Hatim A. Tyabji, chief executive officer of Verifone Inc., seems to wallow in contradictions. They may help explain his and Verifone's successes.
A few impressions:
*Verifone is dominant in a point of sale equipment business that it essentially created and has redefined as "transaction automation." Yet Mr. Tyabji, while known to and highly regarded by his customers, competitors, and investors, rarely speaks at industry conferences and does not seek wider public acclaim.
He lives what management books preach but many egos ignore: "I know I will have succeeded when I am no longer needed," Mr. Tyabji said in a recent interview.
*Educated in electrical engineering and international finance, Mr. Tyabji's voracious reading appetite turns to books on management subjects and psychology. He is said to be as humanistic in dealings with customers and employees as he is obsessed with meeting and exceeding performance goals.
"I consider myself a student of human nature," he said. "One thing I will absolutely not have is a cult of personality."
*Cult or not, stories do make the rounds.
Hopelessly delayed by traffic en route to a meeting at a Paris bank, Mr. Tyabji commandeered a motorcycle and arrived on time, if a bit bedraggled. Around Verifone, the morals of this tale are ingrained.
He makes as many as 200 customer visits a year, but "I don't have time for the hail-fellow-well-met call," he said. "I'm there for business, to ask what have we done wrong and what more can we do to serve them."
*A fondness for fine food and wine, which Mr. Tyabji's globetrotting permits him to indulge, does not overpower lower-brow tastes. Wherever he travels, Kentucky Fried Chicken serves as a welcome reminder of home.
In observance of his recent 50th birthday, colleagues left his office strewn with another weakness, Kit-Kat bars - an affectionate, pedestal- chopping gesture.
*After admitting to being just a little crazy, Mr. Tyabji quickly asked to amend that: "I'm lucidly crazy."
Lucid to the point where no Verifone strategy, business unit, or detail escapes his gaze or ability to expound on the latest developments.
Crazy to the tune of $309 million of revenue last year. The growth rate was 19%, adding a record $50 million, with more than that expected in 1995.
In keeping with his outlook on corporate life and culture, Mr. Tyabji tends to turn business conversations away from himself and toward Verifone, its people, and their results.
In January, he posted an electronic mail message titled "Caring for Our People." For an "exemplary" 1994, the rank-and-file were rewarded with three days' pay plus a two-day holiday extending the Good Friday-Easter weekend. Mr. Tyabji urged the employees to share those days with loved ones who "have supported you...and therefore supported Verifone's performance."
As for the executive team: "In almost all other companies, members of senior management would receive a significant portion of any cash bonus," the memo stated. "However, in order to maximize the recognition for our people, our vice presidents and I will receive no cash bonus. Any recognition for senior management will be in the form of long-term incentives."
As those words suggest, Mr. Tyabji, president and CEO since 1986 and chairman since 1992, is as concerned about the corporate climate as about the intricacies of terminal equipment.
"Ethics, culture, caring about our people, quality of life - these are not just words at Verifone," he said. "Retaining people today is not easy. It's a tough, tough competitive environment, and I don't run a country club."
He does run a company that has run away with market-share laurels. Accounting for 60% of point of sale terminal shipments by North American suppliers, Verifone is well ahead of No. 2 Hypercom Inc.'s 14%, according to the newsletter POS News.
Timely investments, including those of the fabled Beardstown Ladies and employees' stock options, have earned handsome returns - the share price, down from a high of $30 in 1993, has been around $24, 20 times earnings.
Though known to pay competitively, the company places great demands on employees who, when pressed, give the impression that they are not getting rich on salaries. "Urgency" and "drive" are two of the most used and accepted words in the corporate vocabulary.
"If this was just about the money and benefits, we would have lost these people a long time ago," said Mr. Tyabji, who boasts of an extremely low turnover rate. "We are driven because we care. We have built a culture and a strong company with a very high level of consistency.
"You won't find a strategy du jour. You won't find us reacting to the last announcement of a competitor. Consistency - and doing what is right - is a mantra around here."
Founded in 1981 and five years a publicly traded company, Verifone is a synthesis of its founder's vision and the way Mr. Tyabji has creatively orchestrated it.
The founder, William N. Melton, seized the opportunity to manufacture electronic terminals that speed the authorization of credit card transactions. Working closely with Visa U.S.A., which spurred the initial demand, Mr. Melton set up shop in a nearby San Francisco suburb and got Verifone off to a head start against other specialized terminal makers like Hypercom and International Verifact Inc. of Canada.
Mr. Tyabji's 1986 move to Verifone from Sperry Corp., where he was not enthralled with the prospects of the merger with Burroughs Corp. into what became Unisys Corp., began with a chance meeting with Mr. Melton at a Verifone board member's office.
Mr. Melton, a successful venture capitalist, head of Cybercash Inc., and still a Verifone director, was so taken with Mr. Tyabji - then president of the Sperry-Burroughs information systems, products, and technology group - that he changed a plan to hire someone else.
Mr. Melton said he "couldn't be happier" with what transpired.
He called Mr. Tyabji "an immensely talented man with unbelievable commitment...I only wonder how he keeps it up. He is all over the world, all the time, and he is deeply involved."
"We agreed at a philosophical level on how to run a company, on risk- taking, and on the notion that if a business is not global, it isn't worth running," Mr. Tyabji said.
Mr. Tyabji pointed out that in 1987, despite "global pretensions," Verifone operations were confined to the West Coast of the United States.
Globalization has been the story of the last several years, and as much company religion as the cultural aspects that preoccupy Mr. Tyabji. Verifone operates directly in 85 countries, has "international partners" developing applications in more than 50 counties, and has manufacturing and system-development facilities as far away as India and China.
International sales rose 53% last year, to $100 million. Mr. Tyabji last year brought back an early Verifone employee, Greg Lewis, after a three- year absence to be vice president of a consolidated international division.
"Some people still see us as a software or terminal supplier, but we're providing total solutions," Mr. Lewis said. "That is what a lot of emerging countries are looking to us to provide," which presumably will fuel much of Verifone's future growth.
"We're thinking about where the next $300 million will come from, and I can tell you it won't take 10 years," he said.
Mr. Tyabji, who arrived when Verifone had less than $50 million of revenue, must look ahead to the very different demands of a $500 million or larger entity.
"You bet, I worry about things, but that doesn't stop us," he said. "We'll make our mistakes. But we'll pick ourselves up, allow two minutes of commiseration, and get on with it."
Mr. Lewis' boss, executive vice president John Hinds, is one of only about 10 people on the management rung immediately below Mr. Tyabji.
"It's very flat, and I fully intend to keep it that way," the CEO said of his organization chart.
Beyond that, Mr. Tyabji has built what some might call a "virtual corporation;" electronic mail and other forms of communication are more critical than brick and mortar.
"Our company does not have a headquarters," Mr. Tyabji protests.
The multilingual annual report calls the building in Redwood City, Calif., "corporate offices," but it houses only 120 of the more than 2,000 employees, primarily administrators. For Mr. Tyabji it is an occasional waystation.
"Most of us are expected to be on the road a huge amount, to get in front of customers for a daily dose of humility," he said.
Sensitive to his frequent fliers' scheduling demands, Mr. Tyabji blocks out time for strategy sessions, known as management weeks, a year in advance. The meetings are held at six-week intervals, each at a different site around the world, to force people out of their home-base mindsets.
"We have created a culture that is time- and distance-insensitive," he said. "That is our true accomplishment. E-mail finds me, and people don't have to know where I am or care what time it is.
"We have created a culture of urgency, and that means you get an answer within 24 hours," Mr. Tyabji added.
"There is a tremendous energy in that company, and it starts with Hatim," said Al Gural of Verigem, a joint venture that Verifone formed with the smart card manufacturer Gemplus Group of France. "He gets his people pumped up and enthused. And they are always connected - no matter where they are, they'll use e-mail, conference calls, or video."
"We all carry laptop computers," Mr. Lewis said. "We use e-mail all the time, and if I can't get into E-mail for some reason, I can dictate responses."
Mr. Lewis said the intensity level requires management. "I carry a worldwide beeper with a number that I give out selectively," he said. "If you abuse that, it's a liability and leaves no time for oneself. But if there is an emergency, I want to know about it."
"Hatim wouldn't ask us to do anything he wouldn't do," Mr. Lewis said.
"There is no layering or hierarchy," Mr. Tyabji said. "We all work at the same pace."
He has pursued globalization and distance-insensitivity "not because it's fun, but because we have clear strategic imperatives" that include not being surprised by technology or market changes.
"Competition in technology emanates from all over the world," he said. "We must look for trends before they are trends...There is no way I am going to be surprised by what happens anywhere in the world."
Verifone set up a development center for security and smart cards in Paris, as well as the joint venture with Gemplus, because France and Europe are pointing the way to the future in both areas. Similarly, ahead of many larger companies, Verifone recognized the high-tech capabilities of India and its work force and set up a system development center in Bangalore.
Mr. Tyabji has had to justify globalization's costs to shareholders. "This company is being managed for tomorrow and the next day," he said defiantly. "We have never wavered - we haven't exited from a single one of the 85 countries we entered."
Similarly, he has not retreated from bets on smart cards, electronic benefits transfer systems, and home banking - though their current stirrings of life came long after initial projections.
He is convinced that by committing over the long haul, "our talented marketing people develop contacts in the lean years that result in contracts." One big payoff came recently when Verifone was designated by NationsBank Corp. and Nabanco to supply 50,000 credit and debit card terminals for 33,000 U.S. post offices.
Verifone's continuing success - last year it surpassed four million installations worldwide, having doubled in three years - has not silenced or discouraged No. 2 Hypercom. Its president Albert Irato, and its recent advertising has pointedly played up gains in market share, but Mr. Tyabji turns the other cheek.
He doesn't tolerate "bad-mouthing the competition" and believes focusing on immediate rivals like Hypercom and International Verifact Inc. is short- sighted. "The much more potent element is who will be the competition tomorrow," he said.
"I spend a lot of time thinking about the competition. I worry about them and respect them. I know and have a lot of respect for (Hypercom chairman) George Wallner."
Mr. Wallner of Hypercom said, "You can only respect Verifone when you look at all they have accomplished."
Phoenix-based Hypercom claims it can be nimbler because it is not publicly held and has not sunk money into a global infrastructure. With a tenth of Verifone's work force, it relies more on outsourcing and distributors. A sizable portion of Hypercom's reported $200 million of revenue comes from networking products, which are not in Verifone's line.
"Until 1988, we subcontracted all manufacturing, but I believed it could be a core competency," Mr. Tyabji said. "Now we are vertically integrated worldwide, and that is a competitive advantage."
Despite its self-effacing CEO, Verifone's strategy and vision are open secrets. They are set forth several times a year in a "Company Fact Book" and white papers on various topics, the most recent titled "The World of Transaction Automation." A pamphlet, "The Verifone Philosophy," is distributed freely.
Giving back to its industry, Verifone commissions research on merchant- related topics and presents it at a symposium each September just after the American Bankers Association bank card conference. Michael Shade, the vice president who hosts the event, sees it as part of his strategy development function.
"We get a lot of our market assessment through resellers and other direct customer contacts," Mr. Shade said. "The annual commitment to research goes beyond the resellers to end-user responses, which are invaluable to all of us."