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Voice of Visma, Ep 07: The untold stories of Visma with Øystein Moan

What did Visma look like in its early days? Are there any decisions our former CEO would have made differently? Today, Øystein, our former CEO and current Executive Chairman, joins Johan to reflect on the pivotal moments, the mistakes-turned-lessons, and the surprising stories that have shaped Visma into what it is today.

On the Voice of Visma podcast, we sit down with leaders and colleagues from around Visma to hear their stories, learn from their expertise, and share the best lessons they’ve learned throughout their careers. These are the stories that shape us… and the reason Visma is unlike anywhere else. New episodes are released Wednesdays on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, and YouTube.

The text in this article is from Episode 07 and has been edited for length and clarity.

Welcome, Øystein! You’ve been with Visma since basically the beginning. Can you tell us what it was like back then?

Yeah, I became the CEO in ’97. And, in those days, Visma was in financial trouble. In the summer of ’97, they were almost in bankruptcy, but they were able to recover and get refinanced. I came in as the CEO to help turn the business around. I was the CEO then from ’97 till ’20. Then Merete took over, and then I’ve been the Chair of the Board since 2019.

Some pieces of Visma had started back in 1980. But in ’96, three smaller Norwegian software companies were merged together and created Visma. Although that merger seemed to be smart from a financial point-of-view, it was not very smart operationally – and that led to the financial troubles that they got into pretty quickly. 

Do you have any stories that come to mind that people might not know about Visma’s early days?

Yes, I thought a little about the current strategy and structure of Visma, which is quite unusual – being so many different companies that are operating quite independently. This strategy is good for growth, for preserving entrepreneurship, and for being adapted to the local market. It also helps the entrepreneurs that have started companies to thrive and continue to develop their business inside Visma. So today, this is a very smart strategy, and Merete has really taken further. 

But the rationale for that strategy was very different from what it is today. The reason is, in ’97, Visma was in bad financial shape. I thought it was best to keep the businesses in different companies, so that you can let one or two companies go bankrupt without dragging the rest down. So, it was to create a sort of firewall between the different businesses. We actually bankrupted a couple of businesses my first month in Visma, so this strategy helped to insulate the good businesses from the bad businesses.

Nowadays, it has developed and it’s becoming a very important strategy for growth. But, in those days, it was to protect against financial disaster. Visma has been profitable since ’98. So, the firewall thing is not so important anymore. We learned. 

Can you share some unexpected mishaps from the very beginning of your time at Visma? 

If you really roll back to October ’97, the first week on the job, I found Visma Americas with 20 people somewhere in the United States. No products, no customers, no revenue. So we just bankrupt it and shut it into Chapter 11 in the U.S. And that was that. There were no negative effects except that we lost a lot of expenses. 

They were supposed to be some kind of consulting company, I think, but it was very unclear what they were going to do. So there were 20 people with quite high salaries and no idea what they were doing. So that was easier to shut down, of course. 

You talked about the growth of Visma, and we are much bigger today. Can you tell us a little bit about that journey? How have we managed to grow as much as we have? 

Well, we were on the stock exchange. And if you are a public company, you either grow or you get eaten by other people. We started pretty early acquiring competitors. We sold a very big part of Visma in the year 2000. We sold 80% of the company, which was actually a maritime software business, not ERP at all. We got a lot of money for that, and we used that money to start buying local competitors here in the Nordics. 

But, I must say, the most exciting growth phase of Visma started around 2009–2010… and we are still in it. That’s the transition to cloud computing. And Visma will probably transition out of all their on-prem products within the next three or four years. There’s not that much left. But the market will probably not be completely finished before 2040. So, we’re talking about 30 years of transition. 

“As a cloud computing company, you take responsibility for so much more of the value chain. You’re also responsible for the hosting and operation of the software, not just developing it.”

With cloud computing, you can monitor much better what customers like to use, what they are successful with, and what is not working. So you can, all the time, adjust the software. It’s so easy to introduce new products, new modules, and sell more or less in the app. So there’s so much more growth opportunities.”

People don’t like to change financial systems, but when there are big tech changes, that’s when the transition is happening. And that has been fueling a lot of the growth of Visma for the last 10–15 years. And I think it will continue to fuel our growth over the next 10–15 years, as well. 

We found out pretty early that doing this purely organically was very difficult, so acquisitions have been very important for our transition to cloud computing. We have made a lot of acquisitions in my time, and that has continued now under the rule of Merete, as well – and even more.

Is there one specific acquisition that has stood out to you? 

I remember one particularly interesting acquisition we made in 2011: Netvisor, which is a leading cloud accounting system in Finland. And Visma Solutions is quite a big company in Visma now – I would think €150-160 million in revenue. But it was owned by two brothers that were known to be very difficult. A lot of people had tried to buy Netvisor, but they’d never been successful. The price was not right or didn’t happen. Eventually, we got those brothers to come over to Oslo. We sat down and, of course, started a little about weather and ice hockey and things like that. But after five minutes, I asked them, “What does it take to buy Netvisor?” And the oldest brother said, “€50 million”. I said, “Okay”. And you shook hands then and there.

We had, of course, talked quite a lot about it before, but I felt that this was the time to just do it. It was sort of too expensive, at least according to those day’s standards, but it has shown to be a very good acquisition for us. 

Switching gears a bit: Can you tell us how we ended up in our cycling sponsorship? 

Well, we had started to expand in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, and we wanted to gradually have a pan-European expansion. But in those days, Visma was absolutely unknown. So we started to think about how we could start marketing, sponsoring little-by-little, and grow our brand name. I had been a bit interested in cycling back then too – not not as a cyclist, but watching the Tour de France and things like that. And I saw how much enthusiasm there was about cycling in Europe.

One day, we were at a customer meeting with Jumbo – the large Dutch food retailer, and one of the largest customers in the Netherlands in those days. They presented the sponsorship of the cycling team LottoNL-Jumbo, which were on their way up as a Dutch cycling team. But they said, “Oh, yesterday, Lotto told us that they were going to stop sponsoring. We are ready to become the main sponsor, but we need another sponsor”. I thought about it for around two seconds, and again I said, “Oh, I’ll take it!”

We negotiated for around five weeks and ended up then with the Team Jumbo-Visma, which has been quite a successful sponsorship – particularly up to last year where the team won all the three Grand Tours. We also won the Tour de France both last year and the year before. And with the Netflix series about last year’s Tour de France, it’s been a great opportunity for brand exposure. Now as Visma | Lease a Bike, the Visma name is becoming quite well-known. 

We’ve talked a bit about our successes. Do you have some mistakes that maybe turned out to be blessings? 

Yeah, that’s a hard question, actually. I’ve had quite some mistakes that continue to be mistakes all the time and never become blessings. Of course, we have a few of those. And some things we thought were smart, that were not so smart in the long-run. Like with the Netvisor acquisition, we were criticised for overpaying for some of our acquisitions. We paid what looked like very high prices for Netvisor in ’11, for e-conomic in ’15. The board was very critical of me when we acquired Tripletex because I did it very fast at what seemed to be a high price. So, a lot of these cloud stars we have now, we bought them at the right time at prices that looked high, but we saw the growth power in these companies. 

So, while the acquisitions were not mistakes, they were criticised by some shareholders and some people at the board. But those have become very successful companies in Visma today.

If you could rewind time, would you do anything differently when you started here, or during your years as the CEO? 

As a business manager I remember we acquired the first cloud accounting software in Norway in 2000. It was, of course, early days, but it was a working accounting system with hundreds of customers. But we – or maybe I should say I – didn’t really understand what this was. It didn’t have enough features; it was not profitable enough. So, after a year, we shut it down. That was a mistake. If we had understood what that software was, that could have been quite successful. But, well, we have prevailed and managed anyway. But that was a mistake.

If you are talking about things I would have done differently if I knew what I know now, I would have bought 10,000 bitcoins for $600 in 2010 because that would have been $600 million now. And I would have bought Google for $100 a share when it was launched in 2004. And I would have bought NVIDIA for $8 in 2016. They are now worth $1,200. So, my list of what I should have done is long.

Today, you are our Chairman of the Board. What does a typical day for you look like? Or how does that role fit you? 

Yeah, so I’m the Executive Chair, which means that I’m a little more involved in the business than maybe a normal chairperson. Some chairpeople just preside over the board meetings, read the agenda, make sure that we are on time, and have no engagement whatsoever in the business. I’ve seen a lot of those chairpeople. But I am lucky enough to be allowed to be a little more involved. 

I’m active in three companies in the Netherlands, and I’m quite often involved and consulted in the M&A. Merete and I also speak two to three times a week, discussing strategy. There’s no doubt that Merete is running the business now, but it’s nice to be consulted and still be able to watch from the inside how this company is developing. I’m very thankful for that.

Would you say you miss the CEO position, or are you happy where you are now? 

Some days I do, of course, but I know how hard the job is. When you’ve been a CEO for 23 years, as I had been – and now I’m in the mid-60s – it’s maybe good that I’m not the CEO anymore. But I’m very thankful that I can still participate and be part of the team and help out in a few areas. When you’ve been CEO for a long time and then suddenly stop completely, it can be quite distressing. So, I think I’m very lucky to have this situation, and I’m very happy that we have now a new CEO that is really driving the company forward in a very good way.

Final question: What does “Champions of business software” mean to you?

I think it means that we are delivering the best value for money to a large number of customers. We’re building software that really solves their problems, fulfils their needs, and makes them more efficient. We’re constantly pushing our software to be technologically on the forefront, because that means that the software can live for decades. We are, all the time, pushing the technology and being on the leading edge means that some of the software we are delivering to the customers today as cloud solutions, most likely they will also live in 2050. Our software is very good value for money. It’s not very expensive compared to what we are delivering.

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