Software AG

Wow, I can't believe I'm visiting a computer software company named Software. I bet when the founders named the company back in 1969 they had little inkling the word would later define a multi-billion dollar industry. It reminds me of a few years ago when visiting a company in Australia called Email Ltd. I met with the CEO and at the time I had no clue as to what they did and asked, "Boy, how did you manage to snap-up the name Email?" and he replied, "we've had the name for over 60 years". The company was incorporated in 1934 as Electricity Meter & Allied Industries Ltd. (Email) and manufactures building supplies as well as gas and electric meters.

Though Darmstadt is a good-sized city of 160,000 inhabitants, some people call it a suburb of Frankfurt because the later lies 20 miles due north. Darmstadt is home to several big companies including Schering, the pharmaceutical maker with first half sales in 1999 of $1.88 billion and Wella, the shampoo and hair salon operator (both of whom I visited four years earlier). Having two much bigger firms with higher profiles might explain why I have such a hard time finding the head offices of Software AG. I'm less than a mile from the place but can't seem to decipher the map. It's supposed to be on a side street off a main road. I stop and ask (in order) a policeman, bus driver, bakery employee and a road construction crew and not a single sole has heard of this company which in 1998 had revenues of 626 million DM and over 2,000 employees.

Through perseverance and just plain luck I find the street (it's a side street located on the edge of town) and follow road until it ends-which in this case means one block. In front of me stands a large expanse of green farmland and to the left is the gated entrance to what looks to be a cool headquarters facility. Why do I say that? Looking past the security guard manning the guardhouse I spot a complex of hexagon-shaped buildings with copper roofs. Heck, it looks like I could be in Silicon Valley.

My visit turns out to be a lot of fun thanks to the accommodating Otmar Winzig, VP-Corporate Communications and Paul Baur, Public Relations Specialist. The first thing I do is kid them about my problem finding the place and how nary a local had heard of Software AG let alone knew where they were. Winzig says the company has pretty much intentionally kept a low profile but that might be changing.
If you're one of the 450 employees who work here you'll have several things in common with your co-workers: 1) you'll be working in one of the seven connected two-story hexagon-shaped buildings with exposed wood beams and 2) your work desk will be hexagon-shaped. On the outside of several buildings are several man-made ponds. Originally the ponds contained a variety of fish but for some reason the fish kept dying. The culprit? When it rained, copper from the copper roofs found its way into the water.

Like to jog and play tennis? No problem because they a tennis court and showers. Want to drive to work? No problem with plenty of free parking. Got a meeting and can't remember the room number? They don't use numbers here but name meeting rooms after continents. Are you sweating away in your office on a hot, muggy summer's day? Hey, call a meeting for no reason. Why? Only the meeting rooms have air conditioning.

I don't know if I've mentioned this before but I'm a meat and potatoes kind of a guy. Heck, I like eating hamburgers for breakfast. Software has a cafeteria and I ask Winzig "how's the food?" He says until very recently they only served vegetarian food. Boy, that makes me shudder. A few minutes later finds me in the cafeteria trying out the food first hand. I end up having potato au gratin with tomatoes, mixed carrot salad and a mocha-like pudding. The verdict: Not bad at all, though I don't think I'd want to make a habit of it. However, it's not the food in the cafeteria that's the big story but how you pay for it. Here, you grab a tray and make your way down the serving line picking out the food you want, then lugging your tray to the cashier. Correction, there is no cashier-you pay on the honor system! Yep, you figure out how much you owe, put it in a box and take out your own change. There must have been a pile of bills of various denominations a foot high. I tell Winzig and Baur I don't think this system would fly in the USA.

Another unique honor: this is the first company in smoke-happy Germany I've come across to completely ban smoking anywhere in the buildings. Boy, this place is more and more reminding of Silicon Valley.

Why is the company located in Darmstadt? It seems the founders were from this area (engineers at IBM) plus, the city is home to one of Germany's biggest technical universities and thus a great place to recruit future software programmers. I'm not the first to say this is a cool place because in the two-story, exposed wood beam atrium lobby (kind of makes you feel like your in Aspen) they give out a variety of postcards featuring photos of the site.

CEO Erwin Koenig has a computer as well as two plants in his high ceiling office, which contains a spiffy loft. The mahogany wood, oval-shaped table in the boardroom seats 10.