Boss of IT firm, £35bn, seeks high-tech women

Engineer and technology buffs (ladies in particular) take note. Leo Apotheker, the recently appointed chief executive of SAP - one of the world's largest software companies - is on a mission to recruit. And he is particularly keen to attract women.

The German-born businessman, who took the helm alongside Henning Kagermann in April, believes there is an alarming gender imbalance in technology. Eager to change this, he cites changing this as the biggest challenge he faces in his new role.

Mr Apotheker, 45, tells JC Business: "I am concerned about the lack of women in the technology industry. We have failed to attract women to our workforce."

SAP provides computer software to businesses. Thirty per cent of the group's 55,000 employers are women. Eighteen per cent of these are in management positions. "If you look at universities, the number of women who go into computer sciences is very small. We need to change that. We want to have a better balanced workforce." He acknowledges that finding good technologists in general is tough.

"You can go to India, where they produce between 400,000 and 500,000 engineers and scientists every year. Then go to Western Europe to see how many they produce, and you will understand the magnitude of the problem."

What exactly is he looking for? "Software engineers, engineers, people with a natural-science background and people with business training, such as an MBA. There is a real war for talent out there."

But SAP is well-placed to compete. Headquartered in Walldorf, Germany, it claims to be operational in every country and the global leader in its field, providing business-management software to around 65,000 customers. Clients include Marks & Spencer, Burberry, British Gas, the Metropolitan Police, Royal Mail and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

SAP has a market capital of around £35.6bn (€45bn), with annual sales of more than £7.9bn (€10bn).
Born to Jewish parents, Mr Apotheker - extremely competitive by his own admission - counts Microsoft, Oracle and UK firm Sage among his company's competition. "Yes, they are rivals, but they are not as good," he says.

And he is just a gung-ho about the future. "You always have to ask yourself the question: Why do we use this particular piece of technology and who can disrupt this piece of technology with better technology?

Once you have these two questions answered, then you should ensure you are a step ahead of your competitor. If you want to be an internet entrepreneur, the first thing you have to learn is to be extremely competitive.

"In technology, you have to assume that what you create today could be obsolete tomorrow and then you are history. Technology is a global game. Some kid in the centre of India could take you out of business."

He adds: "We are present in the emerging markets of India, China and Brazil, and one of the great opportunities that we see is to connect people in all of these markets. We want to keep the world running.

More than 50 per cent of global trade transactions goes through SAP systems. Our duty is to ensure this happens as smoothly as possible. Our next challenge is to make the business world run even more efficiently, particularly when we come to a time when the price of oil is going up."

How much of a challenge is the current market? "We have not seen an effect. It may actually be a good thing for us, because in a downturn people are probably going to use software more. We have to continue to make it more efficient."

Over the next few months, Mr Apotheker will oversee the launch of a new online product for small and medium-sized firms called Business ByDesign.

A graduate of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, Mr Apotheker is fluent in Dutch, English, French, German and Hebrew. In 1942, his parents escaped the Nazis, moving from the Polish-Ukrainian border to the Soviet Union, and then Aachen, West Germany, where he was born. When he was aged seven, his family moved to Belgium, before settling in Paris.

His desire to develop software came in the 1980s, when he worked as a financial controller at Swift, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. He went on to work for ABP Partners, a strategic management consulting company. He moved to SAP in 1988 and has worked his way up the ranks. In 2002, he joined the executive board as head of sales and was made deputy chief executive five years later.

"I have seen the early stages of package software and the huge growth of the software industry," he says. "It grew from an industry of a happy few to one that impacts upon the daily life of every human being on the planet. And I think it is just the beginning.

"Software is already embedded into the daily life of people but it is still not embedded into the 24 hours of the daily lives of people. And with connectivity from the web you will see software playing an even bigger role in the lives of people."

Mr Apotheker lives in Paris with his wife and two children.

    Last updated: 2:34pm, September 18 2008