In two weeks, a new chief executive officer will be taking the reins at SUSE, the Germany-based software company best known for its SUSE Linux Enterprise line of products. When the change takes place on August 5, for the first time in the company's 27 year history it will be led by a woman.
SUSE announced Monday that Melissa Di Donato, a resident of the UK, has been named the company's CEO, taking the leadership role that has been held by Nils Brauckmann for the past eight years. According to SUSE, the current CEO is leaving to retire; Brauckmann today posted on LinkedIn that he's leaving "based entirely on personal reasons."
The change at SUSE comes only months after it regained its independence after 16 years of being controlled by other companies -- starting with a controversial ownership by now-defunct Novell and ending when the Sweden-based private equity firm, EQT, bought it from UK-based Micro Focus for $2.5 billion in a deal that closed in March. Micro Focus had acquired the company in 2014 as part of its acquisition of Attachmate, which had taken ownership of SUSE when it acquired Novell.
Saying Farewell to the Old and Welcoming the New
Brauckmann was part of the old guard, having spent 11 years in various executive positions at Attachmate before becoming SUSE's president and GM in 2011 and CEO in 2016, the later position coming shortly after it became a semi-autonomous business unit after coming under Micro Focus's control. According to SUSE, the company expanded during each of the eight years he was there, and the company cites his leadership during its transition to independence as his "final accomplishment as CEO."
"I am incredibly proud of SUSE’s progress and growth over the last eight years, which has culminated in it securing independent status," Brauckmann said in a statement issued on Monday. "With this chapter of SUSE’s corporate development complete, I could not be more pleased to hand off the leadership of SUSE to Melissa."
Di Donato comes to SUSE after spending 2 1/2 years at SAP, starting as the company's chief revenue officer in 2016 and becoming COO in July, 2018. Before that, she spent over six years at Salesforce in various EMEA area VP positions. She is also the chairperson for the Technology Group at the 30% Club, an international nonprofit with the goal of achieving 30% female directors on S&P 100 boards by 2020.
"There is no greater honor than to lead SUSE into its next chapter of accelerated growth and corporate development," Di Donato said in a statement. "SUSE is at the cusp of a historic shift as open source software is now a critical part of any thriving enterprise's core business strategy. We are well positioned to emerge as the clear leader of this shift, with our ability to power digital transformation for our customers at their own pace and with agile, enterprise-grade open source solutions, edge to core to cloud."
A Legacy Linux Company
SUSE was founded in 1992, almost exactly a year after Linus Torvalds started Linux and about a year before the founding of Red Hat, and was perhaps the first to focus its efforts on a server market that was then dominated by Unix. Throughout the 1990s, the company was arguably the most successful distribution in the burgeoning Linux market, and by the time the company was purchased by Novell for $210 million in 2003, the distribution was considered by many to be the most advanced Linux distribution in the market.
The distribution did not do well under Novell, which bought the company in a largely unsuccessful attempt to reinvent itself as an open source company after its once-dominant networking operating system, NetWare, was made irrelevant after Microsoft added easy-to-use networking capabilities to Windows 98. Cash strapped and with a shrinking customer base, Novell moved SUSE's headquarters to the United States and reduced funding, which resulted in the laying off of developer staff. The company also entered into a controversial patent indemnification agreement with Microsoft which cost it much support from the open source community.
Things began to turn around for SUSE after Novell was purchased by Attachmate in 2011. The Linux distro's headquarters were moved back to Germany, and by 2012 most of the engineers who were laid off by Novell had returned. By this time, however, SUSE had lost much market share to its closest competitor, Red Hat, which became the first open source company to reach $1 billion in revenues in 2012.
Like Red Hat, these days SUSE is focused on the cloud, with software offerings meant to help enterprises harness hybrid and multi-cloud infrastructures. The company also sees Red Hat's purchase by IBM as something it can use to its advantage, as its newfound independence now makes it the largest independent open source company in the market.
Since gaining its independence, the company has released SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 15, the first major release of its flagship operating system since 2014.
"SUSE is well positioned to capitalize on its status as the world's largest independent open source company, powering digital transformation with agile, enterprise-grade open source solutions, edge to core to cloud," Jonas Persson, chairperson of SUSE’s board, said. "In Melissa Di Donato, I am confident we have found an outstanding CEO with a proven track record of success that speaks for itself. It is expected that SUSE’s delivery against its mission will gain pace under Melissa’s leadership."