SAS says spurned IBM and others for independence

NEW YORK Wed Jun 20, 2012 5:43pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - SAS Institute, the world's largest privately held software company, said it plans to remain independent despite continued approaches from companies such as IBM keen to acquire the only pure play data analytics firm, its top executive said.

"Before IBM went on their buying spree they came to us first because they recognized the fact that our solutions were something no one else has, everyone else is just a tool maker," Chief Executive Jim Goodnight said in an interview on Wednesday.

"I wasn't willing to sell because I have seen what happens to companies that get swallowed by a bigger company, all their culture disappears, a lot of employees disappear," Goodnight, who co-founded the company in 1976, explained, adding that SAS was courted at regular intervals by interested parties.

IBM, which has been beefing up its data analytics offerings with a number of acquisitions, declined to comment.

Goodnight said IBM approached SAS shortly before IBM acquired Cognos in 2007 but a price was never discussed.

"It never got to that point mainly because I did not want them looking at our books," he said.

SAS itself has pursued a moderate acquisition strategy, on average buying two companies a year, said Jim Davis, SAS' senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

Typically we acquire companies that move us into domains where we don't have much expertise," Davis said.

SAS started out doing agricultural research and has grown into the world's largest company that helps customers collect and analyze data generally known under the term "big data."

The idea behind big data is to converge structured data found inside databases and unstructured data found in social networks, mobile devices, meters or sensors to identify patterns or predict behavior.

Goodnight, a tall, soft-spoken Wilmington, North Carolina native who holds a doctorate in statistics from the state's university, said the company routinely surveys staff on a number of issues among which is the question of whether employees would like SAS to become a publicly listed company.

"85 percent said no right after the dot.com bust and that has consistently stayed the same," he said.

Revenue last year was $2.75 billion and according to research firm IDC, SAS had a leading data analytics market share of 35 percent in 2010, the most recent figure available.

Davis said the company had seen revenue growth and profitability every year since it was founded and that its sales were growing partly thanks to its rivals.

"When we talk about IBM and SAP or Oracle getting in this space, yes they have very large marketing budgets they can outspend us in a week but... their interest in this space has increased sales for us by creating awareness," Davis said.

He added SAS generates about 40 percent of its revenues from the financial sector but also has a large presence in the government sector, retail sector as well as telecommunications, manufacturing and life sciences.

Goodnight said that despite the economic turmoil in Europe the company was seeing demand especially from governments keen to increase their tax revenue for example.

"There is a lot of interest right now in the revenue departments of various countries to improve their tax revenue and they use SAS to detect the filers who have underfiled or not filed at all," Goodnight said.

Davis added that "there's a whole different side to government too which is the top secret side, the security perspective for example where analytics plays a big role".

SAS software will also be used to help the city of London monitor criminal activity through social media during the Olympics, Goodnight said.

"The silver lining in this gray economic cloud that we have had in the past few years is that analytics has sort of risen in stature... it's no longer a back office function it is now considered an asset," Davis said.

Asked if there were any succession plans, Goodnight, who turns 70 next year, declined to say but quipped: "They have plans to stuff me."

(Reporting By Nicola Leske; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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