Meet Infor's Charles Phillips, CEO Of The World's Largest Startup

Even with 13,000 employees and 70,000 customers, Infor's CEO Charles Phillips is running a huge corporation like a startup. Here's how he aligns staff and stays agile.

The way Infor’s CEO Charles Phillips sees it, he’s running the world’s largest startup. And it is huge. Infor is the third-largest provider of enterprise applications and services behind Oracle and SAP. Think: over 70,000 customers in 194 countries for its industry-specific applications and suites designed for the cloud, on-premises, or both, that brings in about $2.5 billion in revenue. To handle this massive operation, Infor employs 13,000 people across the globe.

With such potential to be a lumbering corporate giant, you’d be forgiven if you thought Phillips needed a reality check. But the former Marine Corps captain has both an air of quiet authority and a long list of reasons to prove you wrong--starting with growth. Phillips took the helm at Infor two years ago after a high-profile stint as copresident of its competitor Oracle. Since then, he’s assembled a new executive management team (“We all started on the same day,” he notes), and added 2,500 new customers including Ferrari, Heineken, and Liberty Mutual, and counts 12% quarterly growth in licensing.

Phillips is often credited for Oracle's successful acquisition strategy. Once installed at Infor, he didn’t waste time engineering the buyout of Lawson Software by Infor affiliate GGC Holdings for an estimated $2 billion, adding health care and human resources to its growing portfolio of industries.

One Big Happy Family--of Disruptors
Yet, what he’s been most pleased to achieve in the past 15 months, is adding 3,000 people including 600 engineers and the staff for an in-house creative agency. “Everything is changed,” he tells Fast Company just after the ribbon cutting in front of Infor’s new headquarters in New York's Silicon Alley. “Everyone is energetic and we’re having fun making changes.” That’s one reason he’s been able to woo staff away from Infor’s competitors. “They see us willing to take risks and they are willing to invest in us.”

It’s also the reason, he argues, that he and his two copresidents and the COO came to Infor, too. “We [wanted] to implement ideas and innovations we've discussed for many years but didn't have the resources or authority to implement. There are very few enterprise applications left with any scale. This was the platform to test out our ideas.”

That included Infor 10, its next generation enterprise software, which Phillips says couldn’t have happened without siphoning a hefty $125 million out of the back office to invest in engineering and product. “Applications is where business strategy and technology converge and is the top of the food chain for the tech stack. The rest of the infrastructure only exist to run an application,” he explains. “Now, we can be disruptive and fix the problems of enterprise software we've known about for decades. And we have the benefit of experience and the efficiency of trust--a team that is cohesive and has the same will to win and change the industry. We are free to innovate.”

The Rules
It’s not surprising that someone who’s had military training, earned both an MBA and a law degree, and worked as a managing director for Morgan Stanley, would play by the rules. Except Phillips’ rules are meant to keep Infor as open to innovation as possible. Starting with staff.

“Our first rule is to not hire anyone who’s not brilliant at what they do,” he says, chuckling at the obvious. “Our second rule is don’t hire anyone you can’t have dinner with.” The premise is that if you can’t enjoy sharing a meal, you won’t enjoy sitting across the big, square table sitting out in the open that serves as a multi-person desk for Phillips and his executive team. “Anyone can walk up and talk to us any time,” he says. Rather than an intrusion on his workflow, Phillips insists these interruptions make him more productive.

He feels the same about sharing the work table with his colleagues. In addition to time in the office, Phillips says they make sure to have dinner together when they aren’t traveling, and also talk on weekends. “We enjoy it,” he asserts, and it creates a communications flow that enables the team to make quick decisions.

Which is part of another rule that most decisions should not take more than 24 hours to make. Phillips answers almost all his emails immediately, and does so at all hours. Although he doesn’t expect his entire staff to follow suit, he says people often do when they see how responsive he is. “If you want to weigh in, weigh in, but we are not going to slow down,” says Phillips, admitting that it does take some people a while to adapt to the pace.

When Infor acquired Lawson, for example, Phillips says they’d been trying to hire new developers for three years. Though he approved the addition of 81 new hires on the first day after the acquisition, Phillips says three weeks went by before they moved to add staff because they were afraid there was some other approval layer missing. There wasn’t.

Create Breathing Room For Extreme Innovation
Not everything is regimented with military precision. Though the “big parts” of Infor’s business strategy are well-defined, Phillips believes it’s important to leave room for extreme innovation. That meant initially opening the floor to customers. Phillips says Infor sent out some 250,000 emails with the teams’ telephone numbers, encouraging customers to dish directly with the executives. “I personally answered every one I received,” says Phillips. “At our size we have to be aggressive” in order to beat out the competition.

Products require the same innovative approach. “When we wanted to make the software beautiful and inject a social platform into the mix, we knew it would take a different engineering skill set than you typically have in an enterprise business.” So he created a design company with that expertise to change up the interface on all the applications. “That was a risky bet,” Phillips admits, but he’s bullish on making sure staff continues to come to him with new ideas, and he’ll implement what he can.

The open floor plan at the new headquarters was deliberately designed to encourage this sort of collaboration. That’s why Phillips says you’re likely to find him brainstorming with others on any one of the whiteboards that hang in virtually every space. “It’s totally unstructured,” he says. “We’re rolling out a lot of different ideas and not all of them will work. That’s okay. We don’t need them all to work, but you have to try things to see what will work.”

Big Plans
What is working internally for Infor’s growing staff is a signature product called Mingle. With all those new hires, Mingle’s social network makes it easy to tap “tribal knowledge” says Phillips, the information usually gained through years of experience with a company. Don’t know who to call when the A/C won’t turn on or how to find out when new inventory is coming in? You don’t have to, just hit up Mingle. Like Twitter, Mingle’s core functionality is discovery, and can instantly match a query with the right group or person to handle it, Phillips says.

All this has been mostly stealth operating during Phillip’s tenure, but he’s ready to tell the world and grab even more market share. Now with his staff aligned, 69 new products, 1,904 new features, and 2,001 customer enhancement requests--up more than 70% from the previous year--Phillips is confident that Infor has the steak along with the sizzle. His goal now: “We want to change the way people work.”

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13 Comments

  • Atul Kapoor

    I am amazed at Charles Philliops . What a awesome personality. I knew of him while i worked at Oracle.

    I myself experienced his speed on emails. Not knowing me at all , he responded to my email so fast that it was unbelievable.

    Mr. Phillips , continue your access ( to whatever maximum your time permits) and people will adore you.

    Cheers and all the best in making Infor a success...Atul Kapoor

  • Enrico Andreoni

    I know Infor since the beginning, and I'm really impressed for the new Re-styling they did. My congratulations to Charles Phillips and all his collaborators for the new look.

  • FareedAnsari

    Charles Phillips has the resume for the job description Infor just wrote for itself.  Can he get the job done?  It wont take long to find out.  Every Lean startup is a product, and every product is a Theta (Hypothesis) the fun is seeing the outcomes. The Agile approach Infor is taking on an enterprise scale is fast becoming the norm.  Infor is providing products people don't know they need yet, this is classic startup.    

  • Markkolier123

    Good insight into how management is changing - for the better.   Not sure if that means Charles is a role model but he does seem to be in touch with what it means to be a leader. 

  • Marc Neijenhuis

    I visited Infor on the Road in the Netherlands last week. I am impressed! Good article I am curious where Infor will stand in 1-2 years time. Good Strategy, Clear Mission.  I am curious how you are going to execute this.

  • PamMktgNut

    Very inspiring! Reminds me of some of the good ol' days working at Sun Microsystems & StorageTek! 

  • Theresa Kramarz

    He really is driving some changes.  Infor has come a long way.  I am glad to part of the mission.

  • Breean

    I love hearing about the collaborative workspace for executives. It's frequents for creatives to work this way - but even more inspiring to hear about c-suites doing so! 

  • Amanda Simmons

    I was wondering how to be the part of his team; I'm tired of being lazy (being thinking all the time)

  • Sonja Lewis

    Great to read about such an innovative approach. It clearly works. Congrats to Mr. Phillips and his team.