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Exceptional January-June 2012 - Information is beautiful - Lars Björk - EY - United States


Information is beautiful: Lars Björk

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"I'm not a technology person, and what intrigued me about this is that I understood it. That was important."

We're drowning in data. In this digital era, information is being created at a staggering speed. According to Lars Björk, CEO of software company QlikTech, the first doubling of data took about a century.

Right now, he says, it is doubling every 14 months. Every time we swipe a credit card, upload an image to Facebook or pay a toll electronically, we create data. And thanks to the internet, trillions of gigabytes of data are being generated every year.

This information can be of enormous use to businesses — if it can be managed efficiently.

QlikTech, an enterprise software company born in Sweden in 1993, is helping to create meaning out of data using QlikView, its business intelligence software package. Its clients are almost exclusively corporations or public sector institutions, from banks and hospitals to non-profits. There have been 22,000 of them to date, including Canon, Panasonic and Shell.

There is no average customer, says Björk. And that is key: the software can be adapted to suit the needs of any company.

Another factor in the software's success has been its simplicity. "I'm not a technology is changing the way companies manage person," Björk admits. "I'm an operational person, and what intrigued me about this was the fact that I understood it. And that was important."

QlikTech has done for business intelligence what Steve Jobs did with the iPhone: created a user-friendly interface. "It's very, very intuitive," Björk explains, adding that, until now, most business software has been irritatingly complicated. "The reason why I think we are so successful is that everyday people feel in control of the experience."

Put simply, QlikTech takes a "snapshot" of an organization's underlying data, such as sales figures or mileage logged, stores it in files called applications and then builds an interface easy enough for anyone in the company to access it in the format they want.

It can be used for anything from human resources to sales, or for a general overview of the company.

Björk believes empowering employees in this way gives the client company a competitive edge.

QlikTech was originally founded in 1993 by Björn Berg and Staffan Gestrelius. They employed a chief programmer, Håkan Wolgé, to develop software that mimics the way the brain works, using a unique color-coding system.

Realizing that their strengths did not lie in business, they brought in a management team in 2000 that included Björk as CFO, and shortly thereafter left the company.

QlikTech relocated from Sweden to Radnor, Pennsylvania, in 2006, a move Björk believes was critical to its success. "If you want to be cutting-edge when it comes to technology, you should probably be in the largest market," he explains.

"It wasn't hard for me, but it was certainly a challenge for my family. My sons were 12 and 14 at the time, and I wouldn't say I was the most popular guy when we moved!"

Björk became CEO in 2007, and the company now has 28 offices in 23 countries. It has seen a 45% increase in revenue over the last six quarters, and revenue for full-year 2011 is expected to be in the range of US$315m to US$320m.

He credits a user-friendly product and a "phenomenal" team, now 1,100 strong, for this success.

His own contribution, he says, is a background in finance (an MBA from Lund University in Sweden, followed by positions at ScandStick and Resurs Finance), as well as his ability to put a team together.

"I see myself as a person standing in front of a symphony orchestra, making sure that all the instruments are playing together," he explains. "I am very comfortable surrounding myself with smarter people than myself, in their specific areas. What I spend time on, and I guard a lot, is the culture, the core values that we put together."

He believes that this culture attracts top talent in a competitive market. He calls it QlikTech's "Swedish soul."

"Happy employees plus happy customers will lead to what my shareholders and I want: happy financials," he says. "I am the strongest believer in motivating people, involving them in decision-making. My background is Swedish, and it is more common to do consensus-driven decisions in Sweden.

"You can't attract people by just paying them a lot of money and having a crappy environment," he adds with a smile. "Young people today are sophisticated. I don't think money is something they look for — they take that for granted. They look for motivation, to be involved, somewhere they can grow as individuals both professionally and personally."

The ultimate away-day

Core values encourage staff to work as a team, but also to question authority, make mistakes and be disruptive, while taking responsibility for their actions. Upon joining the company, they are shipped off to Sweden for one week of training at QlikAcademy, and a company-wide gathering is held annually for the entire staff; this year it will be in Cancún, Mexico.

"It's the 13th time we've done it," says Björk. "It's the single greatest expense of the year, and we're going to do it as long as we can.

"Early on, someone advised me that, if you want to build a high-growth company, you've got to empower people and get out of the way, because it doesn't matter how smart you are: you will never win this war yourself."

QlikTech listed on Nasdaq in July 2010. There were two reasons: one, allowing early venture capitalists to exit and, two, raising brand awareness, the results of which have so far been "phenomenal."

These days, Björk spends about 35% of his time talking to the public, and he's learning fast. "I'm a very open and straightforward person, but I have to be more balanced when I'm in public," he explains. "I know what I can and can't talk about, and have to be aware of how I'm perceived."

The company has recently opened branches in Mexico and Brazil, and plans to open a few more markets in Asia. More importantly, it wants to expand its US market share, and there are also plans for some strategic acquisitions to bring new skills to the team.

A few years ago, Björk asked his employees to tell him what was most important to them.

Three issues dominated:

  • Hyper-growth
  • Independence
  • Giving back to the world

So he introduced a corporate social responsibility program.

"We decided to reach US$1b in sales and touch the lives of a billion people," says Björk. QlikTech now gives its software free of charge to certain non-profits and encourages employees to support local charities.

Last year, Björk and 24 team members took part in a 300km bike race in Sweden, raising US$30,000 for Hope HIV, an organization that helps African orphans who have lost their parents to AIDS to get through school.

"I think this has made people even happier to work in the company," Björk smiles.

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