by W. E. Pete Peterson
Copyright 1993, 1998 W. E. Peterson
On Monday, March 23, 1992 at 10:30 a.m. I walked into what I thought was a routine meeting of the Board of Directors of WordPerfect Corporation. Bruce Bastian, the Chairman of the Board, invited me to sit down in his office. Alan Ashton, the President of the company, entered the room and took a seat. The three of us had been the only members of the Board of Directors for the past ten years. We owned all the stock in the company.
Alan made it a point to tell me we were having a shareholders' meeting, not a Board meeting. This seemingly small clarification was no minor detail. As with most companies, the shareholders of WordPerfect Corporation rarely met in an official capacity. When we did, it was usually to meet legal requirements rather than to address any serious business issues. The important decisions were made by the Board of Directors, even though it consisted of the same three individuals. A special meeting of the shareholders meant a change to the Board.
Duff Thompson, our attorney, also joined the meeting. He repeated Alan's warning that we were having a shareholders' meeting, and gave us each a paper to sign to make sure the meeting was absolutely official. This did not look good for me.
Alan looked down at the conference table and recited from memory what sounded like a carefully worded speech. He and Bruce believed it was time for a change. They wanted to add three new members to the Board of Directors, so more people could have a voice in the important corporate decisions. Twice I interrupted to try to understand what was happening. After each interruption, Alan repeated his speech from the beginning word for word.
Bruce then explained that some of my responsibilities had to go to other employees, so more people could have an opportunity to make important contributions. Specifically, my marketing and sales duties were to go to someone else. He made it clear I was still wanted on the Board and in the company, but I would have to accept a different role. He said my influence in the company was too great.
I felt numb.
When I started working with Alan and Bruce in 1980, their company had only six employees and sales of about $20,000 a month. By 1991, my last full year with the company, we had more than 4,000 employees and annual sales of more than half a billion dollars. More than 10 million people used WordPerfect worldwide. The company had no debt, more than one hundred fifty million dollars in the bank, more than one hundred million dollars of real estate, and millions of dollars worth of computers, cars, and furnishings. Our reputation was as impressive as our bank balance. Our customers loved our products. Our employees never wanted to leave. We had built a company worth perhaps two billion dollars, without the help of experienced business professionals, and without losing even a small part of the company to outside investors.
We discussed the proposed changes for almost three hours, but the final vote was never in doubt. I owned one percent of the stock and Bruce and Alan each owned half of the rest. Sales were down a little for the current quarter and they had made up their minds. They no longer wanted me running their company.
I told them I did not want to stay if my marketing and sales duties were taken away. That would take all the fun out of my job. They argued that my other duties were important and that my contribution would still be significant. I would have an opportunity to express my opinions and cast a vote on all important decisions.
Although I believed they were sincere in what they said, I could not stay. I did not believe a committee of six people could effectively run a company, nor did I have enough energy left to try to make it work. If Bruce and Alan did not want me running their company, I was ready to leave. The past year had been a struggle, and twice I had written unsubmitted letters of resignation. They had paid me generously over the years, so I did not need the job for the money. I felt relieved. I was ready to let them find out what it was I did for them.
When they insisted I stay, I suggested a six month trial separation, to give them time to determine whether or not they needed me. I naively expected them to ask me to come back within a few months. They asked me to stay one last time, but I insisted on a separation. They decided to sleep on it.
Two days later Bruce and Alan came into my office to accept my offer to leave for six months. Although their decision hurt much more than I expected, I promised myself they would not see me cry. I hugged them both, wished them well, grabbed a few of my things, and left.
When the six months were up, no one called to ask me back.
WordPerfect Corporation had been my life and my identity for twelve years. It was difficult facing up to the fact that I was not a part of that company anymore. I could not wear my WordPerfect hat and my WordPerfect shirt on vacation and have people come up and tell me how much they liked our word processor. I was no longer an important executive asked to make difficult decisions that affected millions of people. I was no longer in a battle to the death with Bill Gates and Microsoft, spending almost every waking moment figuring out how to beat them.
I am proud of the small role I played in the early years of the personal computer industry. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a part of WordPerfect Corporation's incredible success story, and except for the ending, my time there was perfect.