didn't want to work with a product that talked and said, 'I don't want this job'". She went to work for her biggest client, Synon, looking after international affairs and helping the company grow from 30 to 300 in three years. Then came a stint as the head of a small startup, Implementers, after which she moved to a company called Legent. When it was acquired by Computer Associates, de Rojas leapt back into the big pond with a splash: she was appointed head of new business.

She claims a brush with sexism only spurred her on. "I was told by my new boss, 'I never employ women, but I've decided to employ you.' He wanted to put the cat among the pigeons. I worked the only way I could, which was to change the rules and make it a new game.

"I sucked the living daylights out of our customer base and my department went from four to 156 people. Something like that gives you a lot of confidence and it was a huge triumph. My boss let me run the business and didn't meddle.

"It's been hard going into a managing director's role at Informix - my days are longer and the information overload is enormous - but I've taken a common-sense approach. If I don't understand a question, I ask someone to explain the context. If you are pragmatic, the market is forgiving and you learn more.

"The internet never leaves you time to breathe or to sit back. A drive to work now might be made up of 10 phone calls rather than 10 songs [on the radio] and I do think people get burnt out by this."

De Rojas has an eight-year-old daughter and acknowledges that people power is the key to any company, even a virtual one. Employees at Informix are encouraged to bring their children to work for one day every half-term.

"The internet has created so much instability. Normal people, not just execs, are chasing rainbows and stock options. But any of my consultants will tell you they don't want to work for dot.coms. These companies are so competitive, they change their minds every half-hour about a project. They have a valuation and their whole job is to sustain that, whereas traditional businesses built value slowly and managed expectations. My advice would be to only work for a which doesn't have a manic doberman in charge. It comes back to having a solid management team that understands what's possible."

De Rojas is punting in the opposite direction, polishing a lumbering corporation into a fleet-footed athlete. Her track record in company growth is excellent, but she is looking further afield than company walls.

"The market is moving incredibly fast and users are unforgiving - there's no tolerance of failure. I think to myself when I boot up my PC, it's taking a long time, and even my daughter, turning on her PlayStation, complains that it takes four or five seconds.

"You have to laugh, but I think she's right. Eight-year-olds really understand the intuitive nature of the interface. We will soon be seeing PlayStation-type graphics with moving video and voice recognition; devices are going to be inexpensive and the internet itself will be free," she predicts. "It's going to be content that's king without a doubt. Whoever owns content will be the one to make money."