Kevin English has been called many things. A gifted salesman. A visionary. A man who loves the trappings of the executive life but is prone to internal bickering.
After only 2 1/2 months on the job, it is too early to say which Kevin English will emerge at Covisint LLC (covisint.com). English, Covisint's first CEO, has a track record of raising large amounts of cash for an Internet startup. He can handle big-budget projects. And he has a keen understanding of technology.
But this 48-year-old, button-down executive has had his share of controversy, too.
English spent a tumultuous 13 months in the public eye as CEO of the online financial news Web site TheStreet.com. His tenure was marked by a contentious relationship with the company's co-founder and columnist, James Cramer. It concluded with English's resignation, a mutual agreement between English and the board of directors.
English did not leave a beaten man. According to government documents, he walked off with 650,000 shares of TheStreet.com stock, which he later cashed in for $11.6 million.
The man who began his career selling Xerox copiers in 1975 believes his work at TheStreet.com helped him land the top job at Covisint. He proudly rattles off a list of achievements. At the top is the successful initial public offering in May 1999 that netted the company more than $100 million.
'When I went to TheStreet.com, they were a couple of months away from running out of money,' English recalls. 'My wife thought I lost my marbles.'
IPO road show
English was considered a talented salesman at TheStreet.com - a man who enjoyed the trappings of executive life. English thrived in the process known as an IPO road show, where he pitched the company's IPO to institutional investors in 29 cities in 13 days. But he fell short orchestrating a strategy to take the company beyond the IPO.
'I think his strategy was more like, 'I can't wait to sell this thing,'' a former colleague says.
English's peers at other companies describe him as a charismatic and aggressive leader with a deep understanding of technology. They say English has an ability to unite people and the discipline to keep a big project on track and within budget.
That will be critical at Covisint, which was created in February 2000 to bring the speed and efficiency of electronic commerce to the auto industry. Its three main partners - DaimlerChrysler (daimlerchrysler.com), Ford Motor Co. (ford.com) and General Motors (gm.com) - are bitter rivals. So are Covisint's two main technology partners, Oracle (oracle.com) and Commerce One (commerceone.com).
If that were not enough, some suppliers have been reluctant to join Covisint. They believe the online trade exchange is just another way the Big 3 can get them to cut costs.
English's former colleagues say he's the right man for the job.
'He's a guy who doesn't have any fear of the unknown or uncertainty because he has a lot of confidence in himself,' says Keith Hawk, a former vice president of sales who worked for English at the Nexis Enterprise Group. It is a division of online information broker Lexis-Nexis in Dayton, Ohio. English was general manager of the Nexis Enterprise Group in 1998 before he left for TheStreet.com.
'He'll go in and take something that is uncertain and mold it into something that makes sense; that's what he's about,' Hawk says. 'He will not be intimidated, I will tell you that.'
Up to the challenge
English says he is up to the challenge. Sitting at a conference table in his Southfield, Mich., office, English is relaxed and friendly during an interview. The office is modern, the walls adorned with Covisint advertising posters. On English's desk is a photo of Rocky Colavito, the former Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers baseball player and six-time all-star.
It is about 1 p.m., and English has been at work since about 7 a.m. He says it is not unusual to be at the office until 10 p.m.
'This is a pressure cooker, make no mistake about it,' English says. 'I don't mean that in a bad way. It's a demanding environment that I find invigorating. It boosts my energy rather than saps my energy.'
Because Covisint was launched with a flourish of publicity and high expectations at the height of the technology boom, one of the main criticisms has been that it has moved too slowly in defining itself. Part of that was because more than a year passed before a leader was found.
Since starting the job May 1, English has been busy.
He landed an agreement whereby Covisint will host a supplier portal for Delphi Automotive Systems Corp.
(delphiautomotive.com), the world's largest automotive supplier. He has persuaded Peugeot (peugeot.com) to become a minority partner. And drawing on his years of sales experience, English has been courting countless top executives from U.S. and European
Tier 1 suppliers and automakers for future business.
Though the Big 3 will not reveal what they are paying him, English's salary at TheStreet.com was $372,808. He also earned a $110,000 bonus and an additional $56,632, primarily to cover his use of a company apartment in New York.
During his watch, English says he struck deals with the Web portals America Online and Yahoo! and online brokers E*Trade and DLJdirect. He established a joint newsroom with the New York Times, launched a TV show on the Fox News Channel and secured funding from private investors. English also launched TheStreet.co.uk, a British version of its Web site.
'When I left 13 months later, they had $135 million in the bank,' English says. 'We did a lot of great things. I can't speak for what happened after I left; that's on somebody else's watch. But while I was there, it was a very exciting place to be.'
But English failed to achieve one of his primary objectives - making TheStreet.com profitable.
English's Nov. 5, 1999 resignation came just eight days after TheStreet.com reported widening, third-quarter net losses of $7.8 million.
Today, like many dot-com ventures, TheStreet.com still has not turned a profit. It has laid off employees, shut its British operations and closed the newsroom operated with the New York Times.
Cramer, the company's co-founder, blames English for the decline of TheStreet.com. The company's stock price has tumbled sharply from $61 on its first day of trading to below $2 a share.
An internal memo by Cramer to Thomas Clarke, who replaced English as CEO, reveals Cramer's disdain for English.
'I always date the beginning of our decline as a firm to a retreat held in Arrowwood when English first took over,' Cramer wrote in an e-mail that was inadvertently sent to other parties and ultimately made public.
A nondisparagement agreement prevents him from publicly talking about English and his short-lived tenure at the helm of TheStreet.com. English's time at TheStreet.com and his rocky relationship with Cramer were addressed in the Howard Kurtz book, The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media, and Manipulation.
'I have nothing to say about him,' was Cramer's terse response when contacted for this story.
Cramer felt that English tried to take on the Wall Street Journal (wsj.com). Instead, Cramer wanted TheStreet.com to 'think like TV, not print,' he said in his internal e-mail. He wanted TheStreet.com to have daytime and nighttime producers, much like TV, to keep the Web site fresh and meeting - if not beating - the competition.
'We are on a print sked, not a TV sked,' Cramer wrote. The result was an expensive newsroom that failed to produce page views, he stated in his e-mail.
But it was English's success with TheStreet.com's initial public offering that got him the most attention. English excels at such performances - and may get the chance to repeat it at Covisint.
'You are out there presenting ideas, talking and selling, I think he's good at that,' a former colleague says.
The offering was conducted during the dot-com euphoria that engulfed Wall Street in 1999, an environment that drove up the stock prices of Internet startups regardless of any sound evidence of profitability.
TheStreet.com sold 5.5 million shares at $19 each on May 10. The company more than tripled its stock price, opening at $61 on May 11, its first day of trading on the Nasdaq (nasdaq.com) stock market.English, with the board's backing, was able to sell 83,333 shares of stock at the offering price for about $1.58 million.
English says an IPO may be in Covisint's future.
'I think that at the appropriate time, we'll consider a public offering,' he says. 'But that's certainly not on the front burner by any means at this point, and may not be for a while frankly.'
Covisint snatched English from investment bank Credit Suisse First Boston (credit-suisse.com) in New York, where English oversaw a major, yearlong Internet initiative. While not a true Internet startup company, the project was designed to serve the company's wealthiest clients with an online window into their brokerage accounts.
English plunged into the project with a $250 million budget, hiring 140 people to develop and run the wealth-management business. English impressed executives at Credit Suisse First Boston with his grasp of Internet technology, and he kept the project on track and within budget. He harnessed different products and resources from throughout the company to build the Web-based unit.
Credit Suisse First Boston was near launch of the unit when the company acquired brokerage Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc. for $11.5 billion in August 2000.
Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette already had a successful wealth-management business with $60 billion in assets under management. So Credit Suisse First Boston incorporated much of English's work into the Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette platform. English helped with the transition and left the company earlier this year on good terms.
Credit Suisse First Boston transferred 80 percent to 90 percent of his work, including people and technology. So it was not all for naught, English maintains.
'Investment banks are real brain trusts,' he says. 'You have incredibly intellectual people who run them and are in them.'
Startups are invigorating
At Covisint, English again finds himself building an Internet startup. 'There's nothing more invigorating and energizing than building a company,' he says, explaining why he gravitates to risky jobs. 'If you had a 50,000-person organization and wanted a manager for it on cruise control, I'm not your animal.'
Covisint clearly is the greatest challenge of English's career. He is charged with building an automotive portal automakers and suppliers will use for purchasing, product design collaboration and supply chain management.
Tapping his years of sales leadership, English must convince automakers and suppliers to use - and pay for - various e-business tools on the Covisint Web site.
That will not be an easy task. English has to convince potential users that Covisint is not just another online trade exchange in a crowded field. He has to explain to confused suppliers not only the benefits, but also what it will cost them to use the portal.
English says he was surprised at the media scrutiny he was put under following the announcement he would
become Covisint CEO.
'I read all the interesting press reports - Kevin who?' he recalls. 'Another person said, because he could put his butt in a leather seat doesn't mean he knows anything about the auto industry.'
English admits the automotive industry is a demanding, unforgiving, complex business.
'I think that this has certainly gotten a lot of media scrutiny,' he says. 'When you think about the scale of it, it's justifiable. This is potentially a very large company.'
When he took the job, English said his first priority would be to meet with existing and prospective customers and hear firsthand what they want from Covisint. Since then, he has been meeting with automakers, suppliers, technology vendors and Covisint employees in the United States and Europe to get theirperspectives on how the company can be improved.
For example, English recently met for two hours with Joseph Day, chairman and CEO of Freudenberg-NOK (freudenberg-nok.com), a Tier 1 supplier of automotive seals and vibration-control materials in Plymouth, Mich.
'It's partly to get to know me, and to get to know what I'm about, and how I can help them be leaner and more efficient and save time and money,' English says. 'The pleasantries of who's Kevin and so forth take 10 or 15 minutes. But these are very busy executives. They want to dive into the details relatively quickly.'
After the meeting, Day, who also is chairman of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association (oesa.org), called English a qualified leader who is 'bringing some exciting and interesting ideas to Covisint's rampup.' But suppliers still have a concern about the true objectives of Covisint, and in particular, how it will affect their business, prices and costs, says Frank Macher, CEO of Federal-Mogul Corp. in Southfield.
Tom Stallkamp, CEO of contract engineering firm MSX International (msxinternational.com) says: 'I was encouraged that he has heard all of the complaints coming as he did with the thing already under way. I was impressed that he's got a handle on all the problems.'
English says his priorities in the coming months will be reigning in costs, making Covisint more customer friendly, adding more useful e-business tools and communicating effectively with his customers and board.
Hawk, recalling his days with English at the Nexis Enterprise Group, says English is a visionary.
'I'd say he's probably bigger on the vision than implementation,' Hawk says.
At Covisint, English will need both.
Staff Reporter Ralph Kisiel can be reached at [email protected]