Star Talks: Episode 12 with Robert Markley: Star Talks is the podcast of small conversations that inspire you to do big things and in this episode Robert Markley, head of the SAP Alliance Program at Saint Vincent College, shares how he co-founded & exited several successful IT consulting companies, how he made the transition from an entrepreneur to a college professor, and how to train and educate students to help companies leverage technology to solve business challenges.
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Here's the episode transcript:
Bob, thank you so much for joining the show.
So Bob, I've been looking forward to having the conversation with you. I, I've done some research on you. Obviously you and I have met several times and you're heavily involved in the SAP ecosystem. And so I'd love to talk a little bit and talk, touch on the work that you're doing at Saint Vincent College a little bit later in the episode, but if we could maybe start off, Bobby, tell us a little bit about your backstory. Where'd you grow up, you know, what'd you study in school and what was your first role out of college?
Well, I, I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I actually still live in that same suburb. And I went to undergraduate school at Penn state. My father was an engineer and I, I probably have a lot of, of, of you know, the makeup to be an engineer myself, but I, I didn't necessarily think what he did it for a job look that interesting to me. So I, I ended up double majoring in computer science and business statistics at Penn state. And I'm sort of in some of my internships, I, I was introduced to the world of consulting and really fell in love with, with what I, what I perceived at least as what a consultants did. I ended up after I graduated from Penn state, I went on to the university of Chicago to get my MBA and then out of the university of Chicago I had, I made the decision that I was interested in consulting, interviewed with at the time all the big eight and ended up joining Pricewaterhouse in their management consulting practice.
Moved back to Pittsburgh after the university of Chicago. But I, I worked for Pricewaterhouse and did a lot of traveling. I was in a group that was doing a lot of mid range computer consulting work building systems. And a lot of traveling. And actually it was, it was while I was at Pricewaterhouse that I got introduced to the world of Oracle which ended up you know, being, being a focus of mine for many, many years after I left Pricewaterhouse.
Got it. So you obviously you went right into consulting and it seems that you're extremely passionate about consulting. You've, you've founded several different consulting companies in your career. The first being Paragon solutions in the mid-nineties. What inspired you to start your first consulting company and what problems were your customers faced with then and, and what were you doing to help them overcome and solve these problems?
Well as probably a lot of people that found their first businesses, I think we knew you know, we, we took a leap of faith. We didn't know a lot of what we were doing initially. The, the problem we, we, we saw was I actually ended up co-founding Paragon solutions with two women that I had met on my last project at Pricewaterhouse. One a woman was a consultant for Oracle corporation themselves. The other one was one of the project managers at Westinghouse, the the client where we were, we were building a an order management system for them. And we, we really said, we thought we could, we could do a better job of Oracle consulting. We were going to have a very package focused practice. And so we, we launched the firm really with the intent of doing Oracle database, Oracle technology and, and Oracle ERP consulting and, and primarily focused on initially on Western Pennsylvania where, where we were based.
We were very fortunate that Oracle at the time was starting a what they called their Oracle application dealer network where they were giving exclusive rights to, to companies to, to resell the, the Oracle applications. And we, we ended up getting the upstate New York, Western Pennsylvania and Southern Ohio regions to sell into. And you know, that that allowed us just the the interaction with clients and customers and our, our real specific focus allowed us to, to grow the firm pretty rapidly. I think we topped when we, we sold in 1990 end of 1998 we had topped out at we had around 35 consultants in our practice and there was around 10 folks focused on, on demonstrating and selling the applications in the upstate New York, Western Pennsylvania and Southern Ohio markets.
Gotcha. Was there a particular space that you were there, you were working in manufacturing or distribution or was there a particular focus that you guys had?
So it was the way Oracle had had set it up was that it was intended for companies. The dealers were intended to focus on companies of under 100 million in annual revenues. So a lot of leads came into Oracle themselves. And a, if the company was under a a hundred million in revenue, Oracle would pass that over to their, their Oracle dealer in that market. So again, in our region that, that tended to be a lot of manufacturers. But you know, it was, it was not, it was not an industry specific Oracle dealer network.
So you were working with smaller or mid sized companies you'd said under a hundred million in revenue annually. What were so I guess obviously a lot of companies in sort of that revenue sweet spot, I guess I could say. You know, they're experiencing growth and they need to leverage technology in a way that enables them to scale effectively and to, to stay competitive. And oftentimes smaller to mid companies don't have all of that talent in house. So they lean on outside consultants. What, what makes a, a consultant really valuable to a company and what should small and mid market companies be looking for in consultants? So that they can make sure that, that their dollar spent there are successful in that their projects are successful.
We, this, this was sort of a time in the market where I think a lot of smaller organization, small to midsize organizations we're, we're exactly going through very rapid growth needed someone that they could partner with. We did a lot of our initial implementations at the time on a fixed-fee basis. We, we actually partnered with Sun Micro-systems and Dell and had you know, already pre-installed Oracle ERP systems, you know, that weren't, were not yet fully configured, but at least they, they some of the initial technical work was already completed. And I think it allowed us to get these companies implemented faster. You know, we, we we had our, on our Oracle database practice, we had sort of revolutionized a product where we would share a consultant across many different organizations cause a lot of these companies didn't need a full time Oracle DBA for example, on their staff.
But they needed someone to monitor their systems regularly be available if they had a performance issue. And again, back in the 90s, this was still fairly fairly revolutionary concepts. And I think that that ability to partner and, and the fact that we were local, I mean, one of the reasons we, I think sold a lot of the projects and, and the initial sales and the projects that we did was because we knew our market. We had consultants in that market who would help with the implementation and then be there to, to support the customer over the long run. And that sold very, very well in the market at that time. And we went through tremendous growth in, in a very short period of time as we were ramping up. And right after we had launched this Oracle application dealer network.
Got it. Okay. So from a, from, I mean, I'm interested to hear how, what your take is on, obviously ERP software is a category that's exploding, but it's also been around for quite some time and you've been able to see the maturation of the technology. What, how would you describe what ERP systems when you first started consulting to what they are and capable of doing now?
Well, a lot of the initial focus when I first, again, I was really, when I was with Pricewaterhouse, we had actually formed right at the end of my time at, at price, we formed a an Oracle application practice. And at that point it was really primarily financials. You know, a little bit of around distribution and some, some of the manufacturing, MRP inventory modules. You know, a lot of what you think of now as a ERP with, with customer relationship management, supply chain management, you know, some of the more advanced scheduling, project management. All of those capabilities did not exist at that time. You know, you still, most companies would buy the ERP system for, for their financials, for their inventory, and then they would end up having to buy other solutions and integrate those solutions together.
What I still remember, one of the things that amazed me was the whole installation process for Oracle. It would take if the customer had a server that they wanted us to S to install a Oracle on, it was a 24 to 36 hour process that had to be more or less monitored and babysat the whole way through that installation process. You know, very complex, very time consuming. Often a lot of bugs when, when Oracle first released their, their suite that was really enabled for the taking advantage of, of browsers and the internet there were tremendous number of, of bugs and that they rushed that software out to try to gain market share. And you know, it was, it was definitely the wild West of of ERP back in those, those mid to late nineties as, as companies were really, you know, rushing, constantly rushing out software sometimes before it was ready to try to, to try to take advantage of, of new trends and new technologies that that companies were saying.
So in so you sold Paragon solutions in '98 and then you started corporate solutions in 2000. Were you working with the same technology, with the same types of customers and that area or was there a different focus?
So that's an interesting story. By '97, '98 my two partners and I, one of the partners had moved over to OPSOFT technologies. The company that was the Oracle application dealer. Oracle really didn't want consulting firms to be the resellers. They want a dedicated reseller organization. So we formed this separate company and she was running ops off technologies. And then my other partner and I were running Paragon solutions and we, we got scared. We were worried, whether, you know, was Y2K driving too many of our sales, we were, we were probably closing, I don't, I don't remember the exact number, six, eight, 10 ERP deals a year. Paragon solutions was getting the vast majority of those for, from an implementation standpoint. And you know, that was the way we were continuing to grow and support our staff.
And we got, we got nervous that that, that, you know, there was maybe a bubble coming here because of Y2K. So we started looking around in '97. Ended up identifying a company that got acquired by Cyber, and Cyber ended up approaching us in mid 1998. Cyber was building a national practice, mostly focused on ERP packages. They, cyber was a I think, I believe at the time around a $2 billion a year staffing organization, IT staffing organization that was trying to get into the higher margin more project focused types of work that, that ERP and package vendors do. So they had bought a number of companies that were in that package space and you know, we were one act with one small acquisition really for them that sort of built out their, their Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania space.
So we sold it in 1998 and really I went to work for Cyber in their, in their package division pretty quickly realized that was, it wasn't a real good fit. We are, we were trying to think of the word that I'm looking for here, but by the end of 1999, I had realized that, you know, this was not somewhere that I was going to stay for the long term. So I started I had a non-compete, so I had to sit out for two full years. And had a friend who was sort of competing with me and he and I decided to partner up and, and found Corporate solutions, very similar model. We ended up focusing it on Oracle, JD Edwards and PeopleSsoft. So we broadened our, our ERP offerings a bit. But, you know, we on very similar having that regional focus lot of expertise, being able to help companies both with implementation and then the ongoing support upgrades, etc. that companies would go through.
So what did this packaged solution, and you had mentioned doing fixed fee projects. What, how did that differentiate you from others in the space? At the time?
The vast majority of them were doing time and materials work. And then they would change, you know, they would maybe give an estimate, but then they would just change, control the projects to death. Companies, you know, we're really, we're much more comfort, especially in small to medium sized companies that, you know, typically had fairly tight IT budgets, not a lot of IT resources themselves. We really were appreciative of an organization that could give them, you know a very specific cost. Sometimes we were higher than what these other firms were estimating. But again, I think a lot of them saw after, you know, they start would start at a dollar amount and then literally come in at two X. Once they had, they'd gone through all of the change control process and, and you know, appreciated us sort of having a, a, a more comprehensive fixed fee approach to their projects.
Why do you think traditionally that that's the case where a consulting company will come in a, say one price and then, like you said, change, control the project to death. Is that a, is that a strategy or is that just people don't know what they're doing when they're estimating or, or is it something more nefarious than that?
I think I actually would, would say some of it is on the client. You know, the, the client often will commit to doing things that they don't have either the expertise or the time to do, especially again, when you're working with small to medium size organizations where you know, many most people in the organization are wearing many hats. I think it's very common for, you know, it's human nature almost to over commit to what you're, you think you're going to be able to do. So, you know, that setting that aside, I do think there are firms, and at least some of the firms we were competing with at this time, that that was their go to market approach. They would, you know, they would try to low ball the estimate, have a bunch of things that they knew that the company was going to need that they would define as out of scope or, or the company's responsibility.
And then, you know, that would, that would end up adding 50% a hundred percent to the project costs. By the time they were done with the project. And, and don't get me wrong, there were times where, you know, we would have issues also reports, interfaces, data conversion that the the companies we were working with, you know, and we would estimate something and the organizations we were working with, our customers would not necessarily have the bandwidth to do it or the expertise to do it. And so we would end up having to pick up that responsibility and, and charge them appropriately.
So I'm interested. Okay, so you have, so you have Corporate solutions, you sold Corporate solutions again, so another consulting practice that you founded and then ended up selling and then you started Regulatory and Quality solutions. And around this time you also started lecturing at Saint Vincent college. So what, what was Regulatory and Quality solutions all about and how did you get, how did that, or how did the transition happen from you actually starting to be a professor in college?
So, let me, I'm going to reverse the order of those because so I sold in 2004 I, I had actually kind of burned out on, on IT and we were competing a lot with offshore organizations at this point. And I had decided I wanted to try something different. And so in, in early 2004 my partner and he had, he had brought in sort of an, an another equity partner bought me out and I had a I had a agreement to work there and sort of transition out by the end of July of 2004. And it dawned on me that, you know financially my family was in pretty good position, but health benefits and, you know, just, just something to do with my life was was, was something I needed to pursue.
And it was actually my wife's suggestion. She said, you know, Bob, you, you really enjoy talking. You really enjoy talking to a captive audience. You know, why don't you look into teaching. And you know, I thought that was, that was actually quite an interesting idea and I also was a very passionate, I love entrepreneurship. So I, I actually contacted five of the local universities around my around where I live here in, in Western Pennsylvania. And, and sorta with the pitch that you know, a retiring entrepreneur who's interested in teaching you know, will work for benefits. And surprisingly all of them reached back out to me. I met with the Dean here of Saint Vincent college. You know, his opportunity here was they have a, we have a small business development center here at St Vincent.
So I, I would do some work in the small business development center. And an initially I would just teach accounting information systems to our students that were in our accounting curriculum. And I really, really fell in love with teaching. So by 2006, I had transitioned out of the small business development center and into teaching both management and accounting information systems. Well, while I worked in the small business development center, I met two women who had what I thought appeared to be an absolutely great idea to launch a Regulatory and Quality engineering firm, focused in the medical device market. Again, Western Pennsylvania with, with Carnegie Mellon and the university of Pittsburgh have some pretty early stage, pretty strong medical device industry here where we're, we're generally considered like a second tier medical device city and both of these two women worked for medical device companies here in Western PA.
And it found that when they needed help with the regulatory filings and with putting quality systems in place in their organization, they, you know, there were very few consulting firms that could do this kind of work that had this expertise and none of them had any practice at all in, in Western PA. So they, they both understood the industry, but neither had ever started or run a firm before and were very open to having someone who had sort of had more of the financial and operational background. So I continuing to teach I helped them co-found Regulatory and Quality solutions in I believe that was in 2007 and that it really, that's really a spectacular story. That firm is still going, I believe there are over 300 consultants now. I think they have five or six offices started.
You know, most cities have a, you know, have a small to medium size number of medical device companies. So they've gone kinda gone to where some of these medical device companies are located, started an office, staffed it up with Regulatory and Quality expertise. And now, you know, working in Europe, working in Asia as well as working here in North America. They wanted me to join full time. I really do love teaching. And again, as well, I know we'll talk here a little later. I love, I run our SAP business One training program here at Saint Vincent. So in, in 2012, 2013, I, I made the decision and, and you know, sold my equity stake out of out of Regulatory and Quality solutions back to the two partners and came back to teaching full time at St Vincent College. But you know, again, it's something that I'm very proud of the success that, that Regulatory and Quality solutions has, has enjoyed. They've hired a number of our students here from St Vincent College cause actually one of the founders is a, is a graduate of St Vincent, their CFO is a graduate of St Vincent College. So it's been a real success story for st Vincent as well as, as for the two of them.
So Bob, as we sit here and talk, you know you're, you're a humble person, but it seems like, it seems like everything you've touched has turned to gold. Is there any failure here or, I mean. .
All right, actually, yes, yes. So OPSOFT technologies, that first software company, the Oracle application dealer we again, this was in 1999, I believe. Oracle shut down the Oracle application dealer network. There was a lot of channel conflict as there often is and so we were, we thought we were lucky there. There was another startup sort of a .com firm here in Western PA that was that was growing pretty rapidly and wanted, you know, sort of similarly to build a network of dealers to sell their technology. So they, for stock, they bought ops off technologies and you know, as many of the.com firms, they, they flamed out a couple of years later pretty spectacularly. And so our investment in OPTSOFT technologies ended up, you know, it drove a lot of business for Paragon solutions, which was very fortunate. But ended up that the firm got shut down and all of those people ended up having to move on to other jobs after, after that firm was closed.
Gotcha. Well, maybe our audience and myself will feel a little bit better about ourselves now that you had a little speed bump there. But no obviously you've, you've done a lot of things right in the consulting phase and I'm really actually intrigued that you, you wanted to do this being a professor at st Vincent college full time. Tell us about the program that you're running there.
When I first started here, we didn't really have any ERP software and I wanted to, so I teach management information systems, which is a required course in our, you know, our business curriculum. Our school is accredited by ACBSP, which is one of the accrediting agencies. And one of their requirements is that all business students must have a semester long course focused on business technology and, you know, part of the core curriculum book, they talk a lot about hardware and databases and applications. A lot of it focused around ERP, supply chain management, customer relationship management. And I wanted to have a real ERP to be able to introduce them to, and you know, in, in the more advanced accounting information systems class, I wanted to be able to give the students some opportunity to actually work with an ERP system.
So we initially approached Oracle not long after I started teaching MIS in 2006. And they turned us down. But SAP, when we approached SAP, they said, we've got this new enterprise resource planning system that we're, we're, we're introducing to the university Alliance program. That's the program where a member of that's for intended for small to medium size businesses called SAP business One. There was one other school in California that was also going to pilot business one in their curriculum. And so I started in 2007, 2008, really without any training, just, you know, sort of playing around with it. And I incorporated it into my MIS curriculum. Well later that I guess early 2008 got a from the SAP business, one channel manager for North America and said, Hey, one of our hurdles in selling Business One is that we need more young trained, ideally certified consultants and, and employees for companies to know this technology.
Would you be interested in, in, you know, working with, with some SAP consultants to train your, your students in this? And, you know, I, I knew how good ERP had worked out for me, so I, you know, said absolutely we'd be interested in doing this first three or four years of the program. We trained seniors, so then students in their fourth year and then some of the SAP Business One partners and customers would, would hire those students. But we were finding that, you know, just training that themselves without actually a lot of hands on experience with the, the system really sometimes wasn't leading to it, you know, enough and it was really that lack of hands on experience with the software. So in 2012, we started we moved it from a training the students during their senior year to training them during their junior year.
Their third year, it's about a nine month. It's actually now a class. So they go through a class and train on SAP business one. And then with the intent of in January, February, they interview with SAP Business One partners and SAP Business One customers to take an internship during the summer between their junior and senior year. And you know, this has become really my passion. We've been able to over over these eight, nine years now we've been able to take a hundred and over a hundred, 102 students to the, the big annual conference for SAP. That's called the Biz.One conference. We've, we've taken 102 students to that. 95 of them have landed internships. And, and again, this, the, this data already always lags because I've got students with internships who haven't taken full time jobs yet cause they're not, they haven't graduated, but I have 56 students now that are, are working somewhere in the SAP ecosystem. So it's, you know, it's definitely become a real, real passion of mine. I feel like it's been my opportunity to give back as I you know, sort of enlightened some of these bright young minds on, on a, a future working with, with ERP software.
So in a world of social media, in a world where, you know, mobile is King and applications and even augmented reality and virtual reality and you know, all these sort of really easy, you know, technologies that a lot of, you know, a millennial and younger generations have grown up with. And they don't really know what it's like to have a world without that stuff. How do they respond to more of a robust software like an ERP software?
Well, you know, so one of the things that's, that's really rewarding is that they have no fear. You know, th th the generation, and again, I've, I've been doing this now for over 10 years, but, but they're there. They've been grown, they've all been raised, they've all grown up with luck, with access to a lot of applications and technology. So they jump right in. They use it very quickly. They're, you know, they're not, they're willing to try. You know, generally when you see someone maybe closer to my age, you know, they're very tentative. They often want things explained to them in more detail. They're not necessarily as as willing to try and fail and try again where, you know, I do think that the generations that I've been working with here over the last 10, 12 years have been much more willing to jump in and try it.
The biggest hurdles I really face software is not that difficult for them. It's understanding business processes. You know, they, you, you get now in, in you know, a good college business curriculum. You, you get a lot of discussion around business processes, but you know, actually understanding what a sales order is, understanding what a purchase order is and you know, what impacts those documents have to a business is something that, you know, takes time and takes some additional work experience and exposure that, you know, a lot of times students don't necessarily have a lot of exposure to and a lot of experience with.
Is there a place for that in the classroom or is that just, is that hands on needs to be done practically in a business setting to understand truly how those things are? Or is there, are there things that you're doing to try to bridge that gap a little bit?
So one of the areas we're really fortunate here is that we've got a w we call it, and some schools call it different names. We have an operational excellence minor as well as a master's in management that's focused on OE. And operational excellence is, is really continuous improvement. Some people call it the Toyota method. So a lot of it focuses on business processes. You know, how you, how you map business processes, how you look for continuous improvement around business processes. So as part of that curriculum, and again, not all of my SAP students are OE minors, but, but many of them are, they will actually get their green belt certification. Many of them will, you know, be they'll do field trips or they'll do projects where they're actually being exposed to companies, business processes. So I think, you know, learning business processes, yes, some of it can be taught in an academic setting, but I think a lot of it needs to be either whether it's a field trip or you know, some other way videos, some other way of actually showing them, demonstrating to them what, you know, what's involved in those business processes.
And definitely that's where the internship component now of the, the SAP business one program has, has improved it quite a bit because, you know they're, some of them intern with, with customers, some of them intern with partners, but often they're getting exposed to whether it's support, whether it's implementation, whether it's, you know, actually using the software with these business processes. And they come out of those internships generally with a much, much better understanding around, not, not all, but at least around some of the core business processes.
So you had mentioned you've had 95 students go through the program or 95 students, 95 of 102 students that you have taken to SAP big conferences, a 95 of them have internships. And then you've got 56 that are now working full time as a result of that. And then you've got some lag there over those who have not accepted a full time role yet who are still in class. So you can see it's been extremely, obviously, successful you know, what, what's the most rewarding thing about doing what you do right now?
Here's where, I'm not going to sound humble, but I've had multiple students come up and tell it up to me and tell me, Mr. Markley, you've changed my life. And you know, that, that even now when I say that, I get goosebumps. W w we do have our, our school tends to be mostly attracting students from, from sort of four or five surrounding States. But we do get some students internationally and you know, this often has given them paths to possibly a job here in the United States or, you know a much more rewarding career than they may have been otherwise you know, ended up in. So I think that, that, that for me has been, you know something that I totally unintended consequence. I really sort of started this out of I love ERP and I, you know, ERP has been very good for me but I see now how for many of these students it's, it's led to some very, very good career outcomes for them.
One of the, one of the first students to have gone through the program actually works for SAP and she's now a mother of two and, you know, was able, went with SAP to work part time for a while and work remotely and, you know, it gets to, has done some early in her career, did a fair amount of travel and just has had a tremendously rewarding experience. She comes back on campus almost every year to talk to my current students and you know, that is a tremendously rewarding experience for me when, when I do get to interact with, with those students that have been through the program and now working for a few years who tell me how, you know, it's really improved their lives.
Wow. Tip of the cap to you there on that Bob your, your students and the university is lucky to have you. And you know, the students having a little bit of direction, a little bit of nudge and in a direction, you know, Hey, here's this type of technology, here's an avenue that maybe you haven't considered and it's been wildly successful. I'm, I hope it grows and you're able to have a, that same impact on more people. You know, if
And I need to give it a shout out to our, our Dean, part of why this program has been so successful is our Dean really saw it as a, our, our Dean is an economist who probably couldn't have spelled ERP before we started working with (that's a joke) where we started working with, with SAP. But what he sees, he sees the outcomes when, when he's recruiting. You know, a lot of the recruiting of students is, you know, you've got to influence both them but also their parents and a lot of their parents have heard of SAP, have seen how, you know another co-employee or maybe themselves if they've worked with SAP in their jobs, you know, how that's helped their careers. So, you know, he, he sees it as a win for the student, you know, typically a win for the university and definitely a win for the employers that ended up, you know, getting some of this early talent that you know, has, has exposure to a set of technologies that, that most colleges aren't teaching.
If any of our listeners or subscribers, anybody out there who's a student, anybody out there in the workforce or, or any parents you know, if they want to get involved in what you're doing, if they want to connect with you, Bob, what's the best way for them to do that?
So I'm really active on LinkedIn. I try to post there pretty regularly. So definitely LinkedIn would be one great way. And you know, both St Vincent, our business school is in, is in the McKenna school. We all have LinkedIn groups formed on LinkedIn. And then if, you know, if they're wanting to learn more information, they can go to www.stvincent.edu and that will, that really gives a nice a rundown on the SAP business One program. We try to update that every year. So we've got, you know, some, some current information out there. SAP did a success story video on our program and that's posted out there on our website. And in fact, I think if you just Google st Vincent college SAP Business One the video will pop up and you know, are all great ways to kind of learn a little bit more about the, the program and about the school.
Awesome. Bob, thank you so much for being on the show. It's been great having you.
Oh, thank you, Sam. I really enjoy the program and I appreciate the opportunity.
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