Netezza CEO Baum Guides Data Storage Firm Through DownturnAugust 30, 2010
Mass High Tech
by Rodney H. Brown
On any given summer morning just after sunrise, on a certain lake near the 495 corridor, you are likely to find Netezza Corp. president and CEO Jim Baum slicing through a boat’s wake on his water skis.
“Because it’s flat. The water’s like glass, that’s why you go out. It’s beautiful,” Baum said.
That dedication to getting something done when it makes the most sense is also a sort of guiding principle for Baum. He came to the Marlborough-based company in 2006 as its new chief operating officer, and in 2008 — after already adding the president title to his name — was handed the role of CEO after founder Jit Saxena announced his retirement. And while Baum comes from a very traditional engineering background, his career path has been defined by the ability to bring some creativity to the often rigidly logical thought process of the engineer, those familiar with Baum said.
One of the “no time like the present” decisions Baum made was to move Netezza’s data warehouse appliance away from proprietary technology to commercial components. That achieved two things — lowering the cost of things like circuit boards and network cards, and making it easier to integrate with other boxes like file servers. The company had developed a strong customer base by selling a combined software and hardware package that makes accessing and storing data more flexible and speedier. That was all built using technology designed and built by Netezza’s engineers, but Baum — in one of those non-engineer thinking modes — realized that eschewing that proprietary tech in favor of off-the-shelf motherboards and hard drive controllers could help both lower manufacturing costs and make the appliance work more easily with more storage systems already in the market.
Unlike many top tech executives these days, who are more comfortable around a VC table than with a group of engineers, Baum cut his teeth as an engineer, first for Parametric Technology Corp. of Needham, where he spent more than 11 years and served in about as many capacities. By 2001, Baum had been lured to Cambridge-based enterprise search startup Endeca Technologies Inc. as chief operating officer. He spent five years at Endeca, eventually being named CEO.
In 2006, he was given the opportunity to come on board another startup, data warehousing appliance maker Netezza, and he jumped at the chance, even if it meant going back to being a COO. That didn’t last long, however, as Baum was named president, and then in 2008, Netezza founder and CEO Saxena announced his retirement, and Baum added CEO and dropped COO in his titles. Perhaps Saxena was hoping to tap into some of Baum’s success at growing a company. Baum came to PTC as just its 72nd worker and left the company with more than 5,000 employees.
“It was a great run,” he said. “When I left PTC it was about a $1 billion company.”
Since he came on board in 2006, Baum has helped lead Netezza to an average growth rate of 20 percent to 25 percent per year, and is pleased with the company’s performance in that time frame.
“I think we’ve done really well,” he said. “The company was $80 million or so in revenue that year, and we did $190 million-plus in revenue last year.”
The recession of the last couple of years hit Netezza like every other company, but it weathered the storm better than many companies.
“Last year was a year when we didn’t grow much but we did grow,” Baum said. “Many companies shrunk and laid people off and we didn’t. We grew a little bit and we continued to invest, so overall I feel really good about where we are.”
Originally from Burnt Hills, N.Y., just outside of Albany, Baum got his bachelor’s degree in engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, then a master’s in engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It was during his time at RPI that Baum got his pilot’s license, setting him on the path for his primary non-work passion.
“Aviation actually is my primary hobby,” Baum said. “That’s the thing I have the most passion for in the hobby category.”
He was able to buy his first plane in 2000, and just few years ago purchased a new plane, a Cessna P210.
One of the many people Baum has met in his career that he counts as a good friend is Mark Watkins, CEO of Goby.com in Boston. Watkins worked closely with Baum when he was at PTC, and helped bring Baum over to work for Endeca. He said that one thing many people don’t know about Baum is how wide and deep his knowledge base is.
“What I am most consistently surprised about is how many different things he knows a lot about,” Watkins said. “Even today I will be talking about some strange subject and he will know a lot about it.”
Watkins also noted that, for a very logical and successful engineer, Baum has a creative side.
“He’s not afraid to be creative when needed,” Watkins said. “I don’t remember what the topic we were working on was, but we had been arguing back and forth over the metrics of some solution, and I was pushing back pretty hard on what he wanted me to do. Finally he said, ‘Mark, I don’t know, I am making this up!’”
For Watkins, his attitude about Baum boils down to one simple fact — he has flown with him before.
“That’s trust, when you are willing to put your life in someone’s hands,” Watkins said. “That’s how I feel about Jim.”