Tom Siebel has never been shy of cultivating public prominence. With the air of a career politician, he forged the identity of his Silicon Valley-headquartered customer relationship management (CRM) company Siebel Systems around his own image, never missing an opportunity to hang the halls of software exhibitions and user conferences with 20-foot high, airbrushed photographs of himself. The message: CRM was Tom Siebel – his vision, his values.
If those displays reminded many conference delegates of political rallies, then perhaps that was intentional. Because Siebel has developed a voracious appetite for politics.
Republican to the core, Siebel was one of the largest individual contributors to George W Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000, donating half a million dollars. In 2001, he led a $2.1 million political action committee, the US’s second largest.
He has also surrounded himself with political heavy-hitters. In 2001, he recruited Marc Racicot, the chairman if the Republican National Committee and a former governor of Montana, to the Siebel Systems board, and he poached Intel’s chief lobbiest to represent Siebel’s interests in Washington.
To win friends and influence on the political stage in Europe, he formed a ‘European Board of Directors’, putting ex-prime minister John Major and the former senior advisers to Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl on the payroll.
Undoubtedly that has helped the company win more public sector business, but the aim of such a build up of political muscle may lie elsewhere. A hint came in January 2002 when Siebel took out full-page advertisements in all the US political press to highlight a new and rapidly developed product. The ads featured a low-res picture of one of the September 11th hijackers, passing unhindered through airport security in Portland, Maine shortly before the start of the attacks, with the headline: “Who are the Mohammed Attas of Tomorrow?”
That was designed to publicise Siebel Solutions for Homeland Security, a data-sharing package for identifying individuals, monitoring their activity and analysing behaviour. The ‘customers’ in this CRM system, however, are potential terrorists.
Tom Siebel clearly wants a slice of the $30 billion earmarked for homeland security in the US – and the ‘9/11 dividend’ that is being made available elsewhere too – but there is a suggestion of another agenda: that he is positioning himself for political office.
That was the conclusion of various US newspapers when they reported the suggestion that Siebel was grooming himself for the governorship of Montana – a state that has been Siebel’s second home since he bought two large ranches (the Dearborn and the N Bar Ranch) in late 1990s, and to which he pilots his private jet on weekends and holidays.
Although his PR people say he has no plans to run in the November 2004 race, his life may be at a crossroads for other reasons. To the anguish of staff and the bemusement of onlookers, in late 2002 he took to the stage at the CRM industry’s main annual conference to declare to customers that have spent millions on Siebel Systems software that “CRM is dead… there is no market for CRM”.
His explanation: the impact of web services technologies would mean an end to the traditional packaging of CRM in generic sales force automation, field service and marketing applications. Instead, software buyers would support their organisation’s business processes by dynamically grouping discrete software objects. Siebel’s’ new role was to develop the customer-centric modules for those multi-application processes, and also to provide the middleware architecture (the Universal Application Network) that would coordinate the execution of those processes.
Some observers are beginning to doubt whether Tom Siebel will be the driving force behind that decade-long journey. Whether he has a political agenda to pursue, on the other hand, is not being questioned.