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The First Crisis: Jack Davis Departs

December 1981: The Time of Troubles Begins

Jack and Drew flew back from Comdex 81 flush with success.

The printer was out and selling well; the terminal computer was out and was one of the fanciest being shown at Comdex; the LAN was introduced and there was great interest in it. It looked like they were finally on the track of something the market really needed from Novell, and it looked like Drew and the other programmers had put enough thought into this concept that they could produce superior results.

But the news waiting in Utah wasn’t good. The first shoe had finally fallen and Jack was no longer a part of Novell. The hard times “the speech” had foreshadowed were happening, and the first casualty was Jack Davis, the founder.

All through the summer, the Safeguard people had been watching a lot of money go out to Utah and little come back. The reports weren’t encouraging: The terminal introduction had been delayed yet again and product sales were slow.

Late in the fall, Dolf and Pete sent a Safeguard Scientifics executive, Jack Messman, to find out what was happening and to do something about it. Jack was an ex-IBMer and a businessman, but he didn’t understand this new personal computer industry and he had no love for the mountains or Mormons of Utah. He came; he listened to George and a couple other senior managers finger Jack for the company’s problems; he made his recommendation and George, the Novell President, acted on it.

Upon his return from Comdex, Jack found himself on the street.

In Messman’s eyes, the incident was now finished: He’d done the nasty job of cutting out the source of the acrimony and now Novell should settle down and become profitable. He flew back East.

Jack Messman

Jack Messman is actively involved with Novell from the beginning of 1982. He eventually becomes a member of the board and his involvement with Novell continues through the ’90s and beyond. He becomes President and CEO from 2001–2006.

The Wound Doesn’t Heal

Jack Davis’s firing was meant to be a surgical strike, getting rid of the one man causing the problems. Now it was up to George to make things happen right. As Dolf later told Jack in justification of their decision, “Jack, we didn’t have time to be referees.”

But Jack, not George, had built the Novell team, and Jack had not been discredited in the eyes of those people he had brought on board. For the next five months George worked at straightening out the company but there was a lot of grumbling while he did so.

Jim Walker

Through the winter of ’81-’82 George labored diligently to solve Novell’s problems. His first act was to bring on a replacement for Jack Davis. This man, Jim Walker, was the consultant George had been working with closely for the six months previously, one of those who recommended the unfortunate switch to the COBOL accounting package. Jim began his tenure by bringing the Post Office Place employees together for one of those rare pep talks.

The talk was a good one. He spoke encouragingly about developing “a sense of closure” in what Novell did. “Follow up, make sure the customer is satisfied,” Jim encouraged. It was a welcome change from the pace that Jack had set—“Don’t worry about the details, they’ll take care of themselves. We’ve got other high priority items that need to be taken care of.” People were looking forward to a lessening of the tensions that the George-Jack feuding had caused.

How Jim’s actions would have compared to his words we’ll never know. That weekend he flew with George to Philadelphia to present his plan to Safeguard. The morning of the big presentation he was found dead in his motel room of a heart attack.

As far as the people of Novell were concerned this was a perverse twist but no more. For George it was a big setback. He never found another replacement for Jack Davis.

The Winter of Endless Sales Meetings

The winter of 1981–82 was marked by endless sales meetings.

There were meetings to discuss new products and meetings to discuss the meanings of management shakeups. Roger, first as Manager of Customer Support and later as manager of the Dallas sales office, recalls emergency meetings held monthly. Sometimes the news was good, such as when the LAN was declared ready to demonstrate, other times it was to explain yet another management crisis.

Jack’s departure gave George a free hand to solve the company’s problems but he was constrained by what he and Jack had already created.

The months-long run of the George-Jack feud had allowed many people in the company to take sides. George was President, but Jack was considered company founder by most of those who joined first. He had invited them in and it was his vision they had hitched their dreams to.

That winter those who sided with Jack grumbled that George was an absentee manager, spending much of his time and the company money jetting back and forth to southern California.

George was further handicapped because two of his important allies in the feud were Joe and Phil—the fellows in charge of Manufacturing and Software Development. Those areas were generating the most heat in terms of customer complaints and dashed expectations.

George had about ninety days to overcome Novell’s problems. The challenge proved too daunting.

The White Paper

By February it was clear that George’s problems had run deeper than just “Jack Davis is not getting with the program.”

Safeguard was once again turning its Baleful Eye from the East upon the Utah enterprise and it wasn’t pleased with what it saw: Money was still flowing out. Pete and Dolf still couldn’t understand this industry. Neither could Jack Messman. So they fell back on their old habits and turned to one person they knew who might understand what was going on: Jack Davis.

Jack remembers:

In early ’82 I was in Philadelphia on a business trip for Praxis.

[Jack became President of Praxis upon leaving Novell.] I visited Safeguard and asked Dolf, “Do you want to know what’s really happening out in Utah?”

“Sure,” he said.

I wrote him a 20-page “white paper” explaining my side of the story, and I don’t know if that opened his eyes or not, but three months later George was out.

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