Episode 52 Apr 19, 2022

A Candid Sit-Down with Zilliant CEO Greg Peters

Greg Peters has led Zilliant for nearly 20 years as president and chief executive officer. He makes his long-awaited debut on the podcast to tell us why right now is “the most exciting time since I’ve been in the company.” In these 20 years, Greg has helped navigate Zilliant and its customers through economic ups and downs and seismic go-to-market shifts. Most critically, Zilliant was the first price optimization software provider to transition to 100% cloud-native SaaS nearly a decade ago. In this episode, Greg has a candid conversation with Chief Marketing Office Lindsay Duran on the thinking behind that fruitful decision, Zilliant’s recent acquisition by Madison Dearborn Partners, his take on the future of intelligent commerce in B2B, and much more.

Featuring
Greg Peters

Greg Peters

"There's a ticking clock in most businesses that, if you wait too long, and you're not taking advantage of the information at your disposal and how you can differentiate yourself competitively while providing a better overall experience for your customers, it's just a ticking issue that will certainly reach a point of boiling over."
- Greg Peters, Zilliant

Episode Transcript

Greg Peters: You look at the top Dow 100 companies. Most of the top ones are companies who leveraged data and largely built business models around how they can strategically use that data to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. And I think we're certainly seeing that more. In the B2B space, as companies become much more knowledgeable and aggressive in terms of trying to use that information that they have to provide a better experience for their customers.

Lindsay Duran: Hello everyone. And welcome to B2B Reimagined. My name is Lindsay Duran, and I'll be your host for this podcast. I'm joined today by Greg Peters, Zilliant president and CEO, making his debut appearance on the podcast. Greg, welcome to B2B Reimagined.

Greg Peters: Thank you, Lindsay. What an amazing introduction.

Lindsay Duran: Well, Greg, we're really excited to have you on for your first appearance. Why don't you start off by giving our listeners the Reader's Digest version of your long history with the company?

Greg Peters: Well, it is a long history. Almost 20 years. I wasn't the founder of the company. I [00:02:00] was previously CEO of a company that we took public.

And one of our investors was a seed investor in Zilliant, asked me to take a look at it. This is going back to 2003 and my financial background really got me interested in it as pricing has been, even for 20 years ago, it was one of these last bastions of guesswork that companies, spend a lot of money on products, spend a lot of money on marketing and then some kind of transaction takes place with a customer and you end up with some number coming back for the product that you sold. And so trying to put some strategy around that and some process and controls around enabling that interaction really interested me 20 years ago, still does today. It's been really interesting as we've evolved our business model from an on-prem to a SaaS company over the last decade. While I've been here a long time, it feels like we're still really early in it.

The opportunity in front of us. And it's the most exciting time since I've been in the company.

Lindsay Duran: Well, [00:03:00] Greg, speaking of a long time, you and I have worked together now for quite a while, but our audience doesn't know you quite as well as I do. So why don't you tell them something interesting or perhaps surprising about yourself?

Greg Peters: Well, they can decide if it's interesting, but I call myself kind of the accidental CEO. I've been CFO of a couple public software companies before I was CEO of a couple, I was CFO. I'd just taken a CFO job with a relatively high flying company. This is in the late nineties, the CEO and the company were on the front of Business Week when Business Week was kind of a mainstream periodical, but the business, when I got there, wasn't doing so good. And one Sunday afternoon, I got a phone call. I'd probably only been with the company two or three weeks and got a call from one of the board members saying that they wanted to make a change with the CEO.

And would I be an acting CEO while they ran a search process? And frankly, I had moved my family up to the Northeast and [00:04:00] wasn't necessarily there to be CEO. I was hoping the stock options that I had would be worth something. And that's basically what I relayed to the board. So anyway, we went through a, probably a six month search process, made a few changes to the way we were doing business and a few other kinds of strategic changes.

And one night before a board meeting, they took me to dinner. Essentially in, in colorful language, asked me if I would put my name in the hat to be CEO so they can get the search over with. Then eventually I did. And probably, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got when I accepted the position was one of the board members said, “Congratulations, you've heard the truth for the last time.”

And while that may not be true, I do think there's some wisdom in that and that you have to really pay attention to what you're hearing. Are you hearing the whole truth or maybe more importantly, what is it that you're not hearing that you should be? And I think that's always been really good advice that I was [00:05:00] given.

Lindsay Duran: Great advice. Zilliant made headlines at the end of 2021, when it was announced that we'd entered into an agreement to be acquired by Madison Dearborn Partners. Can you talk a little bit about that and why it makes so much sense for the future of Zilliant and where we're headed as a company?

Greg Peters: Sure, I think our market and certainly as part of that, our company is really at an inflection point, COVID and the pandemic have certainly altered things happening in the market.

They've accelerated trends in the market, and that presents really important opportunity for us over the next five years or so. And I felt this was a time that I think we should be doubling down on some of the investments that we've made to really take advantage of kind of this spurt and growth that we're seeing in our marketplace.

So with that, we looked at a lot of different options and opportunities, and I'm really pleased with the partnership that [00:06:00] we're now about three or four months into, with Madison Dearborn Partners. They're obviously a well-known very respected private equity firm, but I would say what really appealed to me was their approach is somewhat different than other private equity firms, which fits our business model really well.

They don't come in with a one-size business model fits all, but rather come in, understand the business, understand the nuances of the business and make investments in the business to help scale onboarding customers. Obviously at some point, improve margins with that, but also grow the top line.

How do you invest in furthering talent and the talent management inside the company? And, obviously from the base of that, or the foundation of that is really, what is the long-term product roadmap and strategy and how do we leverage that? Both with inorganic and organic growth in the future.

So I'm real excited, we're really [00:07:00] busy right now. And I think these next few years, they’re just going to be really the most exciting few years in the company as we take advantage of a lot of things taking place on the market. And we have really solid resources in place to go do that.

Lindsay Duran: Let's take a look backwards if we can, for a moment, Greg, certainly the past two years or so have been trying and very unpredictable for most sectors.

As a company continued to grow in this period, obviously culminating in the strategic growth investment by Madison Dearborn to what do you attribute Zilliant success through this time?

Greg Peters: Well, I wish I could say that we are, we're so smart that we had some kind of pandemic resilient business strategy, ready to put into place when COVID hit.

But I can't say that was true. We're very fortunate. We've always had a relatively remote workforce. So that transition to remote has been pretty seamless for us as a [00:08:00] company. But I think the principle thing is just the, the dynamics that have been taking place. And our customers’ markets. It has increased trends that, we've been talking about for years that have been taking place, but are being significantly accelerated in terms of companies thinking about a move to digitize their business, their customers, one to interact with them in a more online fashion or really through any channel that they want to interact with, whether it's, directly with a salesperson, whether it's through an eCommerce channel, whether it's, through a different marketplace that that company may be participating in. That move to digitize our customer's businesses is putting pressures on systematizing things, making processes consistent.

And, pricing is arguably the hardest thing to get right. So that the customer is getting the right price, regardless of what channel in the most meaningful way as if you were doing one-on-one business with them in a [00:09:00] face-to-face way. So I would just say it's been an acceleration of existing business trends and, looking into the crystal ball, it's going to continue to increase as complexity continues to rise in our customer's business.

Lindsay Duran: Well, volatility and disruption certainly appear to be here to stay and likely our new baseline in which we're all operating in. What guidance would you offer to business leaders who are charged with navigating this new reality?

Greg Peters: Well, I certainly agree complexity’s increasing, and again, I think the pandemic’s just accelerated trends for our customers that they were seeing in terms of different strategic M&A type moves that competitors may be making, different business models coming into their marketplaces. And obviously more recently with supply chain disruptions and inflation and other geopolitical events has just made businesses have to deal with things that probably, even five to 10 years ago, weren't [00:10:00] on the top of the mind in terms of thinking through.

So that's going to continue. And fortunately companies have invested in a lot of systems over the last, 10, 15, 20 years that have created a huge asset that some are using well, and some have more opportunity to use them than they are. And that's data. The data is the output of all the different, ERP, supply chain, CRM type systems that companies have.

And particularly pricing data is really kind of that point in contact with your customer that is telling you something about that relationship. Every time you do commerce with that customer, or do transactions with that customer and how you harness that knowledge and leverage that and use that for future transactions with that customer and with others is really there at your fingertips.

And so if you look at the top Dow 100 companies, [00:11:00] most of the top ones are companies who leveraged data and largely built business models around how they can strategically use that data to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. And I think we're certainly seeing that more and more in the B2B space.

Companies become much more knowledgeable, and I guess, aggressive in terms of trying to use that information that they have to provide a better experience for their customers.

Lindsay Duran: So at that point, Greg, price optimization and management software has proven to be extremely lucrative for companies who invest in it.

Yet we see many B2B companies still showing some hesitation and they're afraid to move away from those more manual pricing methods. What's your point of view on the PO&M market and where do you see it going in the near future?

Greg Peters: Well, I think you're right. I mean, I think companies are hesitant to touch sales processes and change too much at one time with how their [00:12:00] sales organization’s going to market. Because ultimately that is the most important activity that's going on inside the company. Even if the company's not broke, I think a lot of companies take the old adage if it's not broke, why fix it?

I think there's a ticking clock in most businesses that, if you wait too long, and you're not taking advantage of the information that could be at your disposal and how you can differentiate yourself competitively in the marketplace while providing a better overall experience for your customers.

It's just a ticking issue that will certainly reach a point of boiling over. And I think our heritage has been about enabling our customers to get access to the data that they have and do something smart with it and give what I call answers out to the salesforce and enable those individuals to act on those answers in terms of providing guidance for their customer interactions in their sales transaction.

[00:13:00] The space itself has been largely focused around obviously pricing right now, but also around growing margins. And I would say that the bigger strategic aspect is enabling companies to use the data to manage their business in the strategic ways that they want to, in some areas they may want to be going for margin in their business and other areas they may be wanting to drive higher volume and take market share and giving companies the ability to dial in that strategy at a granular level, across different segments of their business. Essentially give them the steering wheel for how to drive their company, and traverse the minefields that exist because of the different complex issues that we previously talked about.

It's certainly where I think the space is going. So that increasing forecasting capabilities, increasing predictive capabilities on customer response and enable you to manage the business in a flexible way to change strategies where you need to very quickly because of [00:14:00] changing market conditions.

And obviously it grows shareholder value faster that way.

Lindsay Duran: So Greg, why do you think Zilliant is best positioned to help companies make the leap to pricing software?

Greg Peters: Because I think as I said, our core kind of who we are is around managing that data and being able in a scalable way to get access to insights out of that data that are actionable. I've told the story a lot of times you're probably tired of hearing it, but when I was CFO of a company, I always felt like, my job at least to some extent was around getting the right information to people at the right time, in a way they can understand it. So they'll make good decisions.

Everybody in the company makes decisions that impact a company's P&L some more than others. But if people are making decisions that are inconsistent with strategy or are just poor decisions, it's probably because they don't have the right [00:15:00] information available to them to make the best decisions because people don't wake up in the morning and say, “I can't wait to go to work and make some really bad decisions today. It's going to be a whole lot of fun.” I mean, people want to do the right thing by and large. And so if that's happening, then it's gotta be a result of the fact pattern that they're dealing with. And I think that's kind of the core of what we are all about at Zilliant, is getting data, organizing it in a smart way, in a way that's easily digestible and understandable.

Get that in front of the people that need that information when they need it. And then, some very magical things happen in terms of what happens with the customer interaction. What happens with the growth in sales and the margin improvement.

Lindsay Duran: Speaking of magical Greg, in a couple of months, we will be having our first in-person North America Mindshare conference since 2019.

I'm very excited to see [00:16:00] everyone in person here in Austin, but let's talk about what this conference means to Zilliant and its customer and partner ecosystem. And why you think people should join us in Austin.

Greg Peters: Yeah, I'm really looking forward to it. Lindsay, one of the things that I've missed the most over the past two years is just the direct face to face customer interaction that haven't been able to do because of travel issues or different corporate rules, who they allow inside buildings and so forth.

So I really miss that. I'm really looking forward to having a lot of customers get together here in Austin. Our customers tell our story better than we do - this podcast is probably a perfect example of that. But I'm really looking forward to getting all of our customers together, letting our customers talk about the things that they've been doing with us, relate their excitement and the benefits that they've seen, and then, allow everyone to get the networking opportunity that they have obviously with us, but more importantly, with other customers [00:17:00] and prospects who will be there in attendance. It's going to be an exciting few days. I can't wait. This is kind of on the front side, probably kind of events like this, that people are gathering face to face, but I hope everyone takes advantage of it. I think it's going to be well worth your time.

Lindsay Duran: Before we go, Greg, is there anything else that you'd like to leave our audience with perhaps some advice or, what you're most excited about here for the future itself?

Greg Peters: Good question. What I would say is I think everyone should just ask themselves, how much is data being used strategically in your business? Is it making a difference in your marketplace and in the experience where customers are receiving within, if it is, how do you leverage that even more?

If it's not try to think about what you can be doing to leverage the information that you have every day, your customers are telling you something with the way they transact business with you. And, as an organization, do you have the right ears in place to be able to listen to that through [00:18:00] the data that you receive and then act on it?

It is the most valuable asset most companies have. It's not on their balance sheet. And it's one that I think is imperative to compete effectively in the market flux going forward.

Lindsay Duran: Well, Greg, I want to thank you for taking the time to join us for this episode and for this very timely conversation.

Greg Peters: Thank you, Lindsay. I appreciate you having me on, I hope I get to come back.

Lindsay Duran: We'll see what we can do. I'd like to thank each of our podcast listeners for being with us for this episode. Check out the link in the show notes to register for MindShare 2022, June 13th through 15th in Austin. Please also take a moment to rate and review the show if you're enjoying it, as it helps us to continue to put out great free content.

We hope to see you on the next episode of B2B Reimagined.

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