Jim Sims and Dennis Gillings were born on different continents, come from different backgrounds, and run companies in vastly different industries. But they share the same obsession: the need for speed.
Sims, 50, is a classic American high-tech success story. He signed on with the navy right out of high school, discovered electronics, and left to join the nascent computer industry. In March 1991, he became president and CEO of Cambridge Technology Partners (CTP) , a young software operation with roots at nearby MIT. The company — and its industry — have not been the same since.
CTP designs high-performance, "mission critical" applications for clients such as Microsoft and AT&T. What distinguishes the company from its rivals — what makes it unique in the world of software — is that it's brash enough to guarantee performance. The company has built its business around fixed-price, fixed-time contracts. A typical CTP project lasts six to nine months and costs $1 million to $1.5 million. If the project gets delayed or goes over budget, CTP, not the client, assumes the financial risk.
Those risks are real. U.S. companies spend an estimated $250 billion per year on information-technology projects. But only 16% of those projects get completed on time and on budget, and nearly one-third get canceled outright.
How can Sims guarantee performance amid such chaos? "Speed is the only way to get economic payback from technology," he declares. "How can you have two-year development cycles for software when most industries change every two or three years? It's ludicrous!"
Gillings, 52, personifies the refined British academic. He received a PhD in mathematics from the University of Exeter, moved to the United States, and spent 16 years as a professor of biostatistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He resigned in 1988 to devote himself full time to Quintiles Transnational Corp., a company he'd founded six years earlier.
Quintiles operates in the high-cost, high-stakes world of drug development. Introducing a successful new drug takes an average of 15 years and costs $360 million. Quintiles doesn't conduct basic research or market products. It conducts the all-important clinical trials in which new drugs get administered to patients to evaluate their benefits and risks.
These trials can involve thousands of patients, last for several years, and generate millions of pages of clinical data. And they play a decisive role in a drug's long journey from the research lab to the pharmacist's counter. For every 5,000 compounds in preclinical trials, only 5 make it to human testing. Of those 5, only 1 receives government approval. The clock is ticking every step of the way. "Time fundamentally shapes the economics of new drugs," Gillings says. "Companies patent drugs early in the development cycle. Clinical testing eats into this monopoly period. You can lose 5 years of patent protection during testing. But if you drag your heels or if you do a bad job organizing the research, you can lose 10 years. That drastically affects economic performance."
For both Cambridge Technology Partners and Quintiles, the focus on speed has been a formula for growth. When Sims took over CTP, the company had 90 employees and annual revenues of $9 million. It now has 1,300 employees and projected 1996 revenues of $200 million. Quintiles has 2,000 employees and revenues of $156 million, up from 350 employees and $30 million in revenue in 1991.
The two companies' stock-market performances have been even more dramatic. Quintiles went public in April 1994. A $10,000 investment in the IPO is now worth $63,000. CTP went public in April 1993. A $10,000 investment in the IPO is worth $132,000. Their combined market value is $3 billion. Is there any doubt that time really is money?
But Sims and Gillings have done more than build successful companies. They've redefined the rules — and set the pace of competition — in two of the world's most demanding industries. In a series of interviews, they explain the ideas and principles that make their companies run. Meanwhile, managers from both companies offer lessons from the trenches — tools and resources to help aspiring fast companies.
"Survival Kit for Project Managers"
"Four Rules for Fast Teams"
"Hiring Smart - and Fast"
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.