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A CEO on the Cutting Edge

WS talks to Dialog Corp.’s Dan Wagner

by on
in Hiring,Human Resources

He’s 34 and a seasoned CEO. Dan Wagner founded what’s now the Dialog Corp. in 1985, when he conceived of an online business information service. Today, he runs a London-based company of 1,100 employees with global operations and partnerships with Microsoft, IBM and many other firms.

WS: You were a 21-year-old working in advertising when you founded what became Dialog. Did you expect it would grow this big, this fast?

Wagner:
I’ve always had a vision for this company, but it wasn’t built on size as much as the services we could provide. And we didn’t get this big until late 1997, when we suddenly surged from 400 to 1,100 employees because we acquired Knight-Ridder Information.

WS: How have you managed to digest this acquisition?

Wagner:
We knew integrating the two cultures was important, so we drafted a communication plan with military precision before the acquisition was final. It consisted of three steps. First, we pre-published a glossy color brochure with my corporate vision and put it on every employee’s desk the morning of the acquisition. At the same time, we sent out a letter to all clients, suppliers and business partners about the deal. Finally, I immediately embarked on a six-week road show in which I visited every major market in the U.S., Europe and Asia to present our business plans to customers and staff.

WS: How many people did you reach during your road show?

Wagner:
I had breakfasts, lunches and dinners with different groups—sometimes in different cities on the same day. By the end, I communicated my vision to audiences representing 60 percent of all our revenue based in Europe and 45 percent based in the Unites States.

WS: That must have been exhausting. How did you maintain your stamina?

Wagner:
Raw will. I wanted this acquisition to work. I took a big gamble with a company I had been building for 13 years by acquiring another company with eight times the sales.

WS: Given your worldwide operations, how do you judge employees in the field when you only see them for brief, periodic meetings?

Wagner:
I look for signs of initiative. That leaves a positive impression on me. For example, when the leak went out that we were about to acquire Knight-Ridder Information, a number of their employees e-mailed me and told me what projects they were working on. No one told them to do that; in fact, some of them were chastised for it by their bosses. I liked the way that they wanted to bring me in and share their enthusiasm for their work.

WS: Do you look for that same initiative when you’re hiring?

Wagner:
Yes. My first salesman in 1986 joined me because he saw me interviewed on TV here in the U.K. He said, “I can help you build your business.” He was a phone salesman in a retail store with no experience in info technology, but it didn’t matter. He sold me! And he turned out to be a superstar.

WS: You’re in the business of helping others gather information efficiently. What do you read, and how do you avoid information overload?

Wagner:
I have e-mail alerts set up on our competitors. These alerts give me headlines to news articles, which I can then click on. I also flip through Business Week, which has a good IT focus along with a broader mix of stories. I’m big on information delegation— I allocate information gathering to key individuals throughout the company. My legal department tracks legal trends and brings relevant news to my attention. Same goes with my product managers, who track competitors’ products. I hold people accountable for that.

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