From Small Startup to Big Player in the ERP Market
In 1992, the foundation of the W. Ernst Informatik system house was laid in a small town called Siegelbach. An unknown company and an unusable product don't sound like much of formula for success, but the sky's the limit when you have willpower and pioneer spirit.
Michael Finkler, managing director at proALPHA, has a proud smile when he thinks back to these days. As one of the founding members, he has accompanied the company almost from the beginning – and experienced a lot on this journey. In this interview, he tells us about his personal highlights and how the small startup became the successful proALPHA Group of today.
- Where did you come across proALPHA and how long have you been with proALPHA?
I can barely believe it myself, but I've been working for proALPHA for more than 28 years. It was still known as W. Ernst Informatik back then. Yes, our story began with this horrible name. Back then, I rejected a very lucrative offer by SAP because I was convinced that this startup could become something big. The first functions of proALPHA were developed by a few employees in rented offices in a technology park in Siegelbach, close to Weilerbach.
We founded the W. Ernst Informatik system house with me as a minority shareholder holding 49% of the shares and the only managing director. It was our goal to implement the project and take care of the project's sales. Neither the W. Ernst Informatik system house nor proALPHA had been known in the market, nor was the product ready to be placed in operation as it was still a little fledgling. Nevertheless, it wasn't long until we celebrated our first successes and our company was growing quickly. It was a great pioneer time. Still today, the first customers to put their trust in us are active and highly appreciated proALPHA customers. We owe them a lot.
- When you look back at the past years, what highlights spring to your mind?
To name all the highlights from these 3 decades, I would have to write a book. Unfortunately, I neglected to keep a diary, otherwise I would actually do so. Of course, a special highlight is the development from this small crew made up of a handful of employees to a small company group with almost 2,000 employees.
By the way, we never had a single year with decline in sales. Even SAP didn't achieve this. They had 3 years with declines in sales in the past 37 years. Of course, another highlight for me and the employees was the foundation of an independent corporation as a spin-off from the former proALPHA system house GmbH back in 2003. ALPHA Business Solutions AG was very successful and perfectly respected in the market of competitors.
The next highlight was the reunion of ALPHA Business Solutions AG and proALPHA Software AG in 2015. This merger of peers gave the parent company the current name proALPHA Business Solutions. That's when I joined the general management of the proALPHA Business Solutions of which I'm still a member to this day. The number of employees has almost tripled over the past 7 years and proALPHA has become one of the 3 leading ERP companies in the DACH region, besides SAP and Microsoft. Microsoft's second rank is within reach and our declared target. This is an incredible achievement on this very demanding market of business solutions.
The foundation of today's proALPHA User Group 26 years ago surely was another highlight. Together with the managing director of a customer, I formed the idea of founding the proALPHA User Group. This initially loose association started as a small circle of further interested companies and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Meanwhile, it has become an important and active organization with almost 500 members. I've been a board member of the User Group since the very first session and I enjoy the great teamwork and also the friendships that have developed over time. If this proALPHA User Group didn't already exist, you'd simply have to found it.
- What motivated you to stay with proALPHA for such a long time? Didn't you come across any other options that sparked your interest?
I could fill several book chapters with this question as well. To me, ERP has always been the ultimate discipline of IT. I started as a software developer in the production plants of Hewlett Packard in Böblingen and then became the head of consulting in this field. That's where I came to appreciate and love ERP. Only one third of ERP is IT. The other two thirds are corporate organizations and the people involved. This is exactly what continues to fascinate me to this day. Therefore, I never even considered leaving proALPHA, the more so as I'm a shareholder and have been managing director and board member for more than 28 years.
"I'm convinced of proALPHA as a product and recommend it to every friend in good conscience, provided that it fits their company."
Meanwhile, several of my friends have proALPHA installations and I'm sure that all of them are just as convinced of proALPHA as I am. And this conviction is unwavering, even in the face of the occasional justified criticism.
But what is the most important aspect of professional life? Is it really the achievements? To me, the special thing about proALPHA is the closeness to employees, partners and especially customers. This will stay true even after I retire from proALPHA.
- What does proALPHA mean to you and what makes it so special?
As already mentioned before, several things speak for proALPHA and my connection with proALPHA. For years, I've appreciated the loyal and mainly friendly collaboration with my fellow managing directors. Together we form a very strong and efficient management team. Moreover, ERP is even more exciting now than it has already been in the last years.
The digitalization has been placing whole new demands on ERP systems, both on the inside and toward end customers and markets. New technologies like AI will become an integral part of the ERP+ systems. Nowadays, proALPHA stands for more than just core ERP. We've complemented it with MES, BI, eProcurement, financial planning, quality management and there's even more to come. Stay tuned!
I'm personally very dedicated to the new topics of sustainability and carbon neutrality in particular. ERP+ systems will have to make a great contribution here. proALPHA acts in light of this social responsibility and I'm also involved in research and association activities to drive things forward.
For instance, I was elected chairman of the biggest VDMA trade association Software and Digitalization for 4 years and I'm a member of a regional board and the executive board of the VDMA, the largest industrial association in Europe. Furthermore, I'm a member of the management board of the Bitkom ERP work group and the research advisory board of the FIR at RWTH Aachen University, in addition to some other tasks. I also try to share my experiences and spark motivation for the necessary changes with regard to digitalization and sustainability in various board functions. As you can see, I'm fully occupied with very interesting topics.
- What do you think about proALPHA's future? Where will the journey go?
I'm not at all worried about proALPHA. The company is well-positioned, very successful and on the path of doing the right things, like the cloud transformation and application of AI technology. It's also the right strategy to acquire appropriate companies that complement the proALPHA Core application. We can already see the success today. Even though we're already firmly established in the market, our competitiveness will continue to grow. And we won't lose sight of the customer satisfaction. It's still our top priority. As co-founder and co-chair of the proALPHA User Group, I'm particularly concerned about this matter. I stand up for it myself.
"proALPHA will continue to push forward. In my opinion, it will soon rank second among the providers of ERP for discrete manufacturing companies and technical wholesale next to SAP."
Knowing that proALPHA is in good hands, I will be able to bid my farewell to proALPHA when the time comes and start the next chapter of my life in good conscience. And then I'll be up for some other adventures: I'm going to enjoy life even more and advance the humanitarian projects in Kenya I've started 12 years ago and a newly founded association for nature conservation and species protection. I will follow the future achievements of proALPHA with satisfaction from the comfort of a rocking chair und with a good glass of wine in hand, and continue to stay in friendly contact with employees, customers and partners.