Software Company Braces for Global Challenges
These are heady days for Raleigh, N.C.-based Global Software Inc. During the first quarter of this year, the company will be unveiling a Windows NT version of its applications suite, to be followed by an AIX version. A recent deal, inked with AmeriNet (St. Louis), promises potential exposure for its materials management applications to almost 8,000 healthcare institutions. Global also plans announcements and innovations in electronic commerce and Web deployment for its core base of AS/400 users. On top of all that, the company still supports a base of about 200 mainframe COBOL users.
Many a vendor has fallen on its face trying to move in so many divergent directions at once. Can Global Software -- a $20-million-a-year company with 140 employees that know most customers by name -- manage a new surge of growth without losing its small-company feel?
Global's founder and CEO, Ron Kupferman, a 31-year veteran of the industry, has always had a gut-level instinct for maintaining such a balance. Over the years, he has simply refused to let the company grow too fast, a strategy he calls "controlled" growth. "We plan for a growth level that we know we can support those customers day in and day out," he says. "I've seen too many companies that fumble the ball when they started growing at 50 percent to 100 percent a year, and can no longer support their customers."
A demanding and rigorous sense of commitment has carried Kupferman and his company through three tumultuous decades in the industry. On two occasions, he sold the company, only to take it back when he felt the products and customers weren't getting the full attention and resources they required. A few years ago, he ordered a newly launched product -- an EIS package -- scrapped because it did not fit in with the company's overall mission. Most significantly, he had his company's entire flagship product suite rebuilt from scratch in order to better take advantage of the AS/400's functionality. Global also boasts one of the industry's longest-running user groups, meeting every year since 1974.
Kupferman, a Long Island native, arrived in North Carolina by way of Camp Lejeune with the U.S. Marines, and shortly after discharge, put down roots as a local sales representative with NCR Corp. It was here he was exposed to the computer industry, which was in a state of flux after IBM unbundled its software and hardware businesses. Essentially, an entire new industry was being born. The software industry, with total sales of $50 million a year at the time, "had great potential," Kupferman relates. "There were very few independent players." Seizing the opportunity, he and two partners put together their own COBOL-based general ledger system and formed a company, Asystance Corp.
A few years later, in 1974, Kupferman and his partners sold Asystance and its product to Informatics -- a leading mainframe software company later acquired by Sterling Software (Dallas, Tex.). Kupferman remained as the head of the company's application products division. It was at this time the first user group meeting was held in Las Vegas, attended by 39 users and consisting of 25 educational sessions.
However, Kupferman was soon disappointed at the low visibility and support Informatics provided to his general ledger system. "It was a stepchild to the parent company," Kupferman recalls. When Informatics decided to withdraw from the applications market, Kupferman and his partners bought the unit back, and formed Global Software.
With the advent of IBM's midrange line, Global ported its COBOL-based general ledger and financial system to run on the System/38, and later the AS/400. However, "the architectures of the mainframe and midrange machines were too different," he relates. "The COBOL version had a lot of high-end functionality, but didn't take full advantage of the AS/400."
In 1991, Global embarked on a massive, six-year overhaul to rebuild its product line in RPG and client/server. A "skunkworks" team -- set off separately from the rest of the company -- was charged with this task. "We ended up building a new suite of applications, based on a whole new technology," Kupferman relates. However, Global's applications remain focused on financials, materials management and asset management. End-users on PCs can access Global applications on the AS/400 through an NS/Router connection from NetSoft Inc. (Irvine, Calif.). Another access feature, Global's Global Explorer, is a graphical user interface for organizing and tracking business objects and documents from a PC.
The PC-based technology developed for client/server access is now being used to develop the Windows NT versions of Global's applications, Kupferman says. Global's NT applications are being built on an Oracle database, as opposed to DB2.
While Global's applications are sold to manufacturers through business partners, much of Global's direct business is now in the healthcare market. Global added materials management applications targeted at the healthcare market in 1996, which built upon its user base of hospitals. Recently, Global inked a three-year deal with AmeriNet, a top healthcare group purchasing organization, to offer Global's systems to AmeriNet's 7,700 members -- consisting of hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities.
Global faces global challenges in making a name -- through distribution channels -- in the new markets it is entering, Kupferman states. Because of fierce loyalty to the AS/400, most AS/400 users are not Windows NT or Unix prospects, he explains. "We can't be all things to all people," he says. "Our core competency is financials and materials management. For the best overall solutions, we need strategic partners."
While Kupferman sees the AS/400 as continuing to have a bright future, its legacy status may be a handicap, he feels. "The AS/400 name is more than 10 years old. IBM should change its number in the next release, to AS/500 or something like that. It needs to be perceived as a new machine."