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Get Ready for the Intelligent Commerce Boom

In December of 2021, Madison Dearborn Partners acquired Zilliant as a strategic growth investment. John Lewis, an executive partner at Madison Dearborn, became Zilliant’s executive chairman following the closure of the deal.

We were excited to welcome John for his first appearance on B2B Reimagined to discuss everything from his prolific professional background to his enthusiasm for Zilliant’s value proposition (“You will not find any CEO in the world for whom this is not a top three issue…how to price effectively, how to optimize revenue, profitability, margin and volume”) to his thoughts on what will define the winners of this unprecedented era.

John Lewis

John Lewis

This is an unprecedented moment that starts with the pandemic, it leads into an economic sea change defined by inflation, underscored by a digital world that took a 10-year leap during COVID. You put that together with the old systems and approaches and it's a moment where people have to say, ‘How should I change?'... as opposed to whether I should change.
- John Lewis

Episode Transcript

Lindsay Duran: Welcome to B2B Reimagined. My name is Lindsay Duran, and I'll be your host for this episode. I'm joined today by a very special guest - John Lewis, who is the executive chairman of the board at Zilliant. John, welcome to the podcast.

John Lewis: Thanks Lindsay. It's great to be here.

Lindsay Duran: Before we get started. Why don't you tell us something interesting about yourself that we can't learn from your biography or your LinkedIn profile?

John Lewis: Sure. I'm not sure it's interesting, but at least it's not something that you would get from my standard bio. I'd say if I try to pick a hobby, my hobby is all things cities, all things urban. I love everything about cities, whether it's the architecture, the cultural values, the neighborhoods.

So I fancy myself as a connoisseur of cities of all types, all sizes all over the world. I've got, I've loved getting to know Austin a little bit in my new role at Zilliant. So that's my tidbit for you.

Lindsay Duran: Any [00:01:00] favorite cities that you recommend that I, or our listeners, visit?

John Lewis: Yeah. Well, there's a lot. But to sort of just zero, in I ran Latin America for Nielsen, I imagine, we’ll get to my Nielsen days at some point.

And I love some of the cities in Latin America: Buenos Aires, Santiago, Bogota, Mexico City, Sao Paolo. So I love Latin America, it often doesn't get enough… South America doesn't often get enough play. So that's my reco for you.

Lindsay Duran: Excellent recommendations. Thank you. Why don't you describe your background for our listeners and tell them a bit about your professional experience?

John Lewis: Yeah, so, my background I started out as a consumer products guy and I'm really kind of a business operator though. I work for Madison Dearborn and Zilliant in the private equity space and helping Zilliant out as a private equity investment. My background is running businesses and I started out in the consumer products world kind of a marketing [00:02:00] functional background.

And then I made a pivot into the information services, data and analytics space with Nielsen, again, not to keep pounding it home, but it was an important part of my career worked there twice, two different stints. And one thing about me is I've done big company and small company. I did a couple startups which were fun as well.

And so I love running businesses and Nielsen was a private equity owned business. And that was my transition to be kind of on the private equity side and now helping businesses like Zilliant grow. So that's a little bit who I am professionally.

Lindsay Duran: Well, you're obviously very deeply experienced in the field of analytics. What makes you a believer in analytical data driven approach to business?

John Lewis: Yeah. I mean, if I step back, I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong, everybody gets things wrong in their career, but one thing I got right was I kind of said in about 1995, the data was kind [00:03:00] of the future of businesses, not just the Nielsen business where I went, but business in general, and that all businesses would be data infused that, that seems obvious.

Now that was not obvious in 1995. So like I said, I didn't get, I didn't get all things right. But I got that one right. And what I love about it, and I really do love it. I love that good data and good analysis, good benchmarking can change the way we think about a problem, a policy, an environmental, like any kind of issue in the world - business included - can be reframed using data correctly, and can, you can get an insight into what to do differently and it changes the world.

And I mean, that changes the world in terms of how we all live and what we all do. And I find that power to be repeated over and over again since I really immersed myself in it, and I love that and I have a belief in it going forward as well.

Lindsay Duran: John, in many ways, we're living in rather unprecedented times whether that's what's going on [00:04:00] globally, geopolitically in the world from a macro economic standpoint, how can companies leverage their data and the data they have access to their advantage?

John Lewis: Yeah. I sort of take two angles at that one. Lindsay, one is we really are still in early innings. Like, of being an analytics oriented world. Like you could almost argue, well, God it's, it seems like data is everywhere and we really are a digital world and it really is a mature world. But to be honest with you, my own view, right or wrong, is that we are still in early innings of really becoming, we have a ton of data, but are we really doing great things with it? Are we driving outcomes? Analytics is about driving outcomes, new actions, new insights that actually turn into outcomes.

And so I think we're kind of in early inning, so I'll get to your question, really, but it's to say that we all have a lot of evolution and a lot of development there. [00:05:00] And then when you get to a very volatile time and today is a very volatile time, it's kind of more important that you make a jump further into that maturity curve, because you could be stymied by today's volatility to say, “oh, this is my gut feel of what this means and, oh, what are others doing?” Whether that's inflation or whether that's just, should we all be back in offices or should we all go virtual? Like, we're gonna have to understand what's going on in the world and you better be agile and understand what the data's telling you and understand what to go do about it.

So I think it's really just maturing ourselves in that analytics world to try to overcome what is a very hard and volatile time.

Lindsay Duran: I think you make a really good point in that John, that I think companies have gotten really good at looking at historical data or what we might probably refer to as kind of backward looking analytics to see what happened previously, but [00:06:00] we aren't very good at using data to help inform people’s decisions in a real time way. It's not as actionable as it could be. And that's really where the leap in business needs to happen.

John Lewis: Totally agree. I mean, I really think like we're collectively, and I know this at a very gross generalization, but we're at 25% of our power and we all have a role.

All the companies, all the functions to get ourselves to a company that's not, it's not a data only driven company. It's that, that data informs our leadership, our actions and our outcomes. And I think we all have a long way to go.

Lindsay Duran: Indeed, stepping back a bit to, to get some perspective. How do the current macroeconomic factors, especially inflation, compare to other turbulent eras that you've experienced in your career?

John Lewis: Well, I mean, you think about you've got, [00:07:00] I mean, I'm I've been around enough to know there was inflation. A lot of people will see inflation for the first time in their careers.

So that's one thing is like a lot of people are pretty not used to inflation, but you know, there's the the meltdown of the 2000, first tech bubble. There's the great recession of 2008. I'd say that what makes this volatility different is… thee COVID into inflation environment.

That is like a one-two punch, unprecedented. By definition a pandemic is every hundred years. So that's by definition. No, one's seen that. And then heading into a very inflationary environment, which we haven't seen in 20, 30 years. You put those together and then you put it together with a digital world that's for me, that's the really big changes.

I think even though I might say, okay, I have more longevity than you. So I've seen some things, to be honest with you. We are all seeing that environment for the first time in a digital world. And I think [00:08:00] that's the biggest change. So inflation, for example, let's just talk about for a second, so, okay.

We're in a really inflationary time. This, I mean, these numbers are robust and complicated. But we're reacting to them much faster, much more digitally. The options are way higher because we live in a digital world. So I think we're, I think we're kind of an unprecedented times, Lindsay, that really not me, not you, not anybody really has seen what that overlay is in a digital world, a faster, more global world.

So I don't take a lot of stock in what I've seen in the past. I take stock in we all are seeing something unprecedented. It's how we navigate through it.

Lindsay Duran: Absolutely. Speed, I think, is certainly the name of the game. The markets are moving faster than companies can often keep up with in terms of their processes and their technology and their decisions overall.

So switching topics a bit, John, in December of 2021, Madison Dearborn [00:09:00] acquired Zilliant as a growth investment. Can you talk a little bit about what excited you personally about the B2B pricing and revenue management space and what you're excited about going forward?

John Lewis: Yeah, first of all I get excited, in the same way I described for you that I, kind of love the data analytics world.

And I then like to think about, “OK, Zilliant and the B2B pricing space, that is a data and analytics world.” So therefore it's already in my love zone, if you will. And then I think about the problem that is being solved with that effort. And I just, can't be more excited about this space.

I mean, I really fell in love with it when we were doing the diligence on the space and then on the company. And what do I love about it? I love that you're solving a really important problem. You will not find any CEO in the world for whom this is not a top three [00:10:00] issue. And when I say this, how to price effectively, how to optimize revenue and profitability and margin and volume.

Like that is what we do. And it's a top three issue, if not the top issue. And then you match that. How most companies, I'll say most. I mean, Lindsay, you know him better than I do, but it's, call it 80% of the companies in the world have a homegrown approach to that where they have been building pricing intelligence internally with, internal tools, maybe that's Excel workbooks with five people, 20 people, a hundred people globally.

Feeding out that intelligence, that will not sort of be enough in a more digital world in a more volatile world in a faster world. And so for me, this space should be the most important space in the world. And yet it's a, it's in a good space, but it’s not yet recognized as everybody's go to [00:11:00] solution to some of the opportunities and problems that exist in corporations. So for me, I love what we do. I love what we solve, and I think it's only gonna get way more important for companies. And I think that's just a lot of fun.

Lindsay Duran: Indeed. What has surprised you the most over the course of the past six months?

John Lewis: Well, I'd say on the positive side and then not the negative side, but on the unrecognized side, the surprise side is sometimes you get, you fall in love with the, what I said, the value of the outcome and the value to customers. And what's possible.

And then you kind of get faced with the reality. Now you talk to customers and you go to MindShare, our wonderful customer event that we just had and you listen to customers and you talk to 'em both formally and informally and you listen to 'em present. And then you also talk to 'em in the offline spaces and you realize just how valuable it is and [00:12:00] just how much potential and it's actually more than you realized and more palpable of an opportunity.

And so that's probably not a shock, but it is a wonderful reinforcement on the unrecognized. I still don't understand why every company doesn't declare tomorrow I have got to find a partner and obviously I'm biased. I want it to be Zilliant in every case, but I have got to find a partner to help launch me into this new world of managing price, optimizing price, managing and optimizing revenue in a very software oriented, digital oriented, AI oriented way because the old world doesn't work. And so I am a little surprised that it's still kind of like a slower build. Again, we're growing nicely, but the market's not exploding. And I think it will someday.

Lindsay Duran: I couldn't agree more to your earlier point where you talked about us only running at 25% in terms of our analytical capability and ability [00:13:00] to use data.

I think this is really the next frontier, if you will, of companies realizing that those manual processes and the old ways that they've been doing business that maybe have worked for the past 60, 70, a hundred years. And many of the companies that we often work with are no longer sustainable, no longer scalable, no longer give them the ability to effectively compete, because it really is a whole new world.

John Lewis: Yeah. I think it's well said, well posed by you. I mean, think about, I'm a multi-product multi-country company with huge numbers of customers in different verticals with a different portfolio, with a different set of negotiated agreements. That is real complexity. We live in a global world.

We live in a digital world, so that complexity has to move, turn on a dime. You have to be able to say, okay, I'm changing [00:14:00] this. I'm changing my strategy. I'm changing my tactics. I'm changing my inputs. I'm bringing in new views to understand what I should change. That all has to happen really very quickly.

And in order to execute and beat your competitor. To beat your competitor. Cause that's what this is about. This is not about like, you don't get gold points or brownie points just for being able to do it. You are trying to be better than your competitors in a very competitive global marketplace.

And so I think that's the most important thing we all need to be. And Zilliant isn't at the heart of every part of that. But we are at the part of the center of some of that, for sure.

Lindsay Duran: John, can you share your vision for what's to come. What are you most looking forward to for Zilliant and for the B2B pricing and revenue management space in general?

John Lewis: Well, they're a little interchangeable at this point, right or wrong in that. I believe Zilliant is already a leader in the B2B pricing management and [00:15:00] optimization space, but I want us to be the breakout leader. I think we are the best in the space. I'm biased, of course, as are you but I want that to be a few years down the road to be absolutely recognized as of course, there's only one company that stands above the others in helping companies make a huge difference for themselves. This isn't about a selfish thing. Of course, there is some selfish or some bias there. This is about, we are going to make a bigger set of outcomes for our customers. We're gonna be incredibly customer centric.

We are going to innovate from a product and people standpoint. And I think we're going to scale the opportunity for our customers right now. It's a big space, but it's not yet that breakout space because still 80% of the companies or 70 or whatever the number is, do it homegrown. We wanna be their answer to scaling their opportunity, to manage price, manage margin, manage volume, and [00:16:00] manage profitability.

Lindsay Duran: So John you've had experience running large organizations, global organizations, many executives are hesitant to make the leap to invest in this type of technology. Not necessarily because they don't think that the technology functionally or technically works, but they just have concerns around change management and their ability to execute this successfully in their business.

What advice would you give to those leaders as they evaluate technology in this space?

John Lewis: Yeah, I think we're in one of those classic, so it's a little bit of situation analysis and maybe a little bit of advice. It's a little bit where we are, the pain of not changing is pretty soon gonna overtake the pain of changing.

So historically I'm sure you know the space better than I do. I'm still a bit of a newbie, but I'm sure historically there were lots of companies who were like, yeah, [00:17:00] that sounds like a good idea. But the change the change management in my organization is just too great.

Whether it's a sales force or whether it's the finance team or the global lines of business, it's just too complicated. So we are vast approaching a place where the change is going to be less painful than staying put and living with a sort of non agile capability to manage price, margin, volume, and profitability.

So my advice, I guess, it's sort of advice. My advice is to really understand that the moment requires overcoming resistance to change. Like really there should be no debate about whether we, the organization, we, the company, we, the customer can change. It's only a question of, do we see benefit to this change?

And if we do see [00:18:00] benefit, then we have to figure out how to change as opposed to we're actually comfortable where we are. I really think this is a moment again, an unprecedented moment that starts with COVID and the pandemic, it leads into an economic sea change defined by inflation underscored by a digital world that took a 10 year leap during COVID.

And you put that together with the old systems and approaches. And I think it's a moment where people have to say, “I'm gonna change. And the question is, how should I change as opposed to whether I should change?”

Lindsay Duran: I think that's a great point and I'm sure you heard quite a bit of why companies took the leap when you attended our MindShare customer conference in North America, just a few weeks ago.

What were some of your big takeaways from the event?

John Lewis: Well, I sort of referenced it a second ago. I just, it's a credit to you and the Zilliant team and the customers. [00:19:00] I've been to a lot of conferences. I put on a lot of conferences, so I kind of know a little bit about what this is supposed to sound like.

And I was sort of, amazed might be a little strong but I was just like really gratified how good the customer stories were told by the customers. But by the way, this wasn't like, scripting. This was a customer standing up and telling their stories. And by the way, our story, our customers, like to a person were incredibly good storytellers and they told the journeys of their movement toward a more scientific approach to pricing management and optimization and the outcomes that they drove.

And it was so powerful. Like I was just like kind of mesmerized by how good the outcomes were, how sustainable the outcomes were and how enjoyable it was for these companies to succeed, kind of using a more progressive approach to the problems. It was just like [00:20:00] really exciting and really gratifying.

Again, I didn't do any of it, but my point is it’s gratifying to be a part of this company. That was a participant, but it was good. And by the way, those storytellers were all so funny and engaging that makes it extra special.

Lindsay Duran: Absolutely. We're lucky to have some phenomenal customers, many of which that were on the stage have been with us for five, 10 plus years at this point.

So really great to hear their stories and certainly how they've evolved with us and how we've evolved with them over time. John, do you have any parting thoughts before we say goodbye? Any predictions for the near term or long term that you'd like to share?

John Lewis: Maybe one micro, one macro. The micro is just, little nod to Zilliant.

Zilliant is a really customer centric company and I love that about it, and that makes us a really good company. And we as investors and me as executive chairman, [00:21:00] we intend to invest aggressively in Zilliant to help scale its ability to make a difference for customers. Like that's what we are about and what we are gonna do.

Yes, we will prosper as a result of that. But what we're in this for is we are going to scale our impact and make a bigger difference for our customers than even Zilliant has done in the past. So that's kind of the micro prediction and the micro look forward. The macro look forward is really just kind of going back a little bit to the witches brew that has evolved. And I have less predictions about where it goes and more a prediction that the winners will be the agile ones. So this witches brew of pandemic, supply chain, inflation, incredible digital acceleration. Even a world where we don't even know what the right thing to do is as far as going [00:22:00] to work in person or remote or a hybrid or whatever, that is a witches brew that we've never seen, nobody's ever seen, whether you're 20 or a lot older, you've never seen it.

And I'm the last one to say, okay, this is where it's gonna go. And in fact, anybody who tells me, they know where it's gonna go, they're by definition, they're wrong. They don't know where it's gonna go. And so really what we should be all organizing around is agility. To win and to do better every day with our own strategies and tactics, as we learn more, as we see what's working, when we see what's not working.

And so it's really that agility to get better and better strategically and tactically that I think is what the winners will in retrospect have done. And I know we want to do that at Zilliant and we want to be a part of doing that for our customers as well. So that's my outook.

Lindsay Duran: Excellent.Well, I think that is a great way to close out the episode, John, I want to thank you for [00:23:00] joining us today.

John Lewis: It was fun. It was fun. Thank you for having me.

Lindsay Duran: And thanks to all of our listeners for joining us for this episode, please take a moment to rate and review the show as it helps us to continue to put out great free content.

We hope that you'll join us on the next episode of B2B Reimagined. Until then have a great day.

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