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Family-Owned Denali Names Ex-HPE Exec Robert Vrij As New CEO
Joseph F. Kovar
‘There comes a time where the company becomes bigger than what you know and you start getting in the way if you decide to stay in charge. So I made the decision. And it’s the right thing at the right time,’ says Majdi Daher, who is moving on from the CEO role and will become a member of Denali’s newly formed board of directors.
Denali Advanced Integration, a 30-year-old family-owned IT solution provider, Thursday named Robert Vrij as the company’s new CEO.
The move represents the first time someone from outside the Daher family has taken the top executive role at the Redmond, Wash.-based solution provider.
Denali, which previously had an informal board of directors, has now created a formal board of directors comprising the brothers Majdi, Mohamad and Mitch Daher. Mohamad Daher, also known as Alex Daher, will retain his role as chairman of the board, while Majdi Daher, who served as CEO until Thursday, and Mitch Daher will be directors of the company.
[Related: Denali Advanced Integration CEO On Remaining Private, Passing On M&A]
Denali Advanced Integration is ranked No. 37 on CRN’s 2022 Solution Provider 500.
Denali, under the Daher brothers, has been building a multigenerational business, with the sons and daughters of the three finding roles in the company that suit their skills, Majdi Daher told CRN.
However, Daher said, he started thinking in early 2019 about the right succession plan for the company going forward and launched a search process. And the strong growth the company experienced in 2021 confirmed the need to bring in someone with the right experience and approach to building a sustainable business and make the right investments to continue the Denali legacy.
“There comes a time where the company becomes bigger than what you know, and you start getting in the way if you decide to stay in charge,” he said. “So I made the decision. And it’s the right thing at the right time. Because if I realize that I am not the right person to take this company to where it needs to get through, it’ll be too late. And that’s one of the things about our organization: We’re very deliberate in everything we do.”
At some point, the founders have to get out of the way, Daher said.
“You’ve got to remember, we own the business,” he said. “So it’s not like I need another title or to beef up my resume. It’s not about that. We needed to make sure that we bring in the right person to continue and build on the foundation that we have. Most likely, it’ll amplify and accelerate where we can get to.”
Enter Vrij, a veteran executive who previously served as CEO of Openwave Systems and Alcatel-Lucent USA, and was a senior vice president and managing director for Hewlett Packard Enterprise until 2016.
Daher has known Vrij for almost 10 years from when Vrij was managing HPE’s Americas business. He said he reached out to Vrij about a year ago to discuss the CEO position, and Vrij in November joined Denali as a senior adviser and has been active in the company’s decisions on investments and other areas.
“He was behind the scenes, and now we’re saying, ‘OK, it’s the time for him to be the CEO to lead this organization and really help mentor the next generation so when they’re ready to take over the company, we’ll be there for them to actually move to that next challenge,” he said.
Vrij told CRN that his time at HPE working with Denali as a channel partner give him the chance to learn the Denali business and understand its culture and whether he would fit into that culture.
“Fit is so important,” Vrij said. “You can bring new skill sets, but if it doesn’t come with a fit then you’ve got a disconnect. And so we took the time to make sure that was a fit. And that’s the best way I would describe it, with all kinds of possibilities they could go from there, during the six to nine months that we had together in this period where we could at least explore fundamentally the philosophical alignments and cultural alignments. And that got us to the point where we are today.”
Despite the change in leadership, the Daher family will continue its ownership of Denali and help create a multigenerational company, Daher said.
By “multigenerational,” Daher said the plan is to leave the company in the Daher family.
“Today, we have a lot of our children, our nephews and nieces, scattered all over the company,” he said. “And they do a lot of different roles. But the only reason they’re in this company is because they’re truly the most qualified for their positions. There is no nepotism. So as a person who’s leading the organization, the most qualified person, doesn’t have to have the Daher family name.”
One of the interesting parts of his new role as CEO is to help that next generation prepare for leadership in the future, Vrij said.
“That can come in a variety of different areas, but each one of them are so talented in their own right that they want to pursue potentially different avenues within the company in terms of scope and function,” he said. “And my job will be to help them get there and expose them to things that will make them more dangerous down the road and allow them to contribute even more than they are today already in the business.”
That said, Denali will remain in the Daher family, which has no plans take on an IPO, Vrij said.
Denali has a tremendous track record of making investments based on customer priorities, most recently in automation, he said.
“Most companies go public in order to raise capital to accelerate their strategy,” he said. “Our strategy has been very simply one where we’re growing specifically in customer-driven directions. Our global expansion and some of the additional capabilities we have invested in has all come from there. And so we don’t see a particular need to go IPO.”
One of the things that makes Denali special is its family-owned perspective as a private company, Vrij said.
“And having run public companies before, you don’t have to have the same considerations that we do today,” he said. “We’re nimble. We’re flexible. We can move on a dime. Decisions get made a lot faster here than what I was accustomed to. And I think we just appreciate that element of being a $1.5 billion startup-mentality company, which you don’t want to lose as a public company.”
Another thing that will not change going forward is Denali’s in-depth focus on a relatively small number of large, well-known customers rather than looking to scale its customer base to a wider range of customers, Vrij said.
“We have fewer customers today, but they are all iconic companies,” he said. “They all have world global brands. So we will be focused on continuing to push the envelope to make sure that those customers get better options relative to the outcomes that we want to help drive them to.”
That said, Denali will take an opportunistic approach to different verticals and industries, Vrij said.
“There are definitely some selective areas where we’ll look to expand some of the customer base, but we’re not going to double or triple or quadruple the number of customers,” he said. “We’d rather do very few and do them right. And keep that sustainability from a relationship point of view through decades, not just little blips here and there. So you won’t see a lot of fundamental shift there other than system augmentation to a few new customers that we want to have part of our stable. But it won’t compromise our ability to serve our existing customer base because that’s what’s gotten us here.”
Daher said not to think of him stepping away from his CEO role, but instead think of him as stepping up.
“Now’m going to be truly on a board role, where I’m going to be advising and supporting Robert as he takes this company to the next level. … I’m also going to do quite a few speaking engagements. I’ve always helped and advised young companies and young entrepreneurs who want to learn. And I do quite a bit of volunteering.”