New Lotus chief: Firm won't be swallowed by IBM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Al Zollar made his first appearance on the Lotusphere stage to wrap things up at the closing general session here yesterday and addressed head-on the issue that has been on a lot of minds during the annual trade show this week: Is this the beginning of the end of Lotus Development Corp. as we know it?

"I want to answer that for what I hope will be the last time with a simple but resounding no, it isn't,' " said Zollar, who takes over as Lotus president and CEO on Feb. 1, when Jeffrey Papows' resignation takes effect. However, Zollar's wish isn't likely to come true, as speculation about the future of Lotus undoubtedly will continue for some months into his new job.

The topic is a hot one in IT circles, in part because Zollar is a 23-year IBM veteran who will leave his post as general manager of the company's network computing software division to take over the top job at Lotus. IBM acquired Cambridge, Mass.-based Lotus five years ago and has more or less taken a hands-off approach, allowing the subsidiary to maintain its own identity, including a casual corporate culture. Users, developers, analysts and the press at the show here all have been abuzz with chatter about the possible significance of a longtime IBMer being brought in to run Lotus.

Zollar's laid-back style came through in his short, humorous speech yesterday in which he said the term "23-year IBM veteran" has been appended to his name so often that "I'm starting to think that's my new last name."

Zollar confessed that he already has an agenda when it comes to running Lotus. Although he didn't reveal it, he quickly added that "no rational business leader would want to change course" or do anything that dilutes the Lotus brands.

He was introduced by Papows and the two men shared what appeared to be a strong embrace as Papows exited and Zollar took center stage. Papows returned later briefly when Zollar presented him with a huge and impressive crystal eagle as a going-away gift from the Lotus management team.

"It feels great to do more than just wave," Zollar said at the start of his talk, referring to his introduction during the opening session of the show at which he stood briefly and waved to the crowd but didn't speak. "You may be wondering who is this mystery man and what's he all about?"

Zollar spoke of his family -- both in his personal life and also the extended Lotus family, whose passion and creativity he said he is starting to comprehend and appreciate. To give some insight into the kind of man he is, Zollar told the thousands assembled to hear his remarks how difficult it was for him, his mother and his siblings to uproot themselves and move from Kansas City to California after his father died when he was 13.

"We went from the best of times to the worst very quickly," Zollar said, noting that the family persevered and came through adversity. His brother is now an accomplished jazz musician and his sister heads a dance troupe.

Zollar was the oddball "left-brained guy" in a heavily creative right-brained family, he said. His brother, he joked, doesn't quite understand what it is that Zollar does for work. "My brother thinks of me now in an even better position to provide top-level technical support for that first PC he just bought," he said.

Whether Lotus under Zollar will deliver top-level technical support and software to customers is yet to be seen, but he left the impression in his first speech before a large group of Lotus devotees that he will give it his best shot.

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