Right-hand Man

On his first full week on the job as NeXT president and chief operating officer, Peter van Cuylenburg was busy converting a company conference room into a "war room" to evaluate and refine the company's marketing strategy.

Not that he disagrees with the current focus on mission-critical custom apps. On the contrary, it was NeXT's conversion to that strategy during the last year that convinced the Englishman to leave his post as the CEO of London-based Mercury Communications and become Steve Jobs's right-hand man.

But custom apps by itself is a limited market. To figure out how to extend the mission-critical strategy to a broader customer base, van Cuylenburg planned to roll up his Oxford shirtsleeves and sequester the best marketing minds in the company until they came up with a solution.

"I want to help NeXT get to a $1 billion revenue based on object-oriented programming and the new market that will unlock," he says during an interview jammed into his hectic first-week schedule.

The 43-year-old world citizen (born in England to a Royal Air Force family, he was raised in Singapore and has had previous employment stints in the United States) brings a resume in technology engineering, marketing, and management that suggests he can do it.

After graduating in 1972 with a degree in electrical engineering from Bristol Polytechnic, van Cuylenburg soon realized his real interest was in marketing and management. In 1973, he signed on with Texas Instruments (TI) United Kingdom, beginning a 16-year career with the semiconductor and electronics company that took him on a series of assignments to London, France, and Texas.

It was in Nice that he discovered personal computers, buying one of the first Apple IIs shipped to France. "I was blown away because it was the first interactive system through which individuals could dialogue with a computer," he says.

That started his sometimes-frustrating campaign to guide TI into the personal-computer business. He led two projects to design a TI home computer, neither of which was ever produced. In 1987, after a tour at the helm of TI's $300 million U.K. subsidiary, he came to Austin, Texas, to head up the company's worldwide computer business.

Inheriting a failed TI campaign to commercialize artificial intelligence behind its Explorer workstations and LISP programming environment, van Cuylenburg had the Explorer software rewritten in UNIX and C and repositioned the product as a system for rapid development and prototyping of applications a move very similar to the current positioning of NeXT. The development system sold well in a few vertical markets, especially the airline industry.

"This experience showed the enormous need for operational productivity as opposed to just personal productivity," he says.

During that time, he struck a deal with Sun Microsystems for TI to design and build Sun's next-generation SPARC chip, the Viking, which is just now coming to market. He also served a term as the chairman of SPARC International, the association of SPARC computer makers.

He might still be at TI today except for a head-hunting call in the fall of 1989. During his two years at Mercury, which is known as "the MCI of the U.K.," revenues surged from $400 million to $2 billion.

NeXT's courtship of van Cuylenburg lasted more than a year before he made up his mind to join the company. "My first conversation with Steve Jobs was about mission-critical custom apps," he recalls. "At TI, we called it 'operations management,' but Steve and I realized that it was the same thing. We sat there and sketched on the whiteboard, differentiating volume markets and vertical markets."

Van Cuylenburg was intrigued, but he wasn't ready yet to walk away from Mercury. He turned down the offer to run NeXT's marketing. Six months later, Jobs stopped in London to discuss a different position. This time, Steve was looking for a president. In December, van Cuylenburg agreed to join the company.

"NeXT has found the vision that will change the computer industry in the 1990s. It is the equivalent of the Mac user interface in the '80s. I wanted to help make that happen," says van Cuylenburg.

To accomplish that, "we need to run our own business in a mission-critical way," he says. He plans to put in place a series of cross-functional teams to examine and improve NeXT's business processes. One of the main products of these teams will be new information systems, mission-critical to NeXT, that will provide the underpinnings of a strong, well-managed company.

Van Cuylenburg is confident that his management style will fit easily with NeXT's innovative corporate culture. On the inevitable comparisons with John Sculley, the president Jobs brought into Apple, van Cuylenburg says, "My background is in computers and telecommunications, so it's easier for Steve to assess the kinds of things I will do than it might have been for him to do with Sculley."

On this first week on the job, the primary goal is to re-examine marketing. In the war room, he has sketched a three-layered pyramid on the whiteboard. The top section is custom apps; the bottom section is the broad horizontal market. In the middle, van Cuylenburg sees an opportunity for NeXT in integrated systems and collaborative computing.

"This layer is also custom and mission-critical because each customer has unique needs and information sources. We need to crystallize and label the market," he says.

If the war-room group can articulate a compelling message about collaboration and integration, van Cuylenburg will have accomplished something that NeXT has failed to do in several years of trying. Not bad for a first week's work.

by Dan Ruby