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The Soft-Pedaled CEO Switch at Progress Software

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 21, 2009 05:00 PM

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One of the better-connected grapes on my personal grapevine e-mailed me earlier this year to ask: what happened at Progress Software?

Joe Alsop, who started the company in 1981, and served as its CEO for the better part of three decades, had vacated the corner office, and also left the board of directors back in March. He was replaced by Rick Reidy, who'd been the COO.

Progress under Alsop had always been an extremely low-key, marketing-averse company. (Over the years, I'd invited Alsop to participate in a couple panels, and he always refused.) But it seemed strange that no one locally was talking about the transition, given that Progress has a market cap of nearly a billion dollars, and almost 2,000 employees. The Globe ran a tiny news brief, and the Boston Business Journal noted that the CEO switch came at a real low-point for the company, adding that Alsop had received a golden parachute package worth about $5 million.

I dropped in on Rick Reidy, the new CEO at Progress, earlier this month to see what was up. (The pic above shows Progress employees ringing the NASDAQ closing bell last December. Rick Reidy is right between the "S" and "o" in Software. Alsop, interestingly, wasn't in the picture.)

Progress sells infrastructure technology that you hardly ever see or hear about, but which more than 70 percent of the Fortune 100 rely on when they develop and deploy new software applications. The company's first product, in the 1980s, enabled software developers to easily create programs that could run on lots of different kinds of computers and operating systems -- and that product, OpenEdge, is still about half of the company's business. "It was sort of like Java before its time," Reidy says. Lately, the company has made more than a dozen acquisitions, mainly focusing on data integration -- basically, getting data that is stored in one form to play nicely with data in a different form.

Reidy was pretty candid about taking over Progress in March, when the company's stock price was in the dumps, and its net income for Q1 plunged 72 percent. I asked Reidy about the transition.

"I was running our Data Direct division," he said. "And I really wanted to go off and be a CEO. I went to Joe and gave him a year's notice that I was planning to leave, and we wound up talking about me being his successor. Last summer [2008], the board met and appointed me COO." In March, Reidy took on the CEO role. I asked why Alsop didn't stick around on the board for a while. Since Alsop was the company's founder, it sounds like there was concern that his presence might detract from Reidy's authority. "The decision was to cut the cord," Reidy says. "The message was, there's a new sheriff in town."

(Incidentally, Joe's brother Stewart Alsop has always maintained a much higher profile. A long-time columnist and editor of InfoWorld, he's now a Silicon Valley venture capitalist -- he helped fund TiVo -- and blogger.)

Reidy says he'll continue diversifying the company. He's also embarking on the first real marketing and communications push they've ever done. It's a campaign called "One Progress." They've hired a chief marketing officer, and are trying to get the sales force to take a more coordinated approach to working with customers (in the past, several Progress salespeople responsible for different product lines might interact with a single customer.)

This week, Reidy is in Brazil speaking to about 500 customers and prospects from across South America. Reidy told me that Progress' growth this year is primarily in markets like Brazil, India, and China.

The company is aiming to become "more of a full-service IT solutions company," Reidy says, citing IBM as a role model. And Progress' stock has rebounded since Reidy took the reins in March.

Know more about the Progress CEO transition? Do post a comment below...

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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