Hitchhiking through southern Malaysia over 30 years ago, Peter Gassner flagged down a motorcyclist who offered a ride. But it didn't end well.
Gassner soon found himself robbed of everything, including his cash and passport, and abandoned on an isolated rural road. Then 21 years old, the future billionaire was left with just the clothes on his back.
Rather than panic, Gassner stayed calm. And he experienced an epiphany that has helped him ever since.
"Within three seconds, I thought, 'The only important thing is what's in your mind,' " recalled Gassner, founder and chief executive of health care cloud-computing provider and IBD 50 member Veeva Systems (VEEV). "I thought, 'This is no big deal at all. I have no idea what to do next, but I'm exactly the same person.' "
"I had no identification when I got there, so it took a while to get everything straightened out," he said.
Reflecting on that adventure, Gassner, 54, credits his ability to stay grounded amid a crisis as a key to his success. After successful stints at IBM (IBM), PeopleSoft and Salesforce.com (CRM), he launched Veeva in 2007. A software firm that serves life sciences companies, Veeva went public in October 2013. Shares are up nearly 350% since then, which is five times more than the S&P 500 during that time. Revenue and profit are up 334% and 997%, respectively, from fiscal 2014.
Veeva's Peter Gassner: Boost Management Skills Over Time
Unlike many tech titans who sharpened their skills at a young age, Gassner lacked direction early on. He spent his formative years exploring foreign lands.
"I didn't follow a linear path as a young guy," he said. "I kept starting and stopping college," taking extended breaks in Hawaii, Australia and Thailand, where he worked as a trekking guide.
Eventually, he returned to America and graduated from Oregon State University in 1989, majoring in computer science. Applying his training as an engineer to his leadership approach, he says that Pleasanton, Calif.-based Veeva has "super-specific processes in management."
All new managers participate in a boot camp in which they read two books by Patrick Lencioni, "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" and "The Five Temptations of a CEO." Gassner wants them to come away with a willingness to be vulnerable, admit what they don't know and seek support from each other.
"Managing is like playing the piano," Gassner said. "Don't worry if you're not good at it at first. You'll get better as you do it more."
At age 30, Gassner had just taken his first managerial job at PeopleSoft when his most experienced employee told him, "Listen, kid, if you get stuck, ask me."
"When I heard that, it gave me confidence and it gave me a way to solve problems," he said. "Confidence is a freeing thing. It allows you to be creative."
In recent years, Gassner has sought to instill confidence in his team and create a collegial culture where people want to work.
"He develops some very talented executives," said Brian Peterson, a research analyst at Raymond James (RJF). "It's very clear the entire team is first class, and they talk about Peter as pivotal in their career development."
Veeva's Peter Gassner: Set Big Goals In Small Steps
Like many entrepreneurs, Gassner sets lofty goals. In building Veeva, he has unveiled three ambitious multiyear initiatives.
In early 2009, he established a "Veeva 1000" goal. The fledgling company had only about 50 employees at the time, but Gassner could foresee a bright future of torrid growth.
"I thought, 'Oh man, this is going to work and be a company of over 1,000 people,' " he said. "I realized the key would be our hiring process and the training of our managers, and we'd have to start from scratch" to create a human-resources department. Gassner sought to grow to a workforce of 1,000 while preserving individual autonomy and remaining true to the company's core values.
Once the head count hit 1,000 in 2015, Gassner announced "Veeva 2020" — a goal of reaching $1 billion in revenue by 2020. The company will meet that target in 2019, a year ahead of schedule. He's now focusing employees' attention on "Veeva 2025," a set of internal, operational goals.
Meet Your Goal? Set A Loftier One Next
Gassner follows a three-step process for setting goals. It starts with intuition as he cranes his neck into the future to envision how the company will continue to thrive.
Second, he formulates a goal and asks, "If we achieve it, would we feel great about it or not?" If the answer is yes, the third step is to shift from a long-term vision to a short-term strategy where he asks, "What activities would we do to make progress in the first 90 days?"
"Peter always focuses on his core values, the most important of which is (to) do the right thing," said Veeva Chairman Gordon Ritter, who has known Gassner for 15 years. "The customer comes first, even if we have to jump through a few more hoops."
For Ritter, great leaders are typically either farsighted visionaries or experts at execution. But he says Gassner combines both broad foresight and an ability to drive seamless execution.
"It's very rare that you can have both with one person," Ritter said. "It's incredibly powerful because Peter can keep it all in balance. He's comfortable with pushing the company out of its comfort zone (to innovate), while executing well."
Gassner's low-ego interpersonal skills help as well, Ritter says. He notes that Gassner flies coach on international trips, which signals to his team the need for frugality. And Gassner bikes to work most days.
"I view biking as therapeutic," Gassner said. "I get exercise, and it's only a couple of miles from my house" to the office. A self-described introvert who prizes humility, he still lives in the same home he bought in 1996.
Search For Ideas Outside Your Realm
Many hard-charging tech entrepreneurs are larger-than-life figures. Their outsize personalities dominate any conversation.
Gassner does not fit the mold.
"He's a fantastic listener," said Tom Roderick, managing director of equity research at Stifel. "He gathers great feedback from customers, listening to what they like and don't like about Veeva's products. That's a big part of their success."
Gassner reserves time to visit random groups among Veeva's roughly 2,600 employees to roll up his sleeves and examine specific processes, from sales to human resources to product design. He also expands his horizons by meeting leaders in related fields.
A fan of "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson, Gassner finds creative insights often flow from what Johnson calls the "adjacent possible." By chatting with leaders in adjacent industries, Gassner gains an innovative edge.
For example, he recently met with the chief executive of Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) to get a fresh perspective on robotic products used in clinical settings.
"We're selling software to life sciences companies and (Intuitive Surgical) is selling hardware to hospitals," Gassner explained. "It might yield something one day. You're piecing things together. You need lots of input. A CEO can get too focused on their own company, so I set aside time to look beyond."
- Built Veeva Systems from an idea in 2007 into an IBD 50, fast-growing health care cloud-service software company with nearly $1 billion in annual revenue and $260 million in annual profit.
- Overcame: The tendency for companies to reach goals and become satisfied. Developed a three-step process for setting lofty, multiyear goals to focus employees' attention on what matters most.
- Lesson: Prioritize customer satisfaction, even if pleasing the customer requires more time and effort. Solicit input from a range of sources, including leaders in adjacent industries.
- Quote: "Confidence is a freeing thing. It allows you to be creative."