Burgum Reflects On His Past And MBS' Future

But Doug Burgum is not a typical software exec.

Burgum, who leads Microsoft Business Solutions as senior vice president, talked last week as he always does at the annual MBS Convergence event, but instead of his usual wide-ranging discourse on a historical event with its present-day ramifications, Burgum talked about himself.

About growing up in a tiny North Dakota town, among farmers whose grandparents and great grandparents settled the area. About his family’s farm and grain elevator business. About literally betting the family farm on Great Plains Software.

“It’s a barren place,” Burgum said of Arthur, N.D, population 400 (“if we count the 110 in The Good Samaritan’s Home”).

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“Some people might say [it’s] godforsaken, windswept and cold, but I’d say beautiful,” Burgum said.

He outlined how a grain elevator works, how the truck is weighed full, then empty. About how the grain is sampled to determine the percentage of chaff—or useless material. And how the farmer is docked for that percentage. A farmer’s income, his very livelihood, depended on the price he got.

“I’m standing there with my dad as a little kid, and he’s got the [sample] pan. And you know what he’s teaching me? He’s teaching me how to take the cleanest possible sample,” Burgum said, choking with emotion. “The thing he taught me about the relationship between a business and its customers is it’s absolutely, positively based on trust,” he noted. It would have been easy to shortchange a farmer, who often hired someone else to drive his wares to market, he said, but there would be consequences. “What he taught me is if you screw grandpa, 50 years later his grandkid won’t bring you his grain. Families remember that.”

That behavior is clearly right and moral, but has the added benefit of being good business practice, Burgum said. In the grain elevator example, if farmers decided the operator was not to be trusted, they formed their own collaborative to run the elevator themselves. In his family’s case, not only did the grain elevator survive, but it expanded to sell seed, fertilizer and coal.

In the ’80s, Burgum got involved with Great Plains, a 15-person company that would make a name for itself selling accounting software through a network of partners—often mom-and-pop accountant shops.

He recalls going to his very first Comdex with what he thought was a great idea and seeing 63 other companies in the brochure with the exact same business plan. “Great due diligence on my part,” he quipped.

And yet Fargo, N.D.-based Great Plains did well. It grew to about 2,000 employees on its own and was acquired by Microsoft in 2001 for just over $1.1 billion. By then it had become famous for its Stampede partner conferences and Convergence customer events, the first of which was 10 years ago and drew 107 customers and 21 partners. This year’s attendance was somewhere around 7,000.

What it brought to Microsoft was not only business software, now called ERP, but that network of partners that are crucial to the hands-on sales cycle those apps require.

It also brought to Microsoft a kinder-and-gentler culture than that typically associated with Microsoft’s hard-charging, high-volume, fast sales approach.

Longtime Great Plains partners say Burgum, along with a dwindling number of “Fargonauts,” brought great credibility to Microsoft’s business applications push. As Burgum transitions to his role as chairman—with his day-to-day duties taken over by an as-yet-undetermined successor—they hope that culture will continue.

Burgum himself maintains he will still play a big customer- and partner-facing role. “This is essentially a CEO succession … and in that you have the former person stick around, you want a dialogue between the new operating leader and the new chairman. My hope and dream is that I’ll have more time to be external now. There are so many opportunities, if you have time, to travel and get out to a lot of events, opportunities to add value and when you have that chance it’s also a great chance to shape the agenda internally.”