Goodnight for all

His 6,000 employees work a 35-hour week, have all kinds of sports facilities available on campus, get coffee, soft drinks and…

His 6,000 employees work a 35-hour week, have all kinds of sports facilities available on campus, get coffee, soft drinks and fruit juice free on tap in the office, dress casually at work, share in the profits, have a flexible work schedule, are encouraged to bring their children to the office for lunch and quit their jobs a heck of a lot less than employees in other high-tech companies. When he heard an airline - Midway - was in financial trouble, he bailed it out. He's bought his staff a golf club. His wife sits on museum, hospital and university boards.

Sounds like a goody-two-shoes, doesn't he? But Dr Jim Goodnight is nobody's fool. He's chief executive and co-founder of the SAS Institute, the world's largest privately owned software company with a turnover of $1 billion (€1.05 billion) a year, which is consistently ranked among Fortune's 100 best companies to work for in the US, runs 115 offices in 55 countries and has 17,000 customers worldwide.

From his 700-acre base outside Cary in North Carolina, Dr Goodnight runs the SAS Institute, providing software "which helps businesses organise the vast amounts of data that they collect and analyse that data to provide information to the company on better ways to run their own company".

He elaborates: "We like to call ourselves the power to know. That is what software is about. Basically, we help businesses analyse and run their companies, with forecasting tools, modelling tools."


By analysing data held across a company, SAS software enables organisations to monitor, review, improve and shape their business performance. It also has developed specific solutions to assist customers in the process of information delivery (including solutions for customer relationships management), advanced quality control, financial consolidation, enterprise information system management, access to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions to source data from ERP systems, a specific software solution for the pharmaceutical industry and a balanced scorecard solution.

The SAS Institute has some of the highest research and development spending in the IT industry, reinvesting more than 30 per cent of revenue annually.

In Dublin next month for the SAS European User Group Initiative, which will be attended by some 3,000 business people from across the continent involved in banking, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, insurance and defence, Dr Goodnight says he's looking forward to another visit to the Republic. "It's one of my favourite places. We used to come here every two years for the Ireland/ Scotland rugby game. It's just a three-day pisser," he laughs.

He is 57, 6 feet, 5 inches tall, slim and "doesn't eat", according to his head of global and corporate communications, Ms Betty Fried. He goes to work in a poloknit jumper and slacks.

Educated at the North Carolina State University, he got a bachelors in applied maths and a master's and PhD in statistics. "I put myself through school programming computers and just continued right on." His father had a hardware store. "I had done enough there. I was not ready to go back."

SAS began in college. "We used SAS to make it easier to analyse all the data from agricultural experiments. The first work was just with numbers. When we moved out from the university, we had about 120 customers using SAS and we continued to support those customers and added more.

"Today, we have 33,000 different customers. They're all fairly good sized businesses - universities, major government agencies." The UN, the European Commission and NATO are numbered among them.

In the Republic, where the SAS Institute opened an office in Dublin's Northumberland Road recently, there are nine staff, and up to 20 will be employed within a year.

Customers here include AIB Bank, Bank of Ireland, IBM and the Central Statistics Office.

His employer philosophy reads like something from a different era. He believes in creating a workplace where employees feel they make a difference to the company. He knows tired computer programmers make expensive mistakes and, contrary to the thinking of many high-tech companies, wants his people to work only a 35-hour week.

"We're fortunate to have the opportunity to head up one of the first knowledge companies in the world where pure knowledge was the important ingredient in developing up our products. To achieve the maximum from a knowledge-oriented person, you would want to create an environment that fosters creativity. Everyone has a private office, drinks, coffee or snacks, has plenty of space to exercise . . . we've all sorts of physical activities to get these people to get out and get a little exercise."

And how do they respond to this kid-glove treatment? "So far we've lost 2.2 per cent of employees this year. We've been averaging 4 per cent per year.

"In the software industry, it's closer to 18-19 per cent. Rather than spend money on headhunters or recruiters or training new staff members, we'd rather spend that money on the employees who're here. You either spend it on your current employees or on headhunters . . . it makes very good sense."

The coffee/fruit juice/sports regime was inculcated early. In his first job, Jim Goodnight was appalled that he would have to pay for a cup of coffee during working hours. "It seemed silly to collect money for coffee when the company could pay for it. As time has gone on, we've continued to buy coffee, soft drinks, orange juice and all sorts of things for people to have as refreshments."

Of the four students who started out with SAS at North Carolina State University, Mr John Sall is the only one still with the company; he's in charge of developing statistical products.

Dr Goodnight is married to Ann and they have three children - Leah (31), who owns two fashion shops; Susan (29), who is in charge of video production for SAS and James (18), who graduated from school last week.

Ann helps with all the interior design work of the SAS buildings, as well as her philanthropic work.

Apart from rugby weekends in Dublin, he skies in Colorado in the winter, golfs once a week in spring and autumn and reads. "Because of the nature of the business, I get about a dozen magazines a week. I try to keep up with the industry. A lot is redundant because you read the same article in different books. For pleasure, I read fiction in general and I like science fiction."

He still lives most of the time in North Carolina - he was born in Salisbury - but makes sure to get out and meet people. "I still think there is a lot of business that occurs when people run into each other in the hall. I would hate to give up the personal touch of people."

Old fashioned, maybe? - "It's just what I believe in. I was in New York yesterday and now I have about 100 e-mails I have to go through. I'll be spending an hour answering e-mails. It's nice to talk to people personally."

His basic modus operandi is to listen to his customers and try to make sure they produce the features and software that they require. "We have an annual software ballot we send out to our customers, asking `what would you like us to do?' We also have numbers of user groups around the world - in Europe, Japan, Australia, a lot of US states and large cities. We attend these meetings and listen to out customers. They are exposed to our software as well, so they are our best market researchers."