summer 2000

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Merton Miller: 1923-2000

The Thrill of the Next Big Thing

E-Commerce and the Future of Finance

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conrades
George H. Conrades,
XP-28 (’71)

FEATURE
The Thrill of the Next Big Thing
By John T. Slania
Photos by Matthew Gilson

A taste for speed and quality have kept George H. Conrades, XP-28 (’71), on the cutting edge for more than three decades. At 61, the chairman and CEO of Akamai Technologies shows no sign of slowing down.

George H. Conrades, XP-28 (’71), has a way of ending up in the middle of the next big thing.

When he was growing up in the 1950s in Youngstown, Ohio, Conrades witnessed the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, took up drumming, and formed a garage band that performed at high school sock hops.

When he graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1961, he joined International Business Machines as it was beginning to flex its muscles in the fledgling computer industry. Over the next three decades, he helped establish IBM’s dominance in the international marketplace, serving in several executive positions including senior vice president for U.S. operations.

Then, in 1994, Conrades joined BBN, a pioneer in Internet technology. When BBN was acquired by GTE, Conrades stayed aboard to help the telecommunications giant navigate the Internet.

In 1998, he joined a venture capital firm, Polaris Venture Partners, right at the cusp of the dot-com funding frenzy.

Approaching the age when most people consider retirement, Conrades, 61, was once again offered the chance to be in on the next big thing: running a technology company that pledged to speed the delivery of information on the Internet. He became chairman and CEO of Akamai Technologies in 1999 and led a lucrative initial public offering within six months.

“I thought I was done being involved in the next big thing,” Conrades said from his office, which stands in the shadow of the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in a number of big things in my life, and I’m getting the chance again,” he said, adding that retirement is a remote possibility. “I no more want to be on the back nine now than be on the moon.”

To longtime friends, business associates, and former classmates at the GSB, it’s not surprising that Conrades continues to approach his career with zeal. Here is a grandfather who is willing to pull all-nighters with Gen-X techies to get a project done. He serves on the boards of several high-tech firms and is an active alumnus and frequent speaker at Chicago and Ohio Wesleyan. In his little remaining spare time, he races his collection of vintage motorcycles.

“I think George racing his motorcycles is a nice metaphor for the way he runs his life,” said Dean Robert S. Hamada. “He picks things with speed. He picks things with quality.”

Speed and quality were the key ingredients of Akamai, a company started at MIT. Akamai’s main product is a set of mathematical algorithms that speeds the transmission of content over the Internet, helping determine the most efficient route for information delivery.

Akamai, a Hawaiian word that means “intelligent,” “clever,” and “cool,” was founded in 1998 by MIT mathematics professor F. Thomson Leighton and his graduate student, Daniel Lewin. Like many start-ups, Akamai had the technological know-how but needed an experienced executive to run the operation.

Enter George Conrades. Around the time Akamai was founded, Conrades joined Polaris Venture Partners. When Polaris provided $8.5 million in capital for Akamai, Conrades, Leighton, and Lewin became acquainted. Soon, they asked Conrades to become Akamai’s CEO.

“We are a very young organization--I think the median age of our employees is 30. In an organization like that, it is critical to have a seasoned, experienced executive to run the show,” Leighton explained.

When Conrades was named Akamai’s chairman and CEO in April 1999, becoming employee No. 50, he entered a world where his fondness for speed would be put to the test. Akamai was on a fast track to sell its products to Fortune 100 corporations and the top Internet companies, offering them a quicker way to stream data, graphics, video, and audio to customers. Akamai’s customer list included Microsoft, HBO, and Discovery Channel Online.

“There is a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and intellect running through the company,” Conrades said. “It was a lot like the environment at IBM in the ’60s and ’70s when it was growing like a weed.”

But while buttoned-down Big Blue approached its business in a deliberate manner, Conrades discovered that Akamai moved at the speed of light. He found himself immediately immersed in details of the company’s initial public offering of stock, which was targeted for October 1999.

Silicon Valley start-ups changed all the rules for how quickly a company goes public. But Akamai’s IPO, which occurred a little more than a year after it was founded, was speedy even by Silicon Valley standards.

The IPO gave Akamai $30 billion in market capitalization, which the company is using to acquire other companies and create strategic alliances that will help it be the leader in data, video, and audio streaming. But the public offering also was part of a strategy to establish the Akamai name as the first mover in its market niche.

“The reason we IPO’d early wasn’t the money. It was the attention,” Conrades said. “The burst of publicity we gained by going public gave us incredible marketing traction, and we’re following up with aggressive advertising and PR to build our brand.”

Even while he was building Akamai’s reputation in the outside world, Conrades was busy trying to grow the organization internally. It required a slightly different approach than what he learned in management school, considering that Akamai’s staff of 1,000 are in the same age range as his five children: Liza, 35; Laura, 34; Gus, 33; Mary Emma, 22; and Anna, 19.

“I’m the graybeard,” joked Conrades, who also has five grandchildren. “But I feel and act young because I’m in such a wonderful environment. I’m learning as much from them as they are from me.”

Conrades leads by coupling his business experience with a team approach.

“As chairman and CEO, I play three roles,” Conrades said, “first, to be sure we stay focused on our business and don’t get distracted. Execution is everything if you want to achieve and sustain category leadership.

“My second responsibility is to coordinate--to keep hard-charging and independent-minded senior executives all pulling in harness,” he continued. “We make 90-day commitments to one another at the start of every quarter. In front of their peers, senior managers commit to what their teams will achieve over the next three months. . . . At the end of 90 days, we review and rate each commitment. This way, senior executives not only set their own goals, they appraise themselves in front of their peers.”

Conrades calls this team effort a game of “intellectual hockey,” an exercise where “you have to be agile, you have to be fast, and you’d better be prepared to get roughed up a bit.”

Sometimes Conrades must step in and referee.

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