"Vision Solutions is the leading high-availability, disaster recovery and continuous operations vendor for the IBM iSeries (AS/400). We sell our software in more than 70 countries worldwide, and we have more than 4,300 licenses in the field being used by approximately 1,700 clients. Forty-four percent of the Fortune 100 use our software. We had record revenues and earnings in 2000. Although there were tough fighting conditions in the IT industry, we still managed to grow during our first half of 2001 compared to our first half of 2000 and were number one in terms of revenue against our competitors," tells Nicolaas Vlok, CEO of Vision Solutions, headquartered in Irvine, California. He confidently continues, "We feel there's a significant opportunity in the iSeries space today, but we're going to be more than an iSeries company."
"For more than a decade," notes Vlok, "our Vision Suite technology has been one of the most recommended and deployed solutions in this space. While this is our bread and butter today, we're quickly expanding into the open systems market. We plan to release UNIX high-availability and clustering products this year, and some of the products are already being tested in our facilities. We've been quite aggressive in terms of where we want to take our solutions and the company."
Information availability the ability to make the environment and information continuously accessible without interruption in the state and format needed by the enterprise is addressed by Vision Solutions' product offerings, which are divided into four distinct information categories as follows: continuous availability (clustering), high availability, managed availability and data replication. The first two categories are part of the Vision Suite offering, managed availability is performed by Vision Express and data replication is the function of SYMBIATOR.
The attraction of the high-availability space now dominated by Vlok and the Vision Solutions team is understandable as he has always been available for his cause and goals. Vlok, who was born and raised in South Africa, was nine years old when he received his first computer a gift from his father. His passion for technology was quickly evident as he reveals, "I spent afternoons and nights with my computer. Every bit of pocket money I obtained I reinvested in the machine with new technology," recalls Vlok. When in his teens, Vlok secured part-time work on a computer assembly line, working in the afternoons, on Saturdays and essentially every holiday. Soon, Vlok advanced to another part-time job where he was very much involved in developing software for the legal fraternity in South Africa. Vlok continues the chronology, "Two years later, I went to the University of Pretoria and started studying electronic engineering with a specific focus on computer networks and computer science. I did not do any computer-related work for approximately six months, and then I returned to the field consulting for the University. Because my father owned a fair amount of business interests at that stage," he continues, "I was managing some of his IT stake in those businesses, which I formalized into a business three years later. Along with my brother and a good friend of ours, we formed Technology Systems Training (TST) which became IDION on August 6, 1998, when we listed the company on the Development Capital sector of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE)."
Approximately one year later, IDION graduated to a main-board listing on the JSE's Information Technology Sector. "Two-and-a-half years after going public," explains Vlok, "we completed our first international acquisition Vision Solutions to take the company international." Founded in 1990, Vision Solutions became part of the IDION group of companies on March 28, 2000.
"We gave ourselves 100 days to make the big changes at Vision," states Vlok. "We brought on a new CFO, Tim Keithahn. He was the senior manager leading the due diligence for us from the audit company. Immediately following the due diligence, I asked him to join. We also brought in a new VP of worldwide sales. Basically, we brought in the people to start building the business people that knew our world and had a good feel for it. We determined what we wanted the business to look like and what we had to do to get it there. The first 60 days following the acquisition were very busy. We put our arms around the business in terms of the expenses, clients and buyers. We delved deep, and I acquired a few gray hairs during that period; however, it was a good experience. Every day held new challenges. While Vision Solutions experienced significant change, every change was for the benefit of the company and the customers."
"Although Vision Solutions was always a leader in its space, it didn't differentiate itself from its competition," admits Vlok. "Today, we have implemented customer service measures that distinguish us from our competitors with our worldwide 24x7x365 CustomerCare Group. We turned the reactive technical support into customer care which is proactive and recruited significant skill into this company."
Another change was made in Vision Solutions' sales models. "In the past," says Vlok, "Vision employed hybrid selling some direct and some channel. During the last year, we committed this business to channel, and that business forms the majority of our client base today. We are very committed to the channel locally and internationally, and we're working closely with our channel partners. We also focus on strategic accounts that we've defined very clearly. Regardless of the economic slowdown, we still have deals coming in because our coverage has increased so dramatically."
"From a future perspective," he continues, "Vision Solutions is supporting and developing new technologies to expand our world-class high-availability technology to the UNIX platform and later to the Microsoft world to truly become an enterprise resiliency solutions provider. This year, we will be releasing our UNIX technology which will not only be specific to a single UNIX platform, but to general UNIX environments as well. We are also a very strong player in the data movement, data-sharing transformation space, and we're looking forward to growing this company significantly."
In addition to porting the high-availability technology from the iSeries world to the UNIX world, Vlok is also porting the schema used in founding IDION Technology Holdings, which is easily understandable through the dissection of the acronym. IDION represents integrity, direction, innovation, ownership and nurture. Vlok expounds, "The culture is very innovative, extremely dynamic and highly energetic. It's a culture which fosters growth and allows people to rise to challenges." His management style enables this culture as Vlok comments, "I'm a very approachable person. I hire professionals, and they manage their areas of the business with controls and checks and balances in place. I enjoy receiving feedback and I like to strategize. I like to get involved when asked or when it's necessary, but I don't micromanage. I am a long-term, global thinker, and people accept me for that. I believe that's where my strength lies."
Vlok's management characteristics are evident in his business-world accomplishments to date. "From an IT perspective," Vlok observes, "South Africa is very much a distribution and services market typically, U.S. software and products are distributed into South Africa. To build a product company in South Africa was basically unheard of. It's not something you see happening every day. My dream, to found and build a world-class global software company, became a reality once we went public. When we acquired Vision Solutions, it became the vehicle for us to further that dream. I believe my story is interesting because I'm a South-African CEO of a software company that is setting up worldwide today. The chance of accomplishing this in America is much greater than in South Africa, but that's what I enjoy. There's always a way around a brick wall."
As an individual whose leadership traits became evident at an early age, Vlok explains the motivation behind his actions. "I like to explore and test boundaries. I'm prepared to take an educated and calculated risk. I enjoy challenges, doing things the right way and having fun," he says, "and I hate running behind."
Always cognizant of the necessity of making sound business decisions, Vlok explains how that impacts his travel philosophy. "Last year during the acquisition process, I traveled 14 times between South Africa and the U.S. via Europe. Twenty-two hours of flying there and twenty-two hours of flying back 43,864 miles on British Airways." Vlok does not travel first class. "We started out as a small company, and we still are a very small company when you consider the giants out there. Even as we grow, we should still think as though we are a small company because that's when you make smart business decisions and stay nimble. I would rather spend the extra $8,000 required to fly first or business class on research and development. This money could enable us to develop product and new functionality and it's a very easy decision. I want to give the money to improve customer satisfaction. It's not even an argument worth having because there is no argument."
Thoroughly enjoying his role at Vision, Vlok credits his upbringing for planting the seed of challenge in his life. "We've been an entrepreneurial family all along. My father managed his own career and owned his own businesses. That's where my interest in running two businesses stemmed from. His lifestyle had an influence on me in terms of enjoying it, making sure that you balance it out and making sure that you're doing what you want to do. If you want to run your own business, make sure you do it. That's my background. When we started IDION seven years ago, we thought we would be doing well if we had 20 people in five years. In reality, we had 20 people in eight or 10 months, and that's how the fun started. If I wasn't in the high-tech industry, I would probably find myself somewhere in the financial markets probably private equity. But I must say, it would take a big event to lure me out of the high-tech world, as this is something I really enjoy."
"My father taught me many things. One lesson that I apply on a daily basis, however, is whatever you do after sunrise and before sunset, you have to do. What you do before sunrise and after sunset is profit and gain. This holds very true for any entrepreneur. There's no entrepreneur that's successful with six or eight hours of work a day. It's dedication, it's sacrifices, it's being passionate about what you do, and it's commitment," says Vlok.
Vlok concludes, "The beauty of the high-tech industry and the reason that it's evolving at such a great rate is because it's not an industry where the big guys will just get bigger and bigger. The product that truly delivers the most business value will win like David against Goliath, the winner is more nimble, faster and smarter. The question for high-tech business is, do you want to build another successful business or do you want to sell out at some point in time? Our mind-set at Vision Solutions is to go all the way. I didn't come to America to retire here," remarks Vlok. He came to lead Vision Solutions, intent on ensuring that Vision Solutions becomes the dominant player for high availability, clustering and partitioning in a multiplatform environment making an impact on IT environments worldwide.
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