Declining Years

We may never know for sure if WordPerfect Corporation is better off without me. Their sales for 1992 did not increase much over those for 1991, but they did manage to weather the Windows storm without any major problems. By mid-1993 they claimed to have a 51% share of the Windows word processing market, which was quite an accomplishment considering they did it before releasing WPwin 6.0. Their alliances, technical reps, increased advertising, direct sales to large accounts, and pre-announcements have not seemed to hurt them. They are now delivering on the promises made at their press conferences in 1992, and their new products look very impressive. Even their hiring of approximately one thousand additional employees in the year after I left may not turn out to be a mistake if their sales improve.

We also may never know the reasons that pushed them into letting me go. I suspect that our philosophical differences were probably less important than the personal issues. I probably offended Bruce more than I thought when I misjudged his memos. I thought he was asking to get out of the company, when he was probably saying he wanted to take charge. For Alan’s part, I think I made too many enemies inside the company over the years, and he finally got tired of defending me.

Of one thing, however, I feel certain. Falling on my sword was good for me personally. Near the end I was short-tempered and impatient much of the time. I felt unappreciated and was worn out from all the strain of holding on to customers while they waited for our Windows product. I needed to get away and find an identity apart from WordPerfect Corporation. I needed to remember how much my family meant to me, and I needed time to try to convince them that I loved them more than I loved my work.

Although I am no longer as emotionally involved in all that happens next door at WPCorp, I still get discouraged watching them go through their ongoing remodeling process. Some of the changes are minor, like requiring all employees to wear or carry their identification badges. Some changes, like the additional layers of management, or the extra hours the employees are expected to work, seem like major steps in the wrong direction. I have to admit, however, that Bruce and Alan accomplished much of what they set out to do. The image they now project to the world is a little more professional, a little less naive, a little more aggressive, and one which more closely resembles those of other companies.

A sales rep who was happy to live and die in Tennessee now has to consider moving away from friends and family to move up in the company. Instead of having three layers of management above him, he now has five or six. No longer is most of her time spent face to face with customers, shaking hands, grinning, and looking them in the eye. Now she is writing business plans, analyzing his customers’ businesses to find solutions to their problems, and spending a lot of his time on the phone.

A programmer who used to answer to a project leader who answered directly to Alan Ashton and felt like he could go to Alan at any time, now works for a lead programmer, who works for a director, who works for a vice president, who works for a senior vice president, who works for Alan. He is taught to take his problems to his direct supervisor and not to go outside proper lines of authority or communication.

I am afraid that some of the changes are the result of throwing the bathwater out with the baby. After saying good-bye to me, there were a few people who did not want to leave a single trace of me behind. Some of the changes seemed to be made only because someone wanted to do something differently from the way we did it when I was there. Most of the changes, however, are a genuine attempt to put the customer first and do a good job for the new shareholders who enter the picture with the Initial Public Offering.

I had hoped that the public company version of WordPerfect Corporation would have been nearly identical to the private one. I hoped we could avoid going through an entire corporate makeover to satisfy the analysts and investment bankers. I was idealistic enough to think if we had to go with a lower stock price because of our strange way of doing things, that a few dollars here or there would not matter. Since the original plan was to sell only fifteen percent of the company, I could not see that it mattered much if the price was $15 a share instead of $20. What difference could seventy-five million dollars make one way or the other when Bruce and Alan were still going to own stock worth well over one billion dollars? I felt we could make the money back many times over if we could keep doing business the way we had in the past.

While I would like to think that my version of the company would do better than theirs, what matters most to the future of WordPerfect Corporation is its products. If WordPerfect for Windows 6.0 is a wonderful product, then the company will do very well for at least a few more years. Microsoft will no doubt outspend and outpromise WPCorp, but it cannot stop customers from thinking for themselves and desiring the best product. Even if Microsoft quotes lower prices, offers a more complete suite of products, promises more on-site attention, and avoids any FTC or Justice Department action, WordPerfect Corporation can still win if it offers great products.

I hope WordPerfect Corporation also chooses to offer great service. One of the problems they face is their high head count. Their sales per employee ratio is not very good compared to those of their competition, so they are no doubt looking for ways to improve it. The new layers of management and the new employees working on new products are probably the biggest contributors to the low number, but these are not areas where cuts are likely to come. There are rumors that some customer support calls are going to be shifted to another company and that new limitations will be placed on the 800 number service in order to keep the customer support department from getting any bigger. There are also rumors that some permanent employees will be converted to temporary status, which unfortunately will improve the head count number, but not make any real cuts. I hope they can sell enough product to justify their employee count, so they can avoid cutting back their services or hurting some of their employees.

My biggest regret in all my years at WordPerfect Corporation is that I did not do a good enough job of teaching and explaining how I thought the company should be run. I was too involved in the day to day activities of the company to take the time to make sure our principles were defined and taught, or to explain the reasons behind all of the decisions I made. I thought good results would be enough to convince others that I knew what I was doing, but the good results only kept those who disagreed with me at bay. When sales went down, so did I. My fate was no different from anyone else who has had poor results when running a company owned by others.

If I had to do it all over again, I would have tried to find a way to either run the company officially, with the full support of Alan and Bruce, or shift some of my responsibilities to others. I took myself and my job too seriously. I held on to my opinions so strongly that I always put myself in a position where I had to shoulder too much of the blame. Someone had to say no, but it should have been someone else some of the time.

A year after I left, I received an anonymous letter from someone at WordPerfect Corporation. This person used WPCorp stationery, WPCorp postage, and, no doubt, WPCorp time to tell me he was glad I had left the company. Even though the writer admitted he had never met me, and that he had never worked for me or in a department which reported to me, he had gone out of his way to tell me what a poor job I had done. I was a little hurt by the comments, but I was even more upset that this employee would misuse company resources to send the letter. He was obviously not focusing in on the purpose and objectives of his employer.

I admit I was a difficult person at times, but I could never find a way to run the business efficiently without disappointing a few people. If those who advise others have to work with a few more people than they can easily handle, and if everyone else has well-defined, important, and meaningful responsibilities, then everyone in the company has to work. Anyone who wants to take it easy and avoid their duties is bound to be unhappy. Anyone who wants to define their own principles and follow their own agenda is bound to get in trouble. There is simply no place to hide in a flat, well-run organization, when those who run the company are so close to those who do the work. There is also too much competition for a tall, poorly-run organization to offer a permanent refuge for anyone, because that type of company will go out of business very quickly.

Although I have been critical of some of their decisions, I believe very strongly that Bruce and Alan have always tried and continue to do the best they can for their products, their customers, and their employees. I admire them for the great company they have built and for all the good they have done over the years. I cannot thank Bruce and Alan enough for giving me the chance to learn so much and have so much fun, and then for giving me my life back when it was not much fun any more.

Go to Epilogue