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USWeb looks to weave a success story

Chief executive Robert Shaw talks about the CKS acquisition, the future of the Internet, and the effect of alien theories on the services and consulting firm.

In just two years, Internet services and consulting firm USWeb has grown as fast as the World Wide Web itself.

The former Silicon Valley start-up has gobbled up some 30 companies, culminating in last year's $540 million merger with CKS. The company has opened international offices in Austria, France, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

But USWeb still needed a seasoned executive to ease its growing pains and build a cohesive company to take it to the next level.

Enter 51-year-old Robert Shaw, a man who in six years as an Oracle executive vice president built the database firm's consulting services unit into a $2.5 billion-a-year business.

Four months into his new role as chief executive of USWeb/CKS, Shaw spoke to CNET News.com about his vision for the company, the future of professional services and the Internet, and the impact of founder Joe Firmage's departure.

CNET News.com: What have been the benefits of the recent CKS acquisition?
In one of the markets we're after, which is business to consumer e-commerce, many clients were saying, 'Can you work with an ad agency or corporate identity builder?' We had little marketing strategy and a lot more on the engineering and technical side. CKS was the opposite. They had marketing, advertising, and communications specialists and very little on the engineering, so it was a natural fit. We can solve more of the customer's issues with a single organization.

What were the challenges of integrating the two companies?
It's the integration of 30-something companies. CKS was the latest and largest one. I've been setting up the organization and practice structure that all these people fit into, so we can build out an expandable unit as we grow. So we built six regional offices, centralizing locations, and building infrastructure to support that.

CKS itself hasn't been a challenge. It's been harmonious. People from the CKS side--marketing intensive strategy people and advertising people--are blown away in terms of helping existing clients. It's very powerful and exceeded our expectations. We're a fast-growth company, on the cutting edge of e-commerce. Now we're moving to the whole business-to-business world, which will tax us even more, but it's a bigger opportunity.

Can you tell me about your application outsourcing business?
When we build applications for our clients, they say, 'We can't really deal with the Internet and hosting, can you do that for us?' Occasionally, if it were the right economics, we'd actually build and host an application. That gets close to outsourcing, which is not the business we want to be in. We don't own any data centers. We own servers inside of someone else's data center. What we're really interested in are supply chains or within the vertical sectors, so we can leverage a lot out of it, so we can deliver great service, but also make it economical to us. If we can build it for you and get leverage over a broader client base where we can make money at it, and provide you a great service, then we might be interested.

An example might be a press room of the future. We've built a Web site that's easily configurable for major events. Companies can come in and use it to distribute their PR information over the Web to their targeted audience and use different streaming technologies. Like instead of just looking at PowerPoint or Word, you can look at video and streaming technologies, and maybe [have] two-way voice communications. Other things we can get into. We built for a major client a warranty claims process over the Internet. And that could be easily expanded to entire industries.

How big do you expect this market to be?
It's a small part of the business today. We're walking before we run and making sure we pick the right suites of products, and things that make sense for multiple audiences. Our best dream is this could be more than a major part of our business someday. IDC says I think it's going to be a $40 billion market by 2002, if we get a couple billion of it, we'll be pretty happy.

Who do you see as your toughest competitors?
Today, it's probably IBM, EDS, Sapient. Lots of times, we don't have competition. We've done over 3,000 projects to date and for the most part, we've been successful. Our brand is well known and we're known for delivering value. I think it will change once the Big Six--or Big Four--whatever's left. They'll wake up after they get over the "ERP/Year 2000 hangover" and think, 'Boy what happened? We missed this marketplace? We don't have the skill set or mentality to move at Internet speed.' And they'll eventually figure it out.

They'll definitely get in this game either against us or with us. Some of them have talked to us about partnering. They understand the cultural change it would take and the set of skills they just don't have. Everything is moving pretty fast. It's a big shift to turn.

Do you believe it's going to get harder for bigger players in your market to compete with Web-based businesses?
My impression is that this is the Wild West land-grab days. I think big is going to be important. Service to a large client base that has multiple languages, cultures, and locations around the world and having more of a full-service capability is important. It will be competitive. We have a lead now and we intend to keep it.

What impact has Joe Firmage's departure had on your company? Has his theories that aliens gave us some of our current technology negatively impacted the company's image?
He's still on the board. He basically did all the heavy lifting to get us where we are. He just decided to pursue his other hobbies and he's taking it very seriously. He made the courageous move: "I'm getting out of here because it's going to hurt the company if I'm associated with it." He and I talked for months before that when he was trying to recruit me. They knew they needed a gray-haired old fart that understands the ugly part of this, to get where it has to be, to get the infrastructure built, and put some leadership in place to create a foundation, so we can grow this into a multibillion-dollar company.

I haven't heard anything from customers. I do hear from friends and industry analysts who like to ask me if I'm beaming to the next building. I would think anything he does, he does well. I personally think he's one of the brightest people I've ever met.

What attracted you to USWeb?
I wanted to run a company. I think the next set of firms that will be important to the world are services-oriented firms that are technology agnostic, that have the skills and abilities to mix and match the best technologies out there. We could use Oracle's database with Microsoft's operating system. That's the way the Internet will roll out. I don't think anybody will rule it. The success of the Internet and pervasiveness across the corporate and public side of the world are in the hands of the professional services firms.

What are your ultimate goals for the company?
In the next two to five years, help create one of the most important companies of the decade. To me, the Internet has the same possibilities that electricity and the wheel had. I do believe it can change everything, and if we execute and we're smart, we can be a major part of that. Be the market-leading professional services firm associated with doing the most important projects for companies, governments and organizations that choose to make the switch to this paradigm.

Joe got us through the forming stage. Get the critical mass to get this thing started. Now we're organizing for growth, delivering consistency and quality. Then we move rapidly next year to the storming mode, which is capturing market share.