If you wanted to remake Dallas or Dynasty and set it in the technology world you could have done worse that start at the CA World user conference in Orlando, Florida last week.
Senior executives from Computer Associates (CA) took to the rostrum to convince the customers of its mammoth 1,200-product portfolio that this rather motley leopard has changed its spots.
The world's fourth-largest software company is fighting against the perception that it is driven by acquisitions, lacks focus, pays its senior staff too much and takes a mercenary attitude to the requirements of its clients' business.
The CA saga hit the headlines nine months ago when a group of maverick shareholders called Ranger Governance launched an attempt to replace four members of the board, including CA founder Charles Wang and chief executive Sanjay Kumar, who was paid some $655m (pounds 450m) in 1999. Texan billionaire Sam Wyly, who sold Sterling Software to CA in March 2000, fronted Ranger's attack.
Any reader of the business and technology press, as many CA customers will be, cannot have missed the saga, involving regulatory investigations, accounting "adjustments" and accusations of corporate excess. To cap it all, CA's share price has fallen 52 per cent since mid-January.
Yet, in front of more than 10,000 CA World attendees the group brushed all these corporate issues under the carpet, to make the remarkable announcement for a 26-year-old company: that it now puts "customers first".
CA claimed that this year's internal re-organisation - focusing on five brands unified under brand managers with responsibility for profit and loss and with bonuses tied to independent customer satisfaction surveys - would help achieve these goals. This follows a number of other initiatives such as introducing a team to "partner" with customers. And in an attempt to improve relationships at board level, CA's chief technology officer, Yogesh Gupta, and other senior executives have been drafted in to visit key customers; in Europe visits have included BT and DaimlerChrysler.
Some customers, such as bookseller Barnes & Noble, do believe that service has improved. But any changes for the better have been overshadowed by the recent sale of many of the interBiz products - CA's ebusiness applications - to SSA. Many customers now have an extra vendor relationship to manage. The sale - the first time ever that CA had sold any business - has also left users of other company products concerned for the future.
"The real issue which hangs over the IDMS [database] is uncertainty of where CA is going with the product," said Brock Shaw from the UKIUA, an established group of CA customers from large multinationals. "The interBiz sale to SSA only heightens that concern." CA executives could not rule out further disposals, and customers could be right to be nervous.
At the shareholder meeting last August, none of Ranger's nominees was appointed. But Mr Wyly was not going to let the matter rest. Last month Ranger wrote an open invitation to the independent directors on the CA board to discuss the removal of Mr Kumar, Mr Wang and finance director Ira Zar. When the move was rejected, Ranger went directly to institutional investors. "We are judging how many people there are of like mind to ourselves," Stephen Perkins, managing partner at Ranger and one of its nominees, told the IoS. "We still believe that many of the issues raised last year are still present. …