NCR’s Speed Demons

How does a slow-moving company get faster? It buys a young, fast-moving company and lets their executives pick up the pace.

“As I speak, we’re launching a new series of countermeasures that will grind NCR’s initiative to a halt,” a sinister-looking Dr. Klecta, sporting a shaved head and an eye patch, shouts above the cheers of his followers. Then Klecta peers directly into the camera: “Heffring, I know you’re out there watching. A word of advice to you: Your mission will fail.”


Cut to Commander Peter Heffring, who reassures his crew about the enemy’s weaknesses and dazzles them with a host of recent wins: Vodaphone in Australia, CSS in Switzerland. Heffring then outlines some short-term goals — specifically, closing 17 more deals by year’s end. “It’s always a pleasure to talk about crushing the competition,” he quips, as he jumps into his Dodge Viper, executes a perfect 360-degree turn, tires screeching, and speeds off.

There’s a tradition at NCR Corp., the technology giant (annual revenues: $6.2 billion) based in Dayton, Ohio. Once every quarter, a senior executive from each division is asked to present a video report to the company. But last fall, when the NCR brass chose Peter Heffring to do the update for Teradata, NCR’s 4,000-person database-management division, he didn’t create the standard executive monologue. Instead, Heffring, 39, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young William Shatner, made a three-minute action movie.

It was a big break from convention — and a hit. “It isn’t something we would normally show around here,” says Bruce Langos, 46, Teradata’s vice president of business operations. “But we loved it. It was innovative, emotional, focused, and fast. That’s what we want from Peter Heffring and his team.”

World-famous NCR has a glorious history (it was created back in 1882 as National Cash Register), a brutal recent past (it was the target of a disastrous $7.4 billion hostile takeover by AT&T in 1991 and regained its independence in 1996), and a bright future. But its leaders face a crucial challenge: How do they inject speed, confidence, and agility into a global giant whose confidence has been shaken by nearly a decade of turmoil and restructuring?

Peter Heffring and his team are part of the answer. Last April, NCR acquired Ceres Integrated Solutions, Heffring’s fast-moving startup based in Raleigh, North Carolina. The company makes database-marketing software for big customers such as Blockbuster Video, J.C. Penney, and Wal-Mart. The deal didn’t have a huge price tag — $90 million in cash and stock — but it had big strategic implications for NCR. Rather than have the parent run Heffring’s company, NCR’s executives decided to let Heffring and his team run a chunk of their company — in this case, Teradata’s CRM Division, of which Heffring is now president. How does a 119-year-old company get faster? It buys a young, agile company and lets their executives pick up the pace.

Virtually overnight, Heffring’s operation nearly tripled, increasing from 60 employees to 163. Within two weeks, the new CRM unit had consolidated four of Teradata’s software-development locations into two — one in Raleigh, the other in San Diego — that report to Kerry Brandon, Ceres’s cofounder and CTO. And during the past six months, droves of Teradata salespeople have traveled to Raleigh to take classes created by Heffring that he calls Assassins Sales Training.


“This was a reverse acquisition in the truest sense,” says Mark Hurd, 44, Teradata’s executive vice president and COO. “We knew that we wouldn’t be able to move fast enough without an external injection of speed.”

The big worry for Heffring: Will the reality of being part of a global juggernaut slow his people down? “I don’t even like the word ‘committee,’ ” says Heffring, who spent 14 years at IBM navigating committee protocol before starting Ceres. So far, it hasn’t been a problem. When he and a small team from the CRM Division set out to revamp Teradata’s pricing strategy, they did it during two days of meetings — and with several gallons of beer — at a house on the beach. (They also created a complete product road map for the coming year.) Heffring presented the results, and the strategy was approved. Case closed.

So who’s changing faster — NCR or Heffring’s crew? “For me, the biggest sign is that none of us have changed,” says Brandon. “We’re working the same hours with the same amount of passion.” There’s another sign as well. It’s an enormous three-ring binder with the imposing title, “NCR New Manager Workshop Book.” The binder sits high on the top shelf of Brandon’s office bookcase, obviously unread, gathering dust.

Contact Peter Heffring by email (

Sidebar: Speed School

On Tuesday, April 11, 2000, the day that NCR acquired Ceres Integrated Solutions, Khari Villela became a millionaire. Three days later (after his check cleared), Villela, now chief software architect of NCR’s CRM Division, bought himself a red Lamborghini. An impulse buy, claims the 30-year-old, but the car met the “suitably obnoxious” criteria that he was gunning for — and it allowed him to indulge his love for driving fast.

Villela has always been into speed. (He says that his other car, a “heavily modified” Mustang, can dust his Lamborghini.) Which is why he enjoys life with Peter Heffring and his crew in Raleigh. A year or so ago, when Villela was named employee of the quarter, his reward was a course at the Viper Racing School. (Winners who prefer a slower pace are rewarded with a three-day cruise.) Burning rubber on the school’s highly technical, two-and-a-half-mile racetrack for several days taught Villela a lot about what it takes to handle high speeds — on or off the road.


“You always want to be moving at the edge of your abilities without losing control,” says Villela, who unnerved his instructors by showing up at the track with a T-shirt that read, “I do whatever the voices in my head tell me to do.” But, he adds, “the key in racing is either to be accelerating or braking — never just coasting along. It’s when you’re coasting that you have the least amount of control.”

Villela learned another critical lesson in racing school after running a series of time trials in which his main competitor was himself: “Consistency of speed is a lot more important than how fast you can floor it on the straightaways. Once you improve the technical aspects of speed — downshifting, picking the right line into the corners, braking — eventually you’ll be able to go faster. Speed only comes after you know what you’re doing.”