Odd Couple: How Omar Green, 27, Became the Point Man And Protege for a CEO
--- He's a Black MIT Alumnus; His Boss is Staid, British And Eager for Big
Change --- The `Funky-Style Dresser'
By Jonathan Kaufman Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
BURLINGTON, Mass. -- Xionics Document Technologies Inc. isn't your typical
high-tech firm, though many employees, top to bottom, wish it were.
It was only last year that Xionics liberalized its dress code, telling most
workers they could dress casually.
The company recently appointed an employee, dubbed by some as the "minister
of fun," to organize company events. But last April, an opening-day
baseball party at company headquarters failed when managers objected to
people taking time off to watch the game on television.
For shareholders, the differences between Xionics, near Boston, and many
aggressive Silicon Valley companies run deeper. While Xionics's sales are
up, the stock is down. Young engineers shun the company for flashier
start-ups, and Xionics, which specializes in hardware and software for
printers, has been slow to capitalize on the growth of the Internet.
Despite the company's stodginess, and in many ways because of it, something
unusual is under way at Xionics: an alliance of two very different men,
many rungs apart on the career ladder, who are tying their futures together
in unexpected ways.
Robert Gilkes is 58 years old, white and a British subject; his resume
includes three years as a young magistrate in an African colony, overseeing
the region's police, taxes and schools. Now chairman of Xionics, he is so
imposing and aloof that some employees call him "sir."
Omar Green is 27 and black; he was raised in Florida, and graduated from
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An engineer at Xionics, he
usually sports three earrings, hair curls slicked with gel, baggy pants and
The two became acquainted last fall when Mr. Gilkes invited Mr. Green to
his office as part of the chief executive officer's "open-door" policy.
After a few niceties, Mr. Gilkes inquired in a practiced tone: "So, Omar,
tell me what's wrong with Xionics."
Mr. Green remembers the moment clearly: "I knew from looking at him -- I
just knew -- that he expected me to talk about diversity, about how tough
it was being an African-American."
His message, though, was something else: "This company lacks vision," he
said. "We've got a lot of potential we're wasting because we're not
thinking of new products." Over the next hour Mr. Green talked about the
Internet, new markets and the need to make Xionics's culture more
entrepreneurial. "The engineers here are old!" Mr. Green said. "The average
age is 42."
As it turned out, Mr. Gilkes was thinking many of the same things, and Mr.
Green's candor energized him. "Here was someone willing to talk about
ideas," Mr. Gilkes recalls. "He was prepared to talk to me as an equal --
saying what he thought was right, not what he thought I wanted to hear."
Since that meeting, Mr. Green has become a key player in the company's
struggle to rebound. He oversees testing of Xionics's new computer chip,
its make-or-break product. Mr. Green doesn't hold a manager's title, but he
speaks one-on-one with the CEO at least twice a week. He is the junior
member of a small group, chaired by Mr. Gilkes, that meets twice a month to
discuss strategy. His days, which he typically begins by watching a
science-fiction movie on his widescreen television at home, often end in
Mr. Gilkes's office where the discussions revolve around personnel, new
products and competitive threats.
The bond between Mr. Green and Mr. Gilkes is at once a partnership, a
friendship and an alliance of mentor and protege. But this is unlike most
such business relationships, in which executives seek out employees like
For Mr. Gilkes, Mr. Green represents technical and entrepreneurial thinking
critical to his company's future, a chance to shake up resistant middle
managers who have bucked many of his efforts to change Xionics. "He can
tell me things I am not seeing as a 58-year-old white man," Mr. Gilkes says.
For Mr. Green, the relationship enables him to use corporate money and a
CEO's clout to back up his high-tech dreams. And for a young man who hopes
to run his own company one day, it is also a chance to see up close the
rewards of success. Upon learning that Mr. Gilkes recently bought a Jaguar
convertible, Mr. Green, who earns $56,000, made his boss promise to take
him for a spin.
This is happening at a company trying, with mixed success, to change its
culture. Attitudes haven't always kept up with the times. Not long ago, a
white manager openly referred to Washington as "Chocolate City," and Lori
Johnson, a senior manager, says some male employees still assume she is a
Ms. Johnson recalls that when she arrived at Xionics 18 months ago, "I
expected to come in and be rejuvenated by youth -- that had always been my
experience in high-tech. But the place felt old. They all dressed like it
was a law firm."
Mr. Gilkes sees his protege as a way to counter that problem. Mr. Green
often arrives at work with a briefcase full of CDs -- from jazz to
Christian rock -- to trade with other engineers. The conversation spins
around like late-night talks at a college dormitory. "A lot of people are
seeing their youth in Omar, or the youth they wish they had," says Steven
Morris, 47, who works next to Mr. Green. "He gets us to talk about things
we don't normally talk about."
But Mr. Green's prominence is also bringing pressure. Some employees see
Mr. Green as a conduit to the top. Says co-worker Steven Leonard: "Most of
us don't get the chance to talk to Mr. Gilkes, so we find out through Omar
some of what's going on." Others gibe Mr. Green about his "special
relationship" with the boss and resent what they see as his self-promotion.
"Some people think Omar is too big for his britches, some think he is too
loud for his britches," says Tonya Georges, a paralegal at Xionics and
friend of Mr. Green's.
Mr. Green has often bridged two worlds. He was raised in the predominantly
black city of Riviera Beach, Fla., by deeply religious parents; his mother
is a special-needs teacher who now runs her own school, and his stepfather
oversees the city's housing programs. At home, young Omar heard stories of
the civil-rights movement, particularly in the late 1960s when his
stepfather, John Green, marched with black activist Stokely Carmichael. But
his stepfather also talked about his own rise through Palm Beach County
government, and the friendships he forged with whites along the way. "I
taught my kids that it wasn't the whites changing me, it was me changing
them," he says.
Omar Green attended predominantly white private schools and a predominantly
white Pentecostal church. "I was always the only black kid in my class, but
I was also always the smartest kid in my class," says Mr. Green, who
graduated from high school with top grades and high scores on
college-entrance exams. Early on, he decided that "being angry and
isolating myself from white people was not going to be beneficial."
He set his sights on MIT in Cambridge, Mass., and won a partial
scholarship. When he graduated, he formed a start-up company with $85,000
from investors to market a device he invented that plays music backward --
a special effect used by some pop artists. The firm failed after two years
as Mr. Green was unable to raise enough money.
He then worked as a temp; his parents sent occasional checks of $50. "My
folks couldn't stand it," Mr. Green says. "My Mom wanted me to come home."
Mr. Green decided his dreams of entrepreneurship would have to wait. "To
get the business and management experience these heavy-duty investors said
I needed, I had to go into a corporate culture," he says.
Mr. Green looked for a small company where he could advance quickly. He got
a few offers from video-game makers. Then he responded to a help-wanted ad
placed by Xionics. The company was impressed and offered Mr. Green a salary
of $45,500, plus stock options that could be worth $40,000 when Xionics
went public in a year. "I had a feeling they would allow me to be
inventive." Mr. Green says. "If not, I would leave a year after the IPO and
be $40,000 richer."
Mr. Green arrived at a difficult time for Xionics. It was formed in late
1994 with the merger of two firms. Most of the engineers who developed the
company's original technology were scarred by the 1980s recession that had
put many colleagues out of work. The growth of the Internet had passed them
by. Morale was terrible. "It was almost like a dysfunctional family," says
Paul Low, a member of the board.
The Xionics board brought in Mr. Gilkes, a former International Business
Machines Corp. salesman and entrepreneur with a reputation for turning
around high-tech companies. He also had an unusual background, an openness
to ideas and a formidable personality.
As a child, he was fascinated by Africa and, like many young Britons in the
1960s, was repulsed by his country's legacy of racism abroad. He studied
anthropology at Oxford and Cambridge universities and traveled alone across
Ethiopia for three months to learn the native language, Amharic. After
graduation in 1963, he joined the British Colonial Service and served as a
magistrate in what was then Bechuanaland, a British colony wedged between
Rhodesia and South Africa. (It is now the independent country of Botswana.)
"I was filled with the missionary zeal of a young guy trying to change the
world," he says. "I was god for a period of three years. It was a lot for a
guy of 24."
But it was also a lonely life, and Mr. Gilkes returned to London in the
mid-1960s to join IBM. In 1970, he started a successful computer company.
As he grew older, he became a turnaround expert hired to rescue firms
started by technology whizzes who lacked business experience.
When he arrived at Xionics, he told his managers to "stop hiring in their
own image" and start recruiting young engineers with entrepreneurial
spirit. Six months later, Mr. Green came on board, though he didn't meet
Mr. Gilkes during the interviews.
Soon after joining the company, Mr. Green doffed the tie he wore to his
interview and showed up with dog tags around his neck. "It was my way of
saying, `I've been drawn into your world, but I also draw you a little bit
into my world,'" he says.
Mr. Green, one of about a half-dozen blacks at Xionics, sometimes found
himself in awkward situations. "When the controversy over ebonics came out,
everyone rushed at me with magazine clippings," he recalls. "It was like I
had to carry the mantle of explaining the African-American view on every
topic pertaining to race." But he didn't get upset. "They weren't used to
dealing with an African-American like me -- someone on the same
professional, intellectual and emotional footing as they were."
The discomfort sometimes spilled into meetings. One day, he startled a
roomful of senior engineers by questioning the power capacity of a Xionics
computer chip. "Who the hell is this loudmouth, smart-aleck kid?" Mr.
Morris, his fellow engineer, recalls thinking at the time. Then, Mr. Morris
realized the question was valid -- and hadn't yet been addressed. Mr. Green
was later put in charge of testing the new chip, overseeing eight
engineers, most of them at least 10 years older.
In his first year at Xionics, Mr. Green met Mr. Gilkes just once, running
into the CEO in a corridor just before leaving for an assignment in Germany.
"Enjoy the beer," said Mr. Gilkes.
"I don't drink," replied Mr. Green. Without another word, Mr. Gilkes walked
away. "I thought he was scared of me," Mr. Green says.
Then they had their get-acquainted meeting last fall.
Contrary to what Mr. Green suspected, Mr. Gilkes hadn't planned to grill
Mr. Green about race in their first discussion -- though that was a
concern. "The fact that he was a funky-style dresser suggested he would
have ideas that were younger," Mr. Gilkes says. "I wanted to see if we
could connect." What cemented their relationship was Mr. Green's candor.
"Omar has integrity," Mr. Gilkes says. "He knows he can get a job anywhere.
He didn't come in here worrying about his 401(k)."
Mr. Gilkes says he sees Mr. Green as crucial in his drive to turn around
Xionics. In his 2 1/2 years as CEO, Mr. Gilkes has taken Xionics public,
doubled the number of employees to more than 200 and boosted sales to an
estimated $40 million this year from $9 million in 1994. But the stock
price, which started at $12 and soared to $22, is now below $11. Everything
rides on the new chip and on developing new products.
Mr. Gilkes has assigned Mr. Green to an elite team to develop an
easy-to-use box that would give users access to their televisions, stereos,
VCRs and computers, enabling customers to send and receive everything from
music to computer files.
Sometimes, the going is rough. At a recent high-level meeting to discuss
the new chip, a Xionics executive became "overbearing" toward Mr. Green and
tried to squeeze him out of the discussion, recalls Mr. Low, the director.
He feared that if such attitudes persisted, Mr. Green might quit. So he
took Mr. Green aside. "I told him to stick to his guns," Mr. Low says. "He
turns me on. Omar would turn on anyone."
As Mr. Green and Mr. Gilkes talk, they have discovered common interests.
One night recently, Mr. Green got a lift home from his boss, and he invited
Mr. Gilkes upstairs to the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his
girlfriend. The CEO glanced through the novels and philosophy books lining
Mr. Green's walls. He saw several of Mr. Green's unproduced screenplays.
"You're far ahead of me. I'm working on my first novel, and I don't know
who is going to publish it," said Mr. Gilkes, who took a year off before
joining Xionics to write his book.
"He has a lot of interests that I have myself," Mr. Gilkes says. "I like to
think that if I had met Omar outside of work, we would be friends."
Late one afternoon at Xionics, Mr. Green walks into Mr. Gilkes's office for
a chat. The two discuss deadlines for the new chip. Mr. Gilkes is
interested in hiring a friend of Mr. Green's, an MIT graduate about to
attend Harvard Business School. The phone rings. Mr. Green watches as Mr.
Gilkes sets up appointments and plane flights that will take him to Canada,
then New York. "I want to be doing that one day," he says to himself.
When Mr. Gilkes is done with his calls, Mr. Green suggests checking out Web
TVs, which connect television sets to the Internet. "Go ahead and buy two,"
Mr. Gilkes says with a smile. "We'll each take one home, set them up in our
living rooms. We'll see if we can have some fun."
--- Rohit Khare /// MCI Internet Architecture (BOS) /// firstname.lastname@example.org Voice+Pager: (617) 960-5131 VNet: 370-5131 Fax: (617) 960-1009