Dennis Jones's Big Adventure

Dennis Jones's Big Adventure

It's 10:20 a.m. at Commerce One Inc.'s headquarters in Pleasanton, Calif., and Dennis H. Jones is listening to a sales spiel from a CEO who wants to be dealt in to Commerce One's game. Sipping a bottle of diet iced tea, dressed in a blue-and-white checkered shirt and khaki pants, Jones seems the perfect Southern gentleman. His words and manner are unfailingly polite, but his crossed arms and legs tell a different story. The CEO draws messy flowcharts on an easel in an effort to show how his company's software would mesh with Commerce One's products. Ten minutes into the presentation, Jones says casually, "Let's cut to the core. In your mind, what is the ideal outcome?"

"I think there are lots of possible outcomes," the CEO hedges.

Jones's congenial expression stays the same, but unbeknownst to the CEO, the interview is all but over. Jones asks a few more pointed questions, and at 11 a.m. he shakes the man's hand and shows him to the door. The CEO probably won't be back again.

As the ex-uber CIO of Federal Express, Jones has always played his cards close to the vest. But he needs a poker face more than ever these days. On July 1, the 48-year-old Jones became president of Commerce One, the beleaguered B2B software vendor that in April named him vice chairman and COO. (The previous president, Robert Kimmitt, left for an executive vice president post at AOL Time Warner Inc.) Despite four busy years of building up its offerings through partnerships and acquisitions, Commerce One is still struggling to sell the world on its vision of e-marketplaces; a futuristic web of catalogs, auctions, inventory and development tools where thousands of companies around the world would come together to conduct business. The company has yet to turn a profit. Worse, its stock price has tumbled, sales have slowed down, employees are skittish after layoffs, and about half of the company's revenues come from its partnership with the German software vendor SAP AG. To achieve its goals, Commerce One needs to grow, grow, grow. But skeptics say the company simply cannot survive on its own.

In 25 years at the fast-growing but profitable Federal Express Co., Jones helped transform the company from a US$30 million Memphis, Tenn., startup to a $20 billion giant that changed the meaning of the word overnight. But even someone with his business acumen and IT smarts may not be able to make Commerce One's lofty vision a reality. Jones, observers say, has taken on the gamble of his career.

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