CUE 08 (Lawson conference and user exchange)

Event: CUE 08 (Lawson conference and user exchange)

When: March 17-20, 2008

Where: Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas

What: St. Paul, Minnesota-based software company Lawson provides software and service products to 4,000 customers in manufacturing, distribution, maintenance and service sector industries across 40 countries. Human resource applications are part of Lawson’s portfolio of products, which also includes supply-chain management and customer relationship management software.

Day 3—Wednesday, March 19

The soft sell: The biggest news at the conference was the “coming-out party,” as CEO Harry Debes put it, of Lawson’s Talent Management Suite. The suite—featuring modules for talent acquisition, performance management, compensation management, learning and development, and succession management—was years in development and is a key component of the company’s Strategic Human Capital Management System. It’s so important that it has been given equal standing in the product hierarchy alongside Lawson’s two ERP products—S3, which is aimed at service businesses, such as health care organizations, and M3, Lawson’s ERP product for manufacturing companies.

With all that buzz behind it, will Lawson be selling it fast and furiously? Not quite.

The product’s debut is a really low-key coming-out party, not your Super Sweet 16 extravaganza. Lawson says the product now has “extended availability.” My ability to turn marketing speak into English is limited, so I asked for a translation, and here is what Larry Dunivan, Lawson’s vice president of strategic human capital management, said in an e-mail sent along by the PR folks:

“It means that we are selectively making implementation commitments to customers based on capacity to deliver services and SaaS [software as a service] operations. So at its simplest, we will approach a customer, commit to a project, and sign an order form. In some cases, that will also come with a delay in the start of their implementation to align with our capacity to support it. It means there are no other restrictions on who can evaluate or purchase the product.”

CEO Debes put it this way during a Q&A with media and analysts on March 19: “If we wanted, we could sell 100 units [in the coming year] but we couldn’t install them. If we tried, we would probably screw it up. Instead, we’ll sell 20.” For the long-term growth of the product, Debes said, it will take momentum and early success with initial customers. “If they’re successful, we will be in the long term,” Debes said.

Big announcement—with a little asterisk: During the show, Lawson announced that the first customer to deploy the Talent Management Suite is New Jersey-based Commerce Bank. The bank has 470 locations along the East Coast and is well known for its customer-friendly approach, with long retail-style hours, lollipops for kids and treats for dogs. It has been growing quickly and hiring at a rapid clip: 7,000 employees annually from a pool of 165,000 applicants. The bank has been a Lawson customer since 2002, but was frankly unhappy with Lawson’s recruiting product, and had even begun a market search for a possible replacement for it.

Instead, with commitments from Debes and Dunivan, Commerce “jumped off the cliff” with Lawson, as senior VP of HR Grace Migliaccio put it. The bank worked with Lawson to develop what became the talent acquisition module of the Talent Management Suite. Commerce Bank has been using the new product in a pilot project that has been so successful that other recruiter teams are begging to be next, Migliaccio said.

Then, almost as an aside, Migliaccio mentioned that Commerce Bank has been sold. Lawson’s charter customer will soon become part of the TD Bank Financial Group, and the Toronto-based company said on March 20 that the deal is set to close March 31. Commerce will soon be known as TD Commerce Bank. The long hours and customer orientation are not expected to change. The talent software’s future, however, is not so certain.

In an interview, Commerce Bank’s vice president of HR, Jo-Anna Rubin-Berman, said she and her colleagues weren’t sure what the sale would mean for the talent software deal with Lawson in the long term. “We do know there is not a strong competing system” at the other banks in the TD system, she said.

Consolidation is a way of life in banking, and both the Commerce Bank and Lawson executives seemed hopeful but realistic about what might happen with the Talent Management Suite now.

“It’s your baby, but hey, life goes on,” Rubin-Berman said.

Three other companies were announced as charter implementation customers during the show: Manitou, a French manufacturer and distributor of rough-terrain forklift trucks; Sitel, a global business process outsourcing company with 67,000 employees in 27 countries; and Spectrum Health, a health care system based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with seven hospitals and 14,000 employees.

Animated competition: Not a comprehensible word was spoken in the cartoon titled “Well Done” that was shown before the opening session on both Tuesday and Wednesday. But it speaks volumes. You can watch it here. See if the companies depicted remind you of anyone in the world of ERP software. (Last year’s entry, with the same cast and a similar theme, is called “Get the Cat.” It’s here.

—Carroll Lachnit

Day 2—Tuesday, March 18

The Vegas effect: CEO speeches can be pretty tame affairs—just ask anyone who has been to a SHRM annual conference. But when the curtain went up on Lawson’s opening session Tuesday, featuring CEO and president Harry Debes, it was not business as usual. A big band bashed out Vegas standards. A bar and bartender stood ready. Three Rat Pack impersonators belted out “Luck Be a Lady.” And after taking center stage, Debes, wearing a tux and red pocket square, did a lip-sync duet with the Dean Martin look-alike.

I don’t know what was actually in the glasses that were billed as “breakfast martinis,” but the mood onstage was ebullient as Debes spent the next couple hours telling the conference’s 5,000-plus attendees about company financials, plans for greater customer support and collaboration, and recent acquisitions, such as workforce management company VasTech. He introduced customer guests and brought news of Lawson Talent Management, a key element of the company’s Strategic Human Capital Management System. (The product now has “extended availability,” which means Lawson will be selling the new software suite, but there may be a delay in the start of the implementation “to align with our capacity to support it,” in the words of Larry Dunivan, the company’s vice president of strategic human capital management.)

Along the way, Debes told some corny Dean Martin-style jokes, including a couple at the expense of Eliot Spitzer, and taste-tested some on-a-dare flavors from Lawson customer Jelly Belly. Debes has three chances to guess whether he had chosen a disgusting bean—rotten egg, pencil shavings and skunk spray—or a tasty look-alike of each. He guessed wrong all three times, and was warned away from other gambling opportunities that might come his way.

The morning took a more serious turn with a life-and-death story from customer Lee Murray, director of Lawson systems for the University of Alabama Medical Center, who suffered sudden cardiac arrest during a 5K fun run at last year’s CUE event. Quick-thinking conference goers and a race coordinator who performed CPR and used a defibrillator came to Murray’s aid, buying him time before paramedics arrived. Murray said he’s had a full recovery, and was going skiing once the conference wraps up.

As if the Rat Pack weren’t enough, Debes’ last guest was a pretty fair doppelganger for Marilyn Monroe. Wearing a high-cut/low-cut red sequined gown, she sat on Debes’ lap, ruffled his hair, delivered risqué quips and sang “Happy Birthday” to him in the whispery voice that the real Marilyn used with JFK.

Debes emerged from her embrace, hair mussed and face stained with red lipstick traces and straightened himself up.

“I’m more excited now than when we did the Intentia acquisition,” he said, just a little breathlessly. That’s the deal that helped set Lawson on a new path, so Debes must have been thrilled indeed.

—Carroll Lachnit