Mark Barrenechea was an outsider when he was hired as CEO of OpenText in 2012. He’d never worked at the company before, and the bulk of his career was spent in California’s technology scene. So he took his time learning about the firm. “The employees know the business better than I do,” he says. But under his watch, the stock has returned more than 100%, and OpenText has a new revenue stream. His secret? “You gotta win employees’ hearts before you win their hands.”
Hokey, perhaps, but Barrenechea means it. A self-described “lover of verse” and writer of poetry, he’s an expansive thinker who puts his work at OpenText in a larger context. The Waterloo, Ont., software company has roots in enterprise content management (essentially helping organizations deal with unstructured data), whereas Barrenechea defines its mission in broader terms: “It’s really about enabling the digital world.” That means helping clients automate important processes—such as a bank’s loan approval system. He’s pushed OpenText to change the way it works too, by building out a cloud delivery model. Instead of paying up front for software, customers can pay a recurring fee to access services hosted by OpenText. In four years, the firm has gone from no revenue in cloud services to $700 million, about a third of its earnings. The goal is to get to 50% by 2020.
The journey so far hasn’t been entirely smooth. OpenText’s third-quarter earnings were lower than expected, and the stock fell by more than 30%. “That was an overreaction by the market,” says Steven Li, a technology analyst at Raymond James. “This is still a $2-billion revenue company.” Sure enough, OpenText recovered the next quarter and raised its targets, a sign it’s confident about the prospects for cloud services.
The past year has been personally tough for Barrenechea, too. He was diagnosed with leukemia and in February diminished his duties to undergo treatment. “I made a fundamental decision that I was going to live,” he says. “I was going to keep central in my life the things that I loved, and I wasn’t going to give those things up until I needed to.” Indeed, he continued working from a room at the Stanford University Medical Center while receiving chemotherapy. In May, Barrenechea entered remission and returned to his normal work schedule. Now he’s focused on moving customers to digital processes. Naturally, he references a poem: The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, which reads “one must have a mind of winter” to truly embrace the season. Shifting to digital, he says, requires the same level of commitment.