CEO Chris Heim took over one of the Twin Cities’ largest software and IT-services firms in 2014. Before joining HelpSystems, Heim was CEO of Axium Software, a Portland, Ore.-based software company that was sold to Deltek in 2014. From 2007 to 2012, Heim was CEO of Amcom Software, which grew revenue from $12 million to $52 million during his tenure. Heim, who earned undergraduate and MBA degrees from the University of St. Thomas, started as a college intern in 1986 at HighJump Software. Over a decade, he had a variety of roles before becoming CEO in 1997. HighJump grew from $8 million in sales to about $80 million in 2006, when it was sold. Heim, 54, a veritable graybeard of the software trade, said a key challenge in a strong economy is finding good people.
Q: HelpSystems has grown from 300-plus workers to 600 since 2014, and revenue has doubled to something approaching $200 million. How?
A: We try to keep things really simple so our formula for growth is: Take excellent care of our employees, treat customers like gold and create fantastic products. None of those are really groundbreaking. A software business is all about the employees, so we make sure we create an incredible place to work for them, first and foremost.
Q: What do you do and who are the customers?
A: We offer IT solutions that automate, secure and inform. Automation could mean having a software robot replace a tedious process like going to 10 different websites, checking prices, putting the data in a spreadsheet, and e-mailing [it] to contacts. Secure means locking down servers so only the right people have access at the right time and sensitive data is not breached. Inform means unlocking value in data so people can make smart decisions.
Our customers range from small banks to large global corporations.
Q: HelpSystems has had three owners in five years or so. Your most recent is HGGC, a Silicon Valley private-equity firm that invested with your management earlier this year. What’s the challenge with ownership change?
A: We have been lucky to have great PE [owners]. All have been growth-oriented and recognize they can add value without trying to run the company. There are challenges associated with a new firm and how they want to interact and their requirements. The transition has been surprisingly easy.
Q: What does HGGC expect of you and for how long?
A: They have described their strategy as more of the same. Keep growing organically … and layer in acquisitions where it makes sense for our customers. HGGC and our management agree that we want to focus on doing the right thing for the business long term and the timing and exit will take care of itself. There are so many things you don’t control relative to timing like plans of strategic acquirers or the market itself. We focus on [what] we can control.
Q: What are the challenges to growth?
A: Well, the numbers get bigger every year. To maintain the same percentage of growth requires bigger results. It is a bit of a hamster wheel in that as an organization we can celebrate a great previous year for about a day before we need to focus on doing even better the next year. That is probably the biggest challenge: Thanks for busting your butt … now we need more next year.
Q: How does your diverse geographical employment base benefit you?
A: We have 22 offices around the world. [They] bring several benefits. First, we use various time zones to do things like deliver great technical support at 1 a.m. Central time by utilizing the normal work hours of our Australian office. Second, we believe the diversity of thought from different countries [and cultures] leads to a stronger organization. We want to tap the best ideas of all these offices to continue to improve. Finally, there is an incredible battle for technical talent. Having geographical diversity has given us more opportunities to add talented individuals to the team. Software companies are hiring from [among each other]. We’re kind of trading people. There’s just not enough supply. We’ve got 213 people in Eden Prairie, and 60 people in Armenia and 30 in Clear Lake, Iowa; 40 in Nebraska, in Ashland about 20 miles from Omaha and Lincoln. And 50 in the U.K. and 32 in Barcelona, Spain. Thirty in Argentina.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: I am a chronic worrier. There is almost always something to keep me up whether it is [a] real or imagined issue. I took six months off after my last job. I slept like a baby every night. The day I decided to go back … I started staying up at night. For me, it’s the price of poker. There are so many details and challenges in a high-tech global business of this size.
Q: Why does HelpSystems have such a low profile in the Twin Cities?
A: We have been around 35 years. We seem to win a “top workplace” award yearly. We do not sell consumer software or phone apps. Most Minnesotans interact with [banks, medical, retailers] that use our software behind the scenes.