John Imlay passed away last week. Let me start by saying:
- John was a jolly huckster. Of the entrepreneurs I’ve known with manic amounts of sales energy, he’s the one I can least imagine saying or doing an unkind thing. Indeed, the breathless bit about John’s “kindheartedness” toward the end of this 2010 article doesn’t ring too false.*
- John wasn’t technically the founder of MSA, but he might as well have been. (Analogy: Steve Case at AOL.) When he got there, it was Management Science Atlanta, a failing hodgepodge of tiny businesses. He turned into Management Science America, a leading software company of its day, and the one that “should” have become what SAP is today.
- My 2006 post on MSA Memories has 90 comments, the vast majority of which are from former MSA employees who loved working there.
*Not as persuasive is the story about the missed chance to buy Microsoft in 1981. I knew a LOT of folks at MSA in the 1980s, and nobody ever mentioned that. Also, the story has an obviously wrong Microsoft fat (what city it was in).
John Imlay was a showman, best known for giving speeches with live animals or other dramatic visual aids, as per this short 1994 New York Times interview. But he was also a tireless, lead-from-the-front seller. An MSA salesman who booked John into an exhausting schedule of sales calls could expect a return visit from his CEO soon, because he was using Imlay’s time optimally. Indeed, I didn’t really know John all that well, probably for a couple of reasons:
- He was rarely around when I visited; he was much more likely to be out on the road selling.
- This was back in my stock analyst days, and I generally spent more time with detail-oriented folks, numbers- and product-oriented ones alike.
But my personal experiences with him and the stories I heard from his colleagues paint a consistent picture of a genial-but-driven guy. And by the way, when he did give a talk for me at a conference, it was the second-funniest, behind only that of designated comic lunch speaker Larry Welke.
Memorable was the time when John got the chance to give a speech in London that somehow involved Prince Charles. We never heard the end of it, and it’s one of my strongest personal memories of him. Apparently, he was dazzled by royalty.
Like John Cullinane, John Imlay was a largely non-technical leader. That is of course common now just as it as it was then. But another aspect of his leadership approach was more distinctive — the famous “People are the key” mantra, supported by little Tiffany key lapel pins every MSAer was expected to wear. See for example the NYT interview above, which talks of the pins, and also reminds us that some of John’s top showmanship was delivered at in-house company meetings.
The culture-building worked. I knew a lot of MSA folks back in the day, and on the whole, they were smart, affable southerners. (Exceptions could be found in regional sales managers, who could for example be smart and affable Midwesterners, smart and affable New Englanders, or smart and affable Brits.) Whether this was, from a shareholder value perspective, the ideal culture to build is another question, that I’ll address in a separate post. But in any case, John Imlay was a likeable, successful character, and the planet is a poorer place now that he is no longer on it.
I’m surprisingly saddened by John’s passing. In simplest terms, I think the reason is that he was amazingly full of life.