John Olsen, the US-born president and chief operating officer of Business Objects, the French business intelligence tools vendor, has a sobering thought for other bosses of European software companies: “I think the software industry here is hurting much more than it ever was in the US.”
Olsen spends part of the year in France and the remainder at Business Objects’ California office, and so is well qualified to compare economic indicators across both continents.
Most of all, he cites a far wider sense of foreboding among clients on this side of the North Atlantic. “We are still getting lots of calls, lots of interest,” he says, “but it is taking so much longer to approve deals. What used to take two signatures now takes 27. No one wants to make any kind of commitment.”
These are views and experiences that resonate throughout Europe’s software sector. But it gets worse. Olsen also supports the increasingly popular notion that an eventual recovery in Europe will lag far behind a similar upturn in the US.
The Infoconomy Index, which measures the overall growth rate of the information technology industry by tracking the most recent financial results of the world’s most important publicly listed IT companies, found that the European industry plunged into recession as recently as June 2002 — some 10 months after the US industry. Many executives believe that there will be a similar time lag when it comes to recovery too. “The European market has always tended to trail the US by six to nine months,” says Greg Brown, CEO of Micromuse, the network management vendor that enjoyed the biggest growth (72%) of any European software company last year.
One of the most striking features of Infoconomist‘s European Software 50 (see table) is how it compares with the worldwide picture (see The Global Software 100 feature). At €18.4 billion, the combined annual revenue of Europe’s top 50 is equivalent to only about eight months’ sales at US giant Microsoft, the world’s biggest software company. And only the top 20 from the European software industry made it into the Global 100.
The table also highlights the poor record of profitability in the software sector during 2001/2002, with almost a third of Europe’s 50 most successful companies actually trading in the red. For most vendors, big and small, profitability is now firmly at the top of the agenda — a fact underlined by widespread restructuring and cost-cutting programmes.
The most traumatic consequence of this has been the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs across the industry. But many leading figures in the industry
dismiss suggestions that there has been a substantial ‘brain drain’.
What’s more, Pierre Gatignol, president and CEO of GL Trade, the French financial software company, goes so far as to suggest that the job cuts have “helped to stabilise the market”. “Two years ago it was very difficult to find people. You needed to find many people when growing fast and people [in demand] are very expensive. Now it is much easier.”
Yet morale generally is at such a low ebb that some pessimists are now questioning whether the European software industry can ever enjoy double-digit growth again. But Brown is keen to play down such fears. “The software industry is not just like any other industry,” he says. “I look to IT to regain its reputation for strong growth.”
This may be a time of a deep and lasting bear market; but it is reassuring to note that some bulls still survive.