Jeff Ray introduced the new CEO in front of thousands gathered in San Antonio, Texas, at SolidWorks' big annual bash. Until recently, Jeff had been CEO. This was the last time Jeff would address the users this way. He is moving on to a new position at Dassault Systemes, the mother ship, as EVP of Global Operations, a position that is still to be defined.
SolidWorks World, which bills itself as the biggest gathering of MCAD users in the world, will miss Jeff, who may be its best emcee ever. Jeff was a natural on the big stage, talking to thousands was as easy for him as talking one on one, a perfect straight man for some of the antics he introduced, memorably the Myth Busters, the Star Trek farce, guys riding choppers onto the stage. You couldn’t faze Jeff. He once told me interviewing Virgin’s Richard Branson gave him the sweats -- he didn’t know how us press guys did it. But I think he was just being kind.
Jeff always looked clean and fresh, ready for whatever. I have never seen him in a suit but never in a T-shirt, either. You shake hands with Jeff and realize how your shirt is wrinkled and your shoes unpolished. The man looks like that after 20 hours on airplanes, like when we flew to Rwanda together. I wanted to ask his wife Cindy if his pajamas are ironed.
Rwanda is a mission for SolidWorks. They don’t brag about it, but they are helping a tiny company in a tiny country find its way from its past toward a brighter, technology-laced future. It’s not an easy task. Jeff has inherited the mission but he has adopted the cause. With SolidWorks generous donations, the Rwandans want to hoist him on their shoulders and parade him around. But Jeff is having none of that. It is the cause that is important. I listen as he promises additional software seats of SolidWorks to school officials. He lays a wreath at the Holocaust Museum for the victims of the Rwandan genocide. Somehow, it’s doing the right thing that is important.
As I was helping with the Rwanda project, I often talked to Jeff. Each time, Jeff would listen closely, politely, giving me all the attention, as if you were the most important person and had the most important cause. And it was no act. Often Jeff would impress by knowing details, about you, your publication, your project, previous emails and conversations… My god, multiply that by a thousand of me, as a busy CEO must have to do. How does he keep it straight? Yet somehow he does. In person, on stage, unflappable, his mind a vast database, sorting, fielding queries in real time. I try to imagine the needs of 900 employees, a million users, and a boss on the other side of the Atlantic -- and the press corps.
"How can I help?" he would say. I would tell him -- most of the time at cost to SolidWorks. The clear blue eyes wouldn't blink. The handshake was as good as gold.
What makes this guy tick? Jeff's son is in the Army. Was Jeff shaped by the military values of honor, virtue..? It turns out Jeff's father flews a spy plane during the cold war. But it wasn't the war stories of bullets buzzing past the cockpit that impressed Jeff the most. Jeff's father was told he had 6 months to live after being diagnosed with cancer. "He told the doctors to go to hell," Jeff says. "I'm going to live long enough to put my kids through college." He battled the cancer for 13 years and saw his youngest (Jeff's sister) graduate.
Jeff may not cut the same figure as his predecessors, both engineers, both who related to users at the gut level: where they worked. That wasn’t Jeff. But each of the customers Jeff meets makes some impression, are not forgotten. People are important. At his company, each employee is valued. Jeff tells me SolidWorks never had a round of layoffs during the recent recession.
Though Jeff’s pride in SolidWorks is evident, he wasn’t about to brag about his own accomplishments. So I asked SolidWorks for some metrics during Jeff’s tenure. SolidWorks had annual revenue of $135M when Jeff joined as COO in 2003. When he became CEO in 2007, revenue was up to $350M. He was just in time for the recession. But still, in SolidWorks last reportable year, 2009, revenue actually grew to $367M. Most CEO’s would have tried to keep profits up by cutting staff, a move that no doubt would have pleased Dassault shareholders. Jeff tells us there were NO layoffs at SolidWorks. Geez, I figure quite a few SolidWorks employees owe Jeff big time.
Hey, maybe this relating-to-the-user business is a bit overrated, like demanding your doctor have a good bedside manner. What’s important is not making a wrong turn on the way to your appendix. And keeping all the facts straight, being able to absorb new information, staying cool under pressure, keeping a positive attitude, doing your job, knowing what is important, what is good and what is right.