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Year of the IT CEO -- the good, the bad, the ugly

Some tech CEOs will be popping champagne corks to celebrate a successful 2004, while others will be drowning their sorrows.

There was a time when a typical CEO to-do list was filled with concrete priorities: build capital, sell more stuff, get big bonus.

In 2004, those lists grew to include less tangible tasks: be nice to SEC investigators, find out what Sarbanes-Oxley means to me, avoid controversial questions about offshore outsourcing, build capital, sell more stuff and hope employees don't read about

We can give [Oracle CEO Larry] Ellison this year's Best in Show award for redefining our idea of what the enterprise software market can do.

Joshua Greenbaum,

Enterprise Applications Consulting

big bonus in the Wall Street Journal.

If you are a CEO in this post-Enron, post-election, post-merger climate, and you kept your job this year, stand up and take a bow. Then get on your knees and thank the chief executive gods that you didn't get sacrificed the way Craig Conway did.

Conway, the former PeopleSoft Inc. CEO who came under attack during Oracle Corp.'s ongoing hostile takeover bid for PeopleSoft, was among this year's most high-profile losers -- at a time when most industry observers agree he was doing a very good job.

"I was surprised because I've always viewed Conway as a strong CEO," said Gary Griffiths, CEO of Everdream Corp., based in Fremont, Calif., and a member of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group.

"I saw him as having made a big impact on the company," said Griffiths, whose company provides customers with remote desktop management services. "I was surprised they brought [David] Duffield back in."

With Conway insisting that PeopleSoft would not succumb to Oracle's bullying, PeopleSoft's board of directors decided it didn't want Conway defending the company -- and it unanimously dumped him Oct. 1 in favor of Duffield, the company's founder.

Of the investigated, indicted -- and the fugitives

Conway, however, can look at the bright side: Not only did he land a severance package that some estimates put at $37 million, he wasn't investigated or indicted -- and he's not a fugitive. In that regard, he's a lot better off than former Symbol Technologies CEO Tomo Razmilovic.

Razmilovic was indicted in June on securities fraud charges, and was cited for creating what prosecutors called the "number-driven" environment at Symbol Technologies, a wireless LAN vendor. For the record, Razmilovic, who was reportedly yachting in Croatia this summer, is reportedly eager to clear his name and doesn't consider himself a fugitive -- but federal authorities do.

Razmilovic achieved fugitive status, but it was Computer Associates International CEO Sanjay Kumar whose list of alleged corporate crimes runs on and on.

In April, Kumar stepped down amid accounting scandals, but wasn't held personally responsible by his board of directors, who invited him to stay on as chief software architect. However, the SEC held Kumar personally responsible, and he was indicted in September on charges of securities fraud and obstruction.

"Loser of the year? How about scum of the year?" asked Joshua Greenbaum, principal analyst at Enterprise Applications Consulting in Berkeley, Calif., in reference to Kumar.

"The worst of the CA scandal is that they allegedly cooked the books to bolster earnings, took bonuses based on those cooked earnings, and now that the numbers have been revised, they aren't paying back the company," Greenbaum said. "That smacks of racketeering in the worst sense."

Frank Dunn, former CEO of Nortel Networks, was also among the CEOs who made SEC investigators look good in 2004. In April, Nortel fired Dunn (along with CFO Douglas Beatty and company controller Michael Gollogly), citing "accountability for financial reporting."

Benioff, Agassi among 2004 winners

When it comes to CEOs who deserve rave reviews for this year's performances, Greenbaum nominated Inc. CEO Marc Benioff.

"He gets an MVP award for revitalizing the apps hosting market single-handedly," Greenbaum said. "Even if is gone in two years [which probably won't happen], apps hosting will survive because of Benioff's persistence."

SAP's executive board member Shai Agassi, given the job of changing SAP from an impenetrable German company to a global software vendor, had another impressive year, Greenbaum noted. Agassi spent the year traveling around the world on an educational mission, and informing SAP users how the company's new NetWeaver platform will impact them.

If Agassi took on a starring role in 2004, IBM's Sam Palmisano kept to his behind-the-scenes style. "I'd give him this year's Shadow Award," Greenbaum said. "Most of us can't remember his name from day to day, but you see his –- and IBM's -- shadow everywhere."

CEO Michael Dell managed to surprise Wall Street by stepping aside this year, becoming chairman of the company he founded, and maintaining his reputation as a winner. "One of the greatest CEOs that we've seen in this century in Michael Dell," Griffiths said. "When you look at what Dell has done, and how they have grown, it's amazing."

Not surprisingly, renowned showman Oracle CEO Larry Ellison grabbed the most headlines this year – and just before the 2005 deadline, he did emerge victorious from a long battle to acquire Peoplesoft.

"You'd have to admire the way Larry Ellison goes after what we wants," said Robert Gryphon, CEO of San Mateo, Calif.-based Airframe Business Software. Airframe offers small businesses a suite of Web-based applications to help manage their companies.

"We can give Ellison this year's Best in Show award for redefining our idea of what the enterprise software market can do," Greenbaum said.

"Hostile takeovers were thought to be impossible," he said. "Now the impossible dream looks like it might actually come true."

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