Business

Saturday July 16, 2011

Up Close & Personal with Red Hat CEO James Whitehurst

By CECILIA KOK
cecilia_kok@thestar.com.my


Red Hat Inc president and CEO gets ...

BY going through some famous books about magic, James Whitehurst hopes to find a spell that can create an even closer bond between him and his nine-year-old twins, Jack and Emma. He finished reading the whole Harry Potter series last year in the hope that he could share more with his son and daughter, whom he says are so fascinated with the fantasy tales of the boy wizard.

You see, while Whitehurst is passionate about his job, nothing is more important to him than his family. “Family always comes first,” the president and chief executive officer of Red Hat Inc, the world's leading provider of Linux and open-source solutions for the Internet, tells StarBizWeek.

Being a busy leader of a fast-growing global company, Whitehurst knows that he has to put in the extra time and effort to build his relationship with his family. “Because by the time I slow down, my kids would be (grown and) gone; so, I'd better do it now,” he says.

Not surprising then that whenever he goes on business travels, he would try to bring his family with him.

He was in Singapore for almost a week last month as part of his three-week business tour to Asia. His recent trip to the region had taken him to Japan, China and Hong Kong before he joined his wife, Lauren, and the kids in the city-state as his last stop before heading home to the United States together with his family.

Tossing a hat in the ring

Whitehurst's visit to Asia this round marks an important chapter for the company, as he spends time talking to various customers to understand their needs and to develop a long-term strategy for the company's growth.

There's no doubt about Asia becoming an increasingly attractive market for Red Hat. Meeting Whitehurst at the company's regional headquarters in Singapore, StarBizWeek learns that this energetic CEO is indeed expecting much from his Asian team to deliver on the back of the region's robust economy and enormous business opportunities. “I told the Asian team that they've got to get to at least a third of the group's total business,” he shares.

The region currently represents only around 20% of the group's global business. But with Asia's economies, especially countries like China and India, developing rapidly, Whitehurst believes the region's contribution to the group's business will catch up in less than no time.

“Our business in Asia should be growing at a much faster pace compared to the rest of the world,” he says, adding that one can't do as much travel as he does and not realise that this is going to be the “Asian century”.

Whitehurst tries to instil that sense of awareness towards Asia's significance (especially China) in his kids, too, by putting them through Mandarin classes and bringing them along to the region which he visits at least twice a year for business whenever possible.

“I wished I'd learnt Chinese myself,” he laments, before quickly adding that he thinks it's almost an impossible feat for him now.

Whitehurst's remarkably humble and affable disposition belies the fact he is the head of an S&P 500 company, which has a worldwide presence through more than 65 offices spread across various countries, including Malaysia. In fact, most of the time, he wouldn't even tell people about his position in the company.

“When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I work for a software company. I don't say I'm a CEO,” says the unassuming leader.

Tall order

Whitehurst joined Red Hat as its president and CEO in December 2007.

He is based at the group's global headquarters in Raleigh in North Carolina, and plays an instrumental role in growing the company's business worldwide. “US$3bil in five years from now,” Whitehurst says of the target that he has set for the company. Red Hat is currently raking in annual revenue of around US$1bil. That is more than double the US$400mil the company made about four years ago, when Whitehurst joined.

“It's been a very gratifying ride,” he says of his experience at Red Hat, in which he has played a major role in growing from a niche operating system player to a full-fledged open-source solutions provider and leader in the industry over the last few years.

“Hopefully, I have learnt a lot and have not made too many big mistakes,” he quips.

Going forward, Whitehurst says, he aspires to make Red Hat the default choice for software for next-generation computing.

“It's a tall order but I think it's achievable because we've got the right technology and can create massive value for users,” he says, while pointing out the fact that Red Hat has successfully demonstrated that open source can be a viable alternative to traditional software.

“If you look at some Web 2.0 companies, open source is their default choice. No Google or Yahoo! are going to start up without using an open-source platform,” he explains.

Whitehurst was formerly with an almost-bankrupt Delta Airlines Inc as its chief operating officer before joining Red Hat.

He was seconded from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to join Delta Airlines immediately after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks first as its acting treasurer before becoming the chief operating oficer by the airline's former CEO, Gerald Grinstein. His mission was to steer the company through a major turbulence bankruptcy.

Delta Airlines then was Whitehurst's biggest client at BCG. It hit a hard spot after the terrorist attacks and was on the verge of collapse until the entry of Whitehurst to help restructure the company.

“Well, we came up with the best possible strategy that we could come up with, such as reducing the number of seats, focusing on customer benefits and rationalising routes. There was never any hesitation about what we needed to do then for the survival of the airliner,” he shares, while acknowledging that luck had also tilted in the airline's favour.

Be that as it may, Whitehurst has since been widely recognised as the key architect of turning around Delta Airlines.

Coming full circle

Understandably, in Whitehurst's account, the difference between running Red Hat and Delta Airlines is “day and night”. From his roles and responsibilities to the companies' types of industry and business models, the challenges on his plate have been totally different. Nevertheless, he confesses that he is having it easier at Red Hat compared with his time at Delta Airlines.

And for the self-confessed technology geek, joining the software industry is like coming full circle.

“I was into computers from the very start and had thought I was going to start a technology company when I grew up; but that was not to be,” Whitehurst explains.

Whitehurst's exposure to technology started before high school when his father got him his first computer a Kaypro II (an early-generation model famous in the early 1980s). He subsequently picked up programming skills and started developing contact management software at high school to make a “little bit of money”.

Always believing he would be dealing with techie stuff, Whitehurst went to college expecting to do a degree in computer science. But in the middle of that journey, he figured that he did not want to be a programmer forever. So, he took up business courses to get into the business side of technology and landed himself a job at BCG until Delta Airlines (and then, Red Hat) came along.

“I had come a very long way to become a CEO of a technology company,” he says.

Best ideas live

As a leader in the fast-moving computer technology industry, Whitehurst reckons the importance of “meritocracy”, as opposed to a “hierarchical system”, as a way to foster creativity among Red Hat's employees, a significant number of whom make up a young and energetic workforce of the “Facebook generation”.

“The classical hierarchical system, which was never structured in a way to foster innovation and creativity, does not work well with the new generation,” he says.

With the “Facebook generation”, who has grown up in a very socially connected way, Whitehurst says, “the best ideas should live”. It is about leading by influence and example as opposed to being overly directive, he elaborates.

Whitehurst says he would one day put his management experiences in print. He reveals that he has already had internal discussions with several parties about writing a book, which may not necessarily be about his management style but more likely about lessons learnt and the formulae that work for Red Hat.

“But I first need to find the time to do it,” he says, referring to his hectic work schedule from having to travel so frequently and meeting customers all over the world as the main hindering factor.

Don't expect Whitehurst to sacrifice his time with his family, though. He has already mentioned about them coming first in everything.

“If I'm in town and unless there is some strange events in my schedule, I would get up very early in the morning to be ready by the time the kids wake up. I have breakfast with them, and then take them to school before I start work. I come home for dinner, play around with the kids and after they get to bed, I would get back to my work,” he shares.

One would have guessed easily then that with the kids, Whitehurst is the “nice guy” at home while his wife, Lauren a visiting professor at Duke University in North Carolina to whom he has been married for almost 15 years is the disciplinarian.

Having been brought up by parents who emphasised family values, Whitehurst is one who still believes in spending quality time with the family and having dinners together with them. They are, after all as he says, his key to maintaining sanity amid all the busyness at work in a fast-paced industry.

BORN: Oct 13, 1967

PERSONAL: Married to Lauren, with twin son Jack and daughter Emma (both nine)

QUALIFICATIONS: MBA from Harvard Business School a nd BA in Computer Science and Economics from Rice University in Houst on; also atte nded Frie dr ich-Alexander University in Erlangen, Ger many; and holds a genera l cour se degree from the London School of Economics

CAREER: President & CEO of Red Hat Inc

FAVOURITE FOOD: Sushi

FAVOURITE PLACE: Singapore/ Hong Kong

HOBBIES: His children; building furnit ure (wood work); computer s; reading

VALUES: Open, transparent, colla bora t ive, building on meritocracy

INSPIRATION: His late fat her

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