Tech Industry

Ford crashes tech conference, to applause

The automaker's conference room--a fraction of the size of the giant ballrooms commanded by Oracle and Sun Microsystems--is packed with listeners at the Chase H&Q technology confab.

What a difference a year makes.

For much of 1999, dot-coms didn't worry about profits, and every start-up aspired to go public. Technocrats berated old-economy stalwarts as clueless "dirt companies" more fond of constructing smokestacks than capturing eyeballs, and investors flocked to Silicon Valley stocks.

Fast-forward to 2000. A volatile Nasdaq Stock Market has sapped the value of many technology companies. Countless dot-coms are burning through cash at an alarming rate, and experts predict that an ominous shakeout will decimate the number and status of viable Internet firms.

"The Internet is a lot more fragile now than six months ago," Mark Goldston, chief executive of NetZero, a free Internet service provider based in Westlake Village, Calif., said today. "A lot of companies are running out of cash."

The scenario has forced the once boastful tech executives to assume a startlingly contrite air, as skeptical investors take newfound interest in traditional companies. At the 28th annual Chase H&Q Technology Conference in San Francisco, where more than 4,000 participants have gathered to discuss the largely declining value of tech stocks, executives have adopted a fence-mending attitude toward their old-economy brethren, who enjoy relatively massive cash reserves and stable valuations.

The sea change was especially apparent at a presentation this morning by Ford Motor, the only traditional company scheduled to make an appearance at the seminal H&Q event--the largest of its kind.

Ford's conference room--a fraction of the size of the giant ballrooms commanded by Oracle and Sun Microsystems--was packed with listeners. Analysts stood in the back and craned their necks to hear speaker James Gouin, a Ford divisional finance executive not particularly well known in Detroit, let alone Silicon Valley.

To be sure, the $165 billion automaker wasn't exactly a superstar or an insider at the tech conference.

Gouin--who donned a proper suit and natty tie instead of the logo-emblazoned denim shirt that seems to be the uniform of start-up chiefs--seemed slightly awkward but willing to relate to the crowd by employing a clichéd West Coast analogy: surfing.

"I feel kind of flattered to be representing the brick side of the business," Gouin said. "I think the Internet is kind of like the Japanese car invasion of the '70s: It was a tidal wave coming in front of us, and the result was 30 percent of the market. This tidal wave's coming, and Ford's idea this time is that we want to be riding the curl."

Because tech-oriented investment bank Chase H&Q has no analysts who track automobile manufacturers, Ford wasn't listed in a 700-page tome that included virtually every other company making a presentation at the conference.

Several analysts seemed confused as to why Ford was making a pitch at all. "I know I don't cover the company," squawked an analyst who talked loudly into his mobile phone before the Ford presentation began. "I just want to hear what they could possibly have to say."

But Gouin's humble presentation about using the Internet to tighten the supply chain and improve customer relations struck a chord with analysts, many of whom have grown weary of dot-com bombast. Unlike most other tech executives at the conference, Gouin received a round of applause after his PowerPoint presentation.

"Ford has been quite progressive in using the Internet inside the company," said Richard Polhemus Jr., vice president of investment banking for Chase H&Q. "We look at this as a revolutionary presentation. We don't normally have someone from the purely offline world here."

Ford was not the only company to invoke the world of 20th-century industry. Numerous presentations by Silicon Valley mainstays emphasized ties to the old economy as well.

According to Sun chief financial officer Michael Lehman, about 90 percent of the company's revenue comes from Fortune 1000 companies eager to build their e-commerce divisions and to bolster their Internet infrastructure. Only about 10 percent of revenues come from Internet start-ups and Silicon Valley dot-coms.

Smaller companies seemed especially eager to hark back to traditional companies in presentations.

NetZero emphasized a four-year, $100 million sponsorship with General Motors, possibly the largest Internet advertising deal yet. Digimarc, a Tualatin, Ore.-based company that developed a digital watermark for the Web, talked of old-economy clients ranging from Sony and the U.S. government to BF Goodrich and DaimlerChrysler.

The renewed emphasis on the old economy means that tech companies should no longer discount the sleeping giants of industry, Gouin said. Although they were late to adopt, they are eager to use the Internet--and Internet companies--to wring waste from their companies.

"When you look at the Internet, it's really a great equalizer," he said. "It's a tool available to everybody. Those who exploit it the best are going to win."