REDMOND, Wash., April 24, 2002 — When word leaked late in 2000 that Microsoft planned to acquire Great Plains, the ensuing skepticism wasnt much of a surprise.
The companies, after all, appeared to be fundamentally different. With nearly 50,000 employees worldwide, Microsoft was headquartered in the Seattle suburb of Redmond. Great Plains, which at the time of the acquisition had 2,000 team members — the term the company preferred for its employees — was based in Fargo, N.D.
Microsoft was known for delivering software and services to a broad range of customers. Great Plains had a reputation for developing software for small- to medium-size businesses; its relationship-based culture was a reflection of its mission statement: To improve the lives and business success of partners and customers.
The challenge was how to retain the culture of the smaller operation when it became a key new division of a much larger one.
The answer was simple: Blend the best of both worlds — something that insiders from both branches of the family tree, as well as partners and customers, say Microsoft Great Plains Business Solutions has done, while also developing better technology faster.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of Microsofts acquisition of Great Plains. A year ago, in what is remembered as the biggest hiring day in Microsoft history, Great Plains team members, led by then-CEO Doug Burgum, joined Microsoft’s worldwide ranks. A year later, the Microsoft Great Plains division has 2,400 members on its team.
“The two companies coming together makes for a great team,” says Jeff Young, vice president, U.S. sales and services with Microsoft Great Plains. “We had worked together as partners since 1989, long enough to truly understand one another. Also, the actual acquisition was very well prepared and carried out, so there havent been too many surprises.”
A big part of how thats happened, Young says, is that the two companies actually had a lot in common. Each maintained the work ethic required to deliver breakthrough products, and workers at each thrived in a fast-paced, competitive environment. “Theres about a 70 percent overlap in our operational style, with 15 percent protruding on either end,” he says.
What sets the tone in this new division of Microsoft is the same commitment to relationships that always characterized Great Plains. “Our team members drop everything when a customer needs help,” Young says.
The dedication, according to Young, extends beyond customers and includes partners, colleagues and community members. Prime examples of that, Young says, were the round-the-clock efforts Great Plains team members put forth during the mammoth Red River Valley floods of 1997. “People were up all night long contributing to the effort, but we lost very little in terms of supporting partners and customers,” he says. “It was the most amazing coming together of a team Ive ever seen.”
New Teams, New Technologies
Over the years, Young says, Great Plains worked hard to be the first and best partner on the Microsoft platform. Now, Young says the new entity will be the first and best in another way. With the release of Microsoft Customer Relationship Management — expected to be available in late 2002 — the team will unveil the first Microsoft business solution built on the .NET platform. Microsoft Customer Relationship Management will be available as a stand-alone product as well as an integrated solution to Microsoft Great Plains Dynamics, Solomon and eEnterprise. “.NET will dramatically change what our customers are seeing in the upcoming year,” Young says. “.NET brings a much higher level of integration to the entire business cycle. Its exciting to watch.”
Nigel Burton, who joined Microsoft 14 years ago and now serves as general manager, U.S. marketing for Microsoft Great Plains, has been watching, too. Witnessing the blending of the two companies has fascinated him. Burton, who is responsible for demand generation and solutions marketing, travels to Fargo from Redmond at least once a month and says the most noticeable trait is the strong sense of community. “You go to a restaurant and see 20 people from your team,” he says. “People spend more time after work together.”
As the blending process continues, Burton says the challenge is to capture the best of both worlds without diluting whats good at either end. At the heart of Microsoft Great Plains are relationships. “They have incredibly deep relationships with their customers and partners,” he says. “The depth of the mutual commitment between Microsoft Great Plains and its reselling channel partners is incredible. Everyone from the president down believes that the success of the partners is the same thing as the success of the company.”
Young agrees. “What keeps us close to partners is that we work with them hand-in-hand,” he says. “We engage with an organization in the field and with events like Stampede.” Stampede is Microsoft Great Plains annual strategy session for partners. Stampedes popularity increases every year. The next such event will be held in Minneapolis for the first time — its outgrown Fargo.
Transition Overcame Partners’, Customers’ Fears
Great Plains partners and customers, Young says, were excited by the acquisition in terms of marketing muscle and technology potential, but fearful that the partner channel would lose its personal touch and become more like a vendor or supplier relationship.
Not so, says Randy Forkner, vice president of Collins Computing, a Microsoft Great Plains reselling partner based in Mission Viejo, Calif. “The bottom line is that the acquisition was awesome,” says Forkner, who currently serves on five advisory boards sponsored by Microsoft Great Plains — boards that are, he says, open, honest forums focused on building momentum and increasing sales.
The merging of the two companies, Forkner says, is a shining example of how two companies can join forces. “Theyve taken the best of what Great Plains offers and combined it with Microsofts corporate skills, research and development investment and global presence,” he says. Collins Computings global presence, according to Forkner, has grown “leaps and bounds” since the acquisition.
Chris Hall, president of repairclinic.com, first turned to Great Plains when his company launched in 1999. “Weve always been a very satisfied customer,” Hall says. Based in Canton, Mich., where it employs 50 people, repairclinic.com provides resources for appliance repair, parts and information.
“Its been a seamless transition,” Hall says of the acquisition. He says that the most noticeable area of change is the level of support. “We have a high-level technical team that can do pretty much everything,” he says. As he contemplates upgrading to eEnterprise 7.0 and increasing integration, he realizes that the need for support may arise. “With Microsoft Great Plains, its not a question of whether its available — its a matter of us knowing when were ready for it.”
Working At Microsoft Great Plains
One source closer to the code says that while technology is definitely changing, the essence of the Great Plains development culture is not. “Were still servicing customers the same way we always have,” says program manager Matt Gustafson, who worked for the company for 10 years prior to the acquisition.
Gustafson says he was a little apprehensive about the acquisition — but only until he learned that the buyer was Microsoft. He recalls rumors swirling throughout Fargo about a potential suitor whose sole motive was to put the partners out of business. “Weve been aligned with Microsoft from a technology perspective for a long time,” he says. “It was a very logical fit.”
Whats most impressed Gustafson is the front-line communication. “The right people are talking to the right people,” he says. “The people in Redmond who have what we need pick up the phone when we call. Once we get the green light, no matter which side of the mountains were on, it gets done.”
The most notable difference Gustafson has noticed is speed and focus — Microsoft teams, he says, generally work on much more aggressive schedules and have a smaller scope of focus. But overall, he believes the two cultures had more commonalities than differences from the beginning. “We all want to get products into peoples hands,” he says. “Whatever cultural differences there may be havent gotten in the way of that, but Im still getting used to lattes.”
Jennifer Griffin, European marketing manager for Microsoft Great Plains, hasnt yet made it to Redmond, but she says the benefits of the acquisition could be felt on her side of the Atlantic from day one. “The good thing about Great Plains was its focus on people, and from an international standpoint thats actually improved since the acquisition,” she says. “I could sense the culture in Fargo. It was definitely there, and Microsoft has the resources to drive it beyond North America.”
Since the acquisition, Griffin has participated in collaborative leadership teams set up to learn about each others cultures and environments. “Both groups have been incredibly open to learning from each other and focusing on how we can benefit each other,” she says.
Another benefit: brand recognition. “Awareness of Great Plains was definitely strongest in North America,” she says. “It was sometimes difficult to market elsewhere. Well, thats not a problem anymore. It has made us more competitive. It has taken us farther.”
Both Young and Burton are “stoked” — Youngs word — about what the future holds for Microsoft Great Plains. “We now have more speed and depth,” Young says. “Its great to have access to more great minds, and from an investment standpoint, more research and development means that things that were on the way can now happen so much faster.”
Burton believes that both entities will affect each other in ways that ultimately yield more compelling technology. “I think this division will have an impact on how Microsoft relates to customers and can potentially affect the way we think about channel relationships,” he says. “If we can get Microsoft driving great architecture while the Microsoft Great Plains people drive great solutions that really map to how people want to use software, then well have something great. I think were off to quite a start.”