Gary Greenfield: Riding With the King

The new CEO of Avid Technology doesn’t seem like a leg-puller, yet folks who say they knew Elvis Presley raise an eyebrow or two.

“I grew up around the corner from Elvis, before he moved to ‘the shrine,’” Gary Greenfield said. “My father knew Elvis. I sat on Elvis’s lap.”

Rock-and-roll royalty would not make the deepest impression on the youngster, however. “My father served in World War II in the Navy, and remained a reservist all the way through when I was in junior high,” Greenfield said.

He recalled watching aircraft take off and land on the U.S.S. Lexington at Pensacola, Fla., where his father drilled. “I didn’t know I wanted to go to the U.S. Naval Academy,” he said. “I just knew I wanted to go to ‘Annapolis.’ I followed through on that,” he said.

Following through comprised knocking out two degrees in four years—a polisci undergrad at the Academy, and a master’s in information systems from George Washington University.

The year was 1976. The young ensign with two sheepskins also left the Naval Academy with a bum knee and a competency with the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, an early iteration of mainframe computing.

In February of ’77, Greenfield joined Online Systems in Silver Spring, Md., working on a project for the U.S. Senate.

“We did an early automation project that was what we know today as a ‘customer relationship management system,’” he said. “This was pre-Wang, pre- Microsoft Office.”

He was also accepted at Harvard, so the company allowed him to commute between Boston and Washington, and earn his MBA. Online would be acquired by the precursor of Sprint. There, Greenfield developed an expertise with software that he parlayed into running Intersolv, a Rockville, Md., concern that in 1998 merged with British mainframe specialist Micro Focus to form Merant. The marriage didn’t last.

The two companies were picked up by private equity firms, as was Greenfield, but not before he took helm of yet another software company. This one was in a downward spiral. Peregrine Systems in San Diego, Calif., was a luminary in the enterprise software space, growing from fewer than 200 to more than 3,000 employees in four years, and reporting revenues of $700 million.

Two weeks into his tenure as CEO, Greenfield discovered that actual revenues would be about one-fourth of that--enough to support about 20 percent of the staff. He would lead the company through Chapter 11. Around this same time in 2002, General Electric sold off its Gaithersburg, Md., e-commerce division, GXS, to Francisco Partners, a private equity powerhouse in the Bay Area.

When the Peregrine board replaced Greenfield after the restructure, Francisco Partners brought him in and put him in charge of GXS. Greenfield focused on making GXS what he called a “thought leader,” a process that first requires finding out what customers need, he said.

The result involved changing GXS platforms from two-way communications models to “virtual infrastructures” that allowed people to access information without having to ask for it. GXS gained about a 50 percent market share with the strategy, he said. He’ll take a similar approach at Avid.

“You have to listen to customers very closely; hearing about their problems and what they’re trying to do, and what they’re trying to bring to the table,” he said.

There might even be the occasional time and place for a yarn about the old Memphis neighborhood.