The Roots of Cincom’s Culture

It is no surprise that Cincom should be able to find the foundation of its culture largely in the personal experiences and beliefs of Tom Nies.

More than any other individual or factor, Tom Nies has shaped the Cincom culture. His values, insights, and principles have in large measure become those of the company he founded and heads. This has not been the result of an act of egotism, but rather the natural consequence of positive leadership.

In fact, the same phenomenon has occurred in virtually every company that has been organized and run by a strong leader. Thomas Watson Sr. at IBM is an obvious example; Walt Disney is another; so too is Alfred Sloan within General Motors. Within the computer industry, the list is lengthy indeed: Gates at Microsoft, Johnson at Texas Instruments, Perot at EDS, Sculley at Apple, and many more.

Essentially, any individual who creates or leads an organization will create one that in time becomes his or her “Lengthened Shadow.” It will reflect the leader’s values, interests, and vision of the future. It’s no surprise, then, that Cincom should be able to find the foundation of its culture largely in the personal experiences and beliefs of Tom Nies.

One of Nies’ favorite authors, Taylor Caldwell, has written that the roots of a tree quite often extend far below the surface. Nies’ own roots, and therefore the roots of Cincom’s culture, can be traced back to his family of origin, his education, his training at IBM, his reading, study, and everyday experiences. Even though one’s experiences and memories are precious heirlooms, they are, at the same time, heavy with responsibility. For it is these formative experiences which form character. Cincom’s roots, in fact, extend over several generations in time.

Tom Nies’ father, Matt Nies, was the youngest of seven children from a poor family with its origins in Austria, Bavaria, and Hungary. His family came to the United States from Austria/Hungary and shortly after the voyage, the boy’s father died. This left his widow, fresh from an immigrant boat and able to speak only German, with no means to support her large family of youngsters.

During World War I, virulent, and often violent anti-German sentiment created harsh conflicts in the community and prejudice directed against many German-speaking immigrant families. In part because of the need to help support the family and in part because of the resentment directed against him as a German, Nies’ father never went beyond a first grade education. But he was raised with the strict Catholic values, and was instilled with a sound moral attitude which was deeply steeped in an old world Catholic moral and work ethic. That ethic focused on hard work and doing a good job for its own sake without a primary focus on accumulating wealth. Nies’ father lived his life with a firm resolve that one had to keep every promise and had to always do one’s best. Nies recalls, “He was in every sense a duty-driven person who valued honor and justice with profound esteem. In essence his guidance was ‘always do your duty and all will be well.'”

His mother, also the youngest child in a family of six children, came from German and Swiss stock, and like her future husband, was withdrawn from school in order to help raise the family. “Make something of yourself” was her counsel, “so you can help your family and community.” This advice reinforced his father’s standard: “Never compromise your principles and always remember that promises made must be promises kept.”

Tom Nies was born during the depths of the Great Depression, of parents who both had long struggled. It was in this environment, with a heritage steeped in Catholicism and an education based in Catholic schooling that required great sacrifices of his parents. When Nies was in the sixth grade, he took intelligence and aptitude tests the local archdiocese gave each year to its students in order to select certain boys for an honors educational curriculum. As a result of his scores, he was invited to join 32 other boys to attend St. Francis deSales Latin School – an elite curriculum designed to bring together the outstanding students in an environment of intellectual stimulation and moral formation.

The curriculum was heavily academic. The seventh and eighth grades were completed in one year so that the boys were moved into high school work sooner. Nies took six years of mathematics and four years of Latin along with a host of scientific and literary courses while in the program. It was an atmosphere that stimulated growth and required students to stretch. The Latin school students were often placed in classrooms with other top students who were two years older and expected to compete on equal terms.

Perhaps one of its greatest strengths was that the Latin school was a highly stimulating environment. Students could share their ideas freely. They could explore positions and dig deeply into material. As a result, there was a cross-fertilization of knowledge among the students and faculty through frank, challenging discussions and intellectually demanding work. And since all the boys were the very top students, each one positively stimulated the other.

Nies went on to graduate from college – the first one among his family, his relatives or his ancestors to do so. The sacrifices made by his family that enabled him to attain this education were later to benefit many others.

Nies found his educational environment bracing, and attempted to duplicate it within Cincom, hoping to provide the same kind of stimulating environment where people could best grow. “I think that many people come to Cincom and are enlarged by it,” he has said, “but at the same time they also enlarge their peers and the corporation as well.”

By joining IBM, Nies found a company that then seemed to embody the values he felt were important: Always fulfill your commitments. Make sure that a promise made is a promise kept. Work hard but be ethical. IBM in those days also promoted a family environment. The old traditions of personal messages from the president of the company, of “family” dinners, were still practiced in the early ’60s. IBM employees were singing the IBM company song written by Tom Watson, Sr., entitled “Ever Onward.” This was the IBM Nies joined in 1962.

But IBM was undergoing rapid change. After the introduction of the System/360 series of computers, IBM experienced extreme pressure for hypergrowth. The company had bet everything on the System/360, and cost pressures were so great that for a while employees couldn’t even make a long distance call without management authorization. IBM quickly became a company heavily in debt. Because of those cost pressures, IBM began cutting back on service and support. Soon, the old slogan “IBM means service” was seldom said.

Clearly, the company was moving forward in its technology and expanding its marketing focus, but in the process, it was abandoning some of its core values. It was a business trying to capitalize on growth and maximize profit. This became the credo for the “new” IBM of the ’60s, while the old ideals were rapidly de-emphasized.

Nies had already established an outstanding record at IBM. He graduated first in his class from the national IBM sales school, setting scoring records in the process and was assigned to work with one of IBM’s top field sales representatives. Later, Nies grabbed the number-one spot himself, achieving over 600% of quota in a single year. He was later made a project manager for one of the first System/360s ever installed in an online mode. The task required tremendous software development, and Nies gained some significant insights into the importance of software. But IBM wasn’t interested in software. It was trying to offload software responsibilities to its customers to cut costs and enhance IBM profitability. But Nies saw that customers were going to need more software and services than ever before, not less, as IBM was then promoting.

To Nies, it looked like an area where there were great opportunities. And it might also give him a chance to create the kind of company he dreamed would be possible, one that was more like the old IBM but still capable of achieving good growth and profits. But above all it would be a company that wouldn’t abandon its core values, even as it sought profits and growth. From its inception in the mind of its founder, Cincom was to place “principles before profits.”