SAP’s Bill McDermott went from the corner store to a corner office

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Bill McDermott waved to the crowd after answering DSEDP chief Tom Brook’s questions.


Every November, Denver South Economic Development Partnership holds its annual luncheon, where hundreds of business and government leaders get together to network and listen to a cutting-edge speaker. On November 8, over 300 people gathered at the recently remodeled Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center at 7800 E. Tufts Avenue in Denver to hear global tech leader Bill McDermott talk about his life, overcoming adversity, and how he created and continues to sustain his undeniable success.

McDermott, 58, was the co-CEO and then the CEO of SAP SE, a German multinational corporation that makes enterprise software to manage business operations and customer relations, from 2011 until just last month, during which time its market value increased from $39 billion to $156 billion. SAP SE has over 425,000 customers in 180 different countries around the world. McDermott is the only American to ever serve as its CEO. On October 31, three weeks after stepping down as CEO of SAP SE, McDermott was announced as the new CEO of Service Now, a cloud computing company that is earlier in its growth cycle.

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Happy to see each other and hear Bill McDermott speak were Alpine Bank DTC President Charlie Kercheval, DSEDP board chair and Shea Properties Executive Vice-President Peter Culshaw, DSEDP board vice-chair and Koelbel and Co CEO Buz Koelbel, and Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. CEO J.J. Ament.

A highly polished and engaging speaker, McDermott talked about the beginning of his business career, when he bought a delicatessen on Long Island for $7,000 at the age of 16. He described learning that to be successful in business, he had to focus on his customers’ needs. When he discovered that senior citizens didn’t like to go out, he began delivering food to them. When he discovered that blue-collar workers in his area lived paycheck-to-paycheck, he extended them credit. He treated teenagers with respect that they didn’t always get from other businesses. McDermott found that customers appreciated his addressing their specific needs and they repaid him with loyalty and recommendations to others to patronize his business. Soon he owned a chain of delicatessens.

In every job he has had throughout his life, McDermott used the same philosophy to succeed, focusing on what matters to customers. He urged the people at the luncheon to “lose the PowerPoint,” and “be a part of the real world, read the room.” According to McDermott, the key to success in business is the willingness to relate to customers on a human level.

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All three Douglas County commissioners came to support DSEDP. We caught up with two of them, Abe Laydon and Roger Partridge. Photos by Freda Miklin

McDermott also shared about having a freak accident in 2015, when he fell down face first as he was walking down a set of stairs carrying a glass of water while visiting his brother. A shard of broken glass went into his eye, which he eventually lost, along with a life-threatening amount of blood. Two months later he was back at the helm of SAP SE. He now wears dark glasses to cover his prosthetic eye.

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Ray Bullock, pioneer of the Denver Tech Center, came to learn something new from the keynote speaker and see old friends.

McDermott said that global business leaders “are all talking about the digital economy and how digital transformation is going to improve every aspect of life.” One area he is focused on is using digital technology to efficiently match workers’ skills with available jobs. Another area he talked about that is already functioning but has much broader potential application is using digital technology to improve traffic management. He explained the use of digital technology this way: “Anything that can have a sensor put on it will create a large amount of usable data.” He brought that back to his customer-centered philosophy of business, saying, “Get data on what is and isn’t pleasing to people.”

McDermott left the crowd with this advice: “Treat every employee like they’re your best customer. It’s a talent war.”

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