Paul Schlieben: Founder, SoftLanding Systems, 1945-2012
February 13, 2012 Dan Burger
You sometimes learn a lot of life’s lessons from a person you work with, work for, and even sometimes compete against. Those who knew Paul Schlieben through his company have great praise for him. Not just as a boss or a successful businessman, but as the head of a family. He made his business his family. His employees, his customers, his associates and colleagues, and, I think, even his competitors recognized he was something special. It encompassed being a smart businessman of solid character, a friend, a mentor, and a person of great thoughtfulness.
His passing last Thursday leaves many people with heavy hearts. Schlieben, one of the founders of SoftLanding Systems, died in a plane crash February 9 at the Lebanon, New Hampshire, airport. He was 66 years old.
According to a report in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, Schlieben was the sole occupant of his private plane, a Cessna 182. Lebanon airport manager Rick Dyment said Schlieben’s plane took off and “appeared to have some kind of trouble.” Schlieben requested approval for an emergency landing, but the plane crashed in a field approximately 150 yards off the runway. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
Lebanon is approximately 60 miles north of Schlieben’s home in Peterborough.
Paul Schlieben, along with his wife Joan and partners Ed Phippard and Steve Elsemore, founded SoftLanding Systems (SLS) in 1989, in the small town of Peterborough, which rests 30 miles west of Manchester in south central New Hampshire. The Schliebens, Phippard, and Elsemore met while working at Yankee Publishing, which was also based in Peterborough.
Schlieben began his IT career as a programmer in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. After his discharge in 1967, he worked in a variety of software development and managerial positions at CBS, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Boston University, where he was Director of IS, before taking the position at Yankee Publishing.
When Yankee outsourced its IT functions in 1988, Schlieben decided this was the time and the place to pursue an idea he had for a new business. His plan was to start a software company focused on improving the integrity of the software development process and the quality of software produced. Although lacking in business expertise, he was determined to build a work environment where people could have fun, grow as individuals, and make money. The key to success, as he saw it, depended on teamwork.
In an interview with IT Jungle in 2006, Schlieben said, “I didn’t feel at the time that I was an expert on anything but managing software.” Schlieben explains. “And so I thought I would provide this expertise. And recognizing the opportunity of the AS/400, I saw that customers would need to apply the discipline of managing software–a discipline that they might not have thought they needed at the time.”
The company’s first software was called SoftMenu. Not surprisingly, it was designed with MIS managers in mind. Its primary benefit was presenting individualized menus for AS/400 applications, which controlled the available options of each user. In 1990, the company introduced a change management product for organizing application development called TurnOver. It brought great success to the company.
Marty Kilgallen, who worked in sales at SoftLanding from 1993 until 2003, recalled the special working environment at SoftLanding during his time there. The credit, he said, goes to Schlieben, who was a kind and generous individual as well as a very savvy businessman. He guided the company, benefited from talented technically skilled developers, and he hired quality people who he generously rewarded.
“Paul knew how to get things done–this is what we are going to do and this is how we are going to do it,” Kilgallen said. “He had a mind for IT development, but he was also the person who developed the interface between his company and the customers, which resulted in tremendous product growth.”
It was his interest in people as individuals and their success that developed a bond between SoftLanding and its customers and which led to the creation of a truly loyal staff.
His decision-making philosophy was transparent. He trusted and sought the opinions of employees he put in positions of responsibility and he listened to opposing viewpoints.
His strong belief in sharing with his employees the financial success his company achieved was exemplary. Bonuses were regularly in the 15 percent of salary range, and sometimes exceeded that.
“His attitude was that ‘I’m going to share this with you now, not later,'” Kilgallen said about the liberal bonuses employees received. “He created an outstanding employee incentive plan that benefited everyone. (In 2001, SoftLanding began transitioning to an employee-owned company, ensuring that all employees shared in its success.) But this wasn’t just about money. This company was seriously a family. He let employees know he appreciated their contributions to the company’s success rather than making them feel like they were under the gun. You just don’t find people like him. And you don’t find companies that are run the way he ran his.”
When SoftLanding was sold in 2006, there were 60 employees.
After selling his company and retiring, Schlieben was active in community service and charitable fundraising. He was well known in the Peterborough community.
His love for flying began in 2001, and early on he began volunteering for an organization called Angel Flight Northeast, a pilot association that provides free air transportation for individuals and families with special medical needs. He also founded a program with the local high school called Take-Off and Grow, which mentored students while helping them earn a pilot’s license and instilling pride in community service.
Schlieben always credited his success to pure logic and working with good people. In a company document created by the SoftLanding management team 2006, he commented on what he believed was important to the success of the company: “Listening, and maintaining a balance, is key to rational growth. Also, tapping the resources of a town like Peterborough, with many talented, well-educated people who have high standards and a great work ethic, has allowed the company to be part of the community. Most employees live close to work, with easy access to their kids’ schools. A balanced lifestyle makes a tremendous difference in morale and productivity.”
Paul Schlieben made a tremendous difference in many people’s lives, in their outlook on life and in their productivity. He is survived by his wife Joan, a daughter Jessica, and a son Roy.