Klaus Tschira 1940-2015

Death of a Software Titan

klaus tschira tim wegner laif
Klaus Tschira, one of the SAP co-founders and one of Germany's wealthiest men, died Tuesday at his home near Heidelberg. He was 74.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Klaus Tschira, a former IBM executive and co-founder of SAP, developed the original computing language for the company’s first software products.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Mr. Tschira was born in Freiburg, and lived near Heidelberg.
    • Forbes last estimated his personal wealth at $8.6 billion.
    • Mr. Tschira was one of the four co-founders of SAP, the world leader in business management software.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Klaus Tschira, a genial, light-hearted German software engineer from IBM who became one of the founders of SAP, the world leader in business management software, died on March 31 at his home in Heidelberg.

Mr. Tschira, along with Hasso Plattner, Hans-Werner Hector, Dietmar Hopp and Claus Wellenreuther, were instrumental in creating Germany’s most successful software firm back in 1972.

SAP, valued this morning at €82.6 billion, or $86 billion on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, supplies the world’s biggest companies with complex hardware and software systems and services that manage all facets of business, from back office to sales, personnel and customer relations.

The success of Mr. Tschira, who was 74, made him one of Germany’s richest men, but he continued to lead a modest lifestyle in an anonymous single-family home near Heidelberg, where he was often seen driving around town.

Forbes Magazine last estimated Mr. Tschira’s net worth, which he oversaw through a Swiss money management firm, Aeris Capital Management, at $8.6 billion.

Mr. Tschira, along with his SAP co-founders, helped reshape the software industry at a critical time in its nascent development.

“The influence that Klaus Tschira has had on the European software industry through SAP has been immense,” said Eric Duffaut, a former SAP executive and the chief customer officer at Software AG, Germany’s second-largest software maker. “Europe only has a handful of truly global software companies.”

Mr. Duffaut said it was imperative for Europe to do more to “emulate his example.”

Mr. Plattner, an SAP co-founder who had known Mr. Tschira for 47 years, described him as an energetic, tireless advocate of the venture that would become SAP.

Mr. Tschira toiled late into the night to write the first versions of the programming language that would enable global businesses for the first time to digitalize and organize vast amounts of corporate data.

At IBM, Mr. Tschira was instrumental in the U.S. technology company’s early business management software efforts, developing the first international system for tractor maker John Deere, the first system for IBM’S main frame computer at Euromöbel in Bensheim, Germany, and the first system under IMS, IBM’S software for real-time systems, Mr. Plattner said.

“Many of SAP’s successes would be unthinkable without his input,’’ Mr. Plattner told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “His name will always be linked to SAP’s programming language, ABAP, whose first three versions he personally developed.’’

Following its founding at the beginning of the software era, SAP struggled to assert its own products against bigger, better-known competitors such as IBM.

The German company’s big break came in 1979, when SAP developed R/2, a business software management tool that was relatively easy to use and versatile, enabling companies to collate and manage huge reams of data.

Mr. Tschira toiled late into the night to write the first versions of the programming language that would enable global businesses for the first time to digitalize and organize vast amounts of corporate data.

R/2 became the global standard in the emerging sector, vaulting SAP, which now operates out of a sleepy, rural town called Walldorf near Heidelberg, into the major leagues of global software makers, and gave Germany its first international presence in the field.

At the time, not everyone at SAP was convinced that R/2 was the right product to bet the company’s future on, Mr. Plattner said.

But Mr. Plattner, who now runs a software and scientific research institute in Potsdam, southwest of Berlin, and Mr. Tschira convinced their colleagues to support what would become a key milestone in SAP’s success.

“I will never forget the night in 1979 when Klaus and I decided to develop a new version – the system R/2 – and tried to persuade our devastated colleagues of its potential utility,’’ Mr. Plattner said in a statement.

Ten years later, Mr. Tschira updated the product, developing a successor, the R/3 version.

With the advent of high-speed broadband, SAP now delivers many of its core management services to corporate customers via cloud computing centers.

“I am endlessly thankful for Klaus’ never declining passion – especially when things got a little ‘tight,’’’ Mr. Plattner said.

While Mr. Tschira went on to become one of Germany’s wealthiest men, he continued to lead an unassuming life near Heidelberg.

When Uwe Feuersenger met Mr. Tschira in 2000, the former SAP co-founder had retired two years earlier but was still a member of its policy-setting supervisory board, where he would continue to wield influence over the company until he stepped down in 2007.

“He was a noble, modest man,’’ Mr. Feuersenger, who went on to manage Mr. Tschira’s Swiss-based personal holdings company, Aeris Capital, said. “He had his feet firmly on the ground and did not let becoming a billionaire change who he was.’’

Even after he became wealthy, Mr. Tschira continued to drive his own car around southwest Germany and was living in a non-descript, single-family home near Heidelberg when Mr. Feuersenger met him.

 

Klaus Tschira SAP foto archive
The original founders of SAP, the world’s largest business management software maker, from left to right: Klaus Tschira, Hasso Plattner, Dietmar Hopp and Hans-Werner Hector. Source: SAP

 

The SAP billionaire drove himself to the supermarket to pick up beer, Mr. Feuersenger noticed, and had none of the trappings of the extreme wealthy.

After leaving SAP’s supervisory board, Mr. Tschira devoted himself to family and a charitable organization, the Klaus Tschira Foundation in Heidelberg, through which he quietly invested in startups around Germany and the world.

An executive at a German startup that received millions of euros in investment from Mr. Tschira’s money managers said the former SAP founder stayed consciously in the background, fearful his local fame would interfere with the firm’s work.

“I don’t think anyone at our company has ever personally met Mr. Tschira,’’ said the executive, who did not want his name or his company’s name mentioned out of respect to Mr. Tschira’s wishes.

Later in life, Mr. Tschira ploughed much of this personal wealth into organizations that promoted science education and efforts to develop young scientists and entrepreneuers, Mr. Feuersenger said.

When he asked Mr. Feuersenger to set up Aeris Capital, Mr. Tschira said his investment motto was: “Listen to your banker and then do the opposite.”

Later in life, Mr. Tschira ploughed much of his personal wealth into organizations that promoted science education and developed young scientists and entrepreneurs.

A software engineer with a light touch, Mr. Tschira was known to his friends and business associates for his humility and sense of humor. He often wore funny, unusual ties with pigs and book shelves, and liked to joke with most people who came into his orbit.

Last week, in a meeting with his tax advisor, Mr. Tschira had the accountant in stitches, Mr. Feuersenger said.

Mr. Tschira had been treated for heart problems in the past. In one of their recent meetings, Mr. Tschira spoke of his own mortality with Mr. Feuersenger.

“He looked at me with a gleam in his eyes and said: When I go, I just want it to be quick,’’ Mr. Feuersenger said.

 

024 SAP

 

In the end, Mr. Tschira got his final wish, dying suddenly at home. As of Wednesday, the family had not released a cause of death.

Klaus Tschira was born on December 7, 1940, in Freiburg in Germany’s extreme southwest. He attended the University of Karlsruhe, and received numerous honorary degrees and titles, including the Bundesverdienst Kreuz, one of the highest honors granted by Germany.

Mr. Tschira recently introduced his former colleague, Mr. Plattner, at an awards ceremony in San Francisco.

“It was an exceptionally heartwarming speech,’’ Mr. Plattner said. “The world has lost a special person whose memory we will try and uphold.”

 

Kevin O’Brien is the editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Sarah Mewes and Franziska Scheven who also contributed to this article, are editors at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To reach the authors: obrien@handelsblatt.com, mewes@handelsblatt.com and scheven@handelsblatt.com

 

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