SAP in Australia: Cowboys in the Wild, Wild East

In Australia and later New Zealand, SAP’s presence arose from global customers’ need to roll out solutions to their subsidiaries. But SAP Australia and New Zealand wouldn’t have happened without a lot of adventurous spirit.

The SAP story in Australia begins, surprisingly, in the Netherlands. Dutchman Rudy van der Hoeven began work at SAP International in Biel, Switzerland, in 1987. Under the leadership of Hans Schlegel, the Biel operation was created to promote and sell SAP solutions in markets outside of Germany. When van der Hoeven started, there were about 20 people in the Biel office, along with offices in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, and Austria.

Van der Hoeven was sent to Walldorf, where he was trained in logistics modules and told to look after some major customers. With a hearty chuckle, he recalls that during one of his customer visits in the Netherlands, he met a group of people who were speaking English but enunciating it in a way he’d never heard before.

“They turned out to be Australians,” he says, “from the Melbourne suburb of Moorabbin and they were attending an SAP course.”

One evening, after a few beers, he invited them to SAP International headquarters in Biel. In the hope that it would be an added inducement, van der Hoeven told them that he could perhaps throw in some skiing as well. In a small village in the Swiss Alps, he convinced them that running a manufacturing operation without SAP logistics made no sense for a company in Australia. As more multinationals Down Under also chose SAP, Schlegel told him: “You are now managing director of SAP Australia. Go and make it happen.”

 

Scott Russell, president of SAP APJ, reflects on SAP’s 30 years in the region.

SAP Australia: Uncharted Territory

Heading boldly into uncharted territory, van der Hoeven and Bruno Tödtli, head of the International Basis Development team, flew to Sydney in 1988 to install SAP R/2 software at a large customer’s IT center. He then did his first ever live SAP demo – connected to SAP in Germany on a very slow telephone line.

SAP Co-Founder and CEO Dietmar Hopp (left) and CFO Dieter Matheis
Holding the pioneers in Australia on a long leash: SAP Co-Founder and then CEO Dietmar Hopp (left) and CFO Dieter Matheis.

But to really make it happen, van der Hoeven needed help. His new customers asked SAP “for a clear commitment,” as Dieter Matheis, then chief financial officer of SAP, recalls. “They would only sign a contract if we set up an Australian subsidiary and established an SAP office in the country.” So Matheis flew to Sydney in January 1989, “in the middle of preparing our annual financial statement.” Within a week, he managed to get the certificate of incorporation and find a suitable office in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood.

Things then progressed quickly. The fledgling SAP operation flew in all its furniture from Germany and brought over some experienced consultants from SAP Switzerland before hiring the first Australians and sending them to Germany for a year to get trained.

In 1989, the pioneer team signed 10 SAP R/2 deals, a record that would not be broken until four years later. “We were on a roll,” recalls Schlegel. But it wouldn’t have happened without the support from several presales and consulting colleagues who installed the software. “In addition, Rudy and his team got a lot of help from the F&A team and people.”

Van der Hoeven left Australia that same year to embark on his next adventure and set up SAP operations in Singapore. He remembers how, on one occasion, SAP Co-Founder Dietmar Hopp, CEO at the time, visited the team in Australia and wanted to see a customer. “I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of the developers when the man himself spent two hours teaching them some ABAP tricks,” van der Hoeven recalls. “Mind you, I was surprised myself and used that story in many sales pitches.”

Growth Across the Continent

SAP Australia and New Zealand was barely five years old when it started its exponential growth path. The number of clients had more than tripled and it opened offices in eight locations across Australia and New Zealand. Les Hayman was appointed managing director in May 1994. Its traditional user base in the manufacturing industry expanded into retail, telecommunications, and utilities. To accommodate the growth, SAP Australia opened a Brisbane office and doubled the space in the Melbourne office. Then in April 1995, the head office moved to North Sydney.

The most visible sign of the company’s growth and presence in Australia came when the giant SAP signage took a prominent position in the North Sydney skyline.

That same year, SAP Australia officially expanded into New Zealand, opening offices in Auckland and Wellington on January 1, 1995. A year later, Hayman was promoted to president South-East-Asia-Pacific. And in the same year, Australia and New Zealand moved from the Americas region to Asia-Pacific.

According to Hayman, having Australia and New Zealand as part of the Americas region “was not a bad start, since the American and Australian styles of marketing and sales are very similar. But as the companies grew and matured, it no longer made sense to keep Australia and New Zealand cut off from the rest of Asia.”

University Partnerships

On the research and development front, SAP initiated partnerships with some of Australia’s leading universities to explore and develop more business applications using SAP software. Aside from boosting the research and development (R&D) capabilities of Australian universities, the program also helped hone Australian skills in the IT sector.

Sapient College in Sydney
Sapient College in Sydney, the first education and training center

Sapient College, a comprehensive education and training center, was officially opened in Sydney, Australia, in April 1997. The center was dedicated to providing IT knowledge and skills for SAP customers and partners, students at universities and business schools, and the broader community. It was the first such SAP-specific college worldwide.

Hayman saw Sapient College as an opportunity to give something back to the community. By providing community and university education, SAP could enhance the broader understanding and application of technology in society.

“The early years moved at a frantic pace,” Hayman, who passed away in September 2017, said in a 2002 interview with SAP’s employee magazine. “But they were exciting times and I am proud to have been part of the journey of those early years. It was exciting to be part of history in the making.”

Now living in Bangkok, Thailand, van der Hoeven couldn’t agree more: “Trust me when I say that SAP was the best company I ever worked for. Lots of the credit for that must be given to Hans Schlegel, my boss. His attitude was that as long as I delivered new customers, he would allow me to be a cowboy in the wild, wild East.”