Background of Lotus chief under fire

Lotus president Jeff Papows is going to have a lot of explaining to do.
Written by Jon Auerbach, Contributor
Jeffrey Papows cuts a colorful figure in the software world-blunt-spoken, dynamic, ready for action. As president of IBM's Lotus Development Corp. unit, he is charged with fighting off mighty Microsoft, and to do it he will jet across the world at a moment's notice to woo a customer or don the garb of an aviator or martial artist in a promotional stunt.

Some colleagues and customers say they are especially wowed by what the 45-year-old Papows has told them about his life -- his rise from orphan to daring Marine flier who burst an eardrum training for the Gulf War and who once saved himself and a buddy by hurling a live grenade out of a trench.

And by his generosity: Some colleagues tell of being moved as Papows told of aiding the widow of a flier who died ejecting from a disabled F-4 Phantom jet in which he and Mr. Papows were flying.

Adding to the impressive package is the Ph.D. from Pepperdine University, to say nothing of the black belt in tae kwon do.

Subject to scrutiny
But when the stories of Papows's credentials and derring-do are subjected to scrutiny, some problems arise. The Marine Corps says Papows was an air-traffic controller. He never served as an aviator, it says after a thorough search of military records.

The records show, too, that he left the Marines as a first lieutenant, not as a captain, the rank shown on a 1997 Papows resume.

Papows's doctorate isn't from Pepperdine. It is from an unaccredited correspondence school. He doesn't have a tae kwon do black belt.

Nor was he orphaned. His parents live a short distance from his home in Massachusetts.

Water cooler legend
When asked about these discrepancies, Papows denies ever telling most of the stories colleagues and customers say they recall, such as that he was an orphan or held a Pepperdine doctorate. People must have misunderstood, he says. Some of it he calls "water-cooler legend" spread by colleagues who wanted him to be more of a hero than he really was.

Part of it he takes responsibility for. "I could have managed the water-cooler legend down more aggressively," he says. He allows that he may have let colleagues believe he was a Marine fighter-plane pilot, in order to motivate them. "I in some senses am guilty of exaggerating and embellishing for a purpose from a business standpoint," he says.

Though not a pilot, he adds, he was a Marine aviator, serving as a back-seat radar-intercept officer in the two-seat F-4 Phantom. "I was an R.I.O. I did fly. I was qualified, and I'm proud of it," he says.

But when told the Marines have no record that he was ever an aviator at all, Papows reduces his estimate of time spent in the air from a couple of thousand hours to probably less than "several hundred." Asked why the military has no record of him flying, he hesitates and says, "I don't think you'd find a big paper trail." Asked the names of some people he flew with, he says he can't recall any.

Many achievements
Does it matter? After all, Papows is an executive of undeniable accomplishments. He leads a unit with $1.4 billion in annual sales, which is up 30% from when he began helping run Lotus in 1995 after its takeover by International Business Machines Corp. Before Lotus, he helped turn around two software companies.

But Papows's military persona isn't immaterial. It has been an element in his business success. It has helped him win a promotion, a job recommendation and sales for Lotus. Three military units have purchased Lotus software after officers met with Papows and, they say, were pleased to hear about his military background.

It "gave us confidence," says Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Wilkerson, former commander of the Marine Corps Reserve, who increased purchases of Lotus Notes after meeting Papows. "Jeff was a Phantom driver just like me."

IBM declines to comment on whether it has knowledge of any fabrications by Papows, and if so, whether it has taken any action. But soon after Papows was elevated to co-head of Lotus in 1995, IBM officials had warnings.

Education questioned
Richard Eckel, former chief spokesman for Lotus, says he told IBM (NYSE:IBM) Senior Vice President David Kalis in October 1995 that IBM should look into Papows's education claims. And two former Lotus managers say a Lotus personnel executive warned IBM software chief John Thompson and IBM human-resources chief J. Thomas Bouchard to be careful about Papows's statements about his military background and the source of his Ph.D.

IBM didn't make Messrs. Kalis, Thompson or Bouchard available for comment.

Papows grew up in Gloucester, Mass., where his father was a carpenter. Fond of horses, he spent a lot of time riding and learning to play polo. He paid for his riding time by caring for the horses and cleaning out stalls, says a relative.

Papows, a muscular man of short stature, attended a military college, Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., and in 1976 was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marines. His record shows he took air-traffic-control training at 29 Palms, a base in California, and was sent to a Marine air base in Beaufort, S.C. He was promoted to first lieutenant and finished his service at that rank in 1979, according to the records.

So why the "captain" entry on a resume? Papows says he was promoted to captain just as he left the service.

When told that Marine records show otherwise, he says he had been selected to become a captain before leaving active duty and assumed this meant he could use the higher rank. "Maybe my ignorance in not understanding the difference" is to blame, he says.

Motivational tool
Beginning a civilian career, Papows hung onto military imagery, using it to motivate people. As a manager at Software International Corp., a General Electric Co. unit in Andover, Mass., he sometimes invoked the film "Top Gun," which he said he had seen many times and which he once took his staff to see. He urged workers to view software sales as an aerial dogfight, and he rewarded some with a Top Gun plaque.

It seemed to work: Revenue in his unit rose almost fivefold in his three years there.

One day, Papows arrived at work with two black eyes and stitches on his cheeks, says Paula Legg, a colleague at the time. According to her and to another co-worker there, Patty Lehan, Papows explained that he had been hurt when a military jet in which he was training the night before went into a tailspin.

Asked about this, Papows says that the black eyes were probably from his martial-arts hobby. He denies ever telling of going into a tailspin while flying.

Legg also says that around 1988, after Papows had left the firm, he called her, distraught, saying he had been in a terrible accident while flying in the Marine reserves. "He said, 'I'm all right, but we had to eject and the guy in the back seat didn't make it,' " Legg says, describing an incident similar to one in "Top Gun" in which Tom Cruise's planemate is killed while ejecting.

Legg, who says she regards Papows as a mentor and admires him, says that a few weeks later, she received in the mail a plaque, ostensibly from Papows's commanding officer in the Marine reserves, in recognition of her support of Papows during the difficult time. She and two other former colleagues of Papows say that years later, he told them that every month, he was sending an anonymous check to the widow of his fellow flier.

In an interview, Papows says he never told anyone about "any incident where anybody died."

Frances Wheeler, who also worked for Papows at Software International, says that one day while they were discussing his interest in horses, she asked him if his parents had taught him to ride. "He said he had no parents, and that he had been raised in living quarters in a stable," says Wheeler, now a public-relations consultant. Two other ex-colleagues say they, too, recall his telling this story.

Papows says they must have misunderstood. He says he did spend a lot of time at a stable as a child but never told anyone he had lost his parents.

Lehan, who like Legg thinks of Papows as a mentor, says, "I wish there wasn't all the B.S. If he were only comfortable and confident with who he is, it would be much easier, because he is very good."

Flight suit
Papows's next employer was Cullinet Software Inc. Its founder, John J. Cullinane, says Papows was an exceptionally hard worker who pulled many all-nighters. But he occasionally said he had to head off for reserve duty, Cullinane says -- and donned a military flight suit before leaving the office. The Marines, however, say Papows never was in the active reserves. When interviewed in February, Papows said he was. Then, in an April interview, he said he wasn't -- and had never told anyone he was.

Cullinane says that when his firm was taken over in 1989, he helped Papows land a job at Cognos Inc. in Ottawa, recommending him because of his tenacity and his military valor. "He's the best our military has to offer," Cullinane recalls saying.

At Cognos, Papows kept a flight suit hanging from the back of his door and a bronze flight stick on his desk. At a 1990 sales event, he showed a video of a fighter plane attacking competitors. "It was quite effective," says Terry Hall, now Cognos's head of sales.

When the plane landed, the hatch opened to reveal Papows in the cockpit. Stenciled on the side of the jet was "Maj. Jeff Papows, USMC." The video's producer says he shot the scene by sitting Papows in a stationary jet.

Some Cognos colleagues also say Papows used to play an audio tape with radio voices and say it was a recording of him ejecting from a fighter plane. Papows denies ever playing such a tape.

Michael U. Potter, a former Cognos chief executive officer, says he promoted Papows to president in 1990 in part because his military persona made him an effective motivator.

Gulf war training
But months later, Potter says, Papows said his Marine reserve unit might be deployed to the Persian Gulf and he might have to go. Potter says he scrambled to come up with a contingency plan to help run the company in its president's absence. But shortly thereafter, according to the former CEO and other executives, Papows arrived to work one day with a dramatic tale: He wouldn't be going to the Gulf after all because the night before, he had been doing flight training off the Atlantic coast and had ruptured an eardrum while "pulling some G's" in a complicated maneuver. They say he told him that his doctor had previously said flying could aggravate an old hearing injury, but that he flew anyway to serve his country.

Potter says he was moved, and at a sales event gave a speech honoring Papows as someone "who paid a price to do his duty." He gave Papows a $10,000 check to be donated to the families of U.S. soldiers who died in the Gulf War.

Papows confirms having been praised in the speech and handed a check, but denies that he ever told anyone he had been training for the Gulf War. He blames this notion on workplace legend.

But Potter and two other former colleagues say they recall Papows telling another story of his exploits: Papows and another Marine were in a trench and discovered a live grenade; Papows hurled it out, saving both of their lives but suffering a badly wounded shoulder. Among those who say they remember hearing Papows tell this story is Robert K. Weiler, a former head of sales and marketing at Lotus.

Asked about it, Papows says they must have misunderstood him; the incident didn't occur in the Marines or involve a grenade. Instead, while he was in military college, an artillery simulator exploded nearby. For years, shrapnel would come out "when I combed my hair," he says, and his wife collected it in a bowl. But Stephen Looke, a close friend of Papows in college and the Marines who is now the university's assistant athletic director, says that Papows suffered only a minor cut in the incident.

Renato Zambonini, who worked under Papows at Cognos and is now that company's CEO, says, "Jeff was always looking to make a story more interesting. Some people like the big stories. It was part of him."

Lotus developments
In early 1993, Papows, having been pressed to leave Cognos over a personnel matter, landed a job at Lotus Development. He was put in charge of Notes, then a nascent product. He helped build a network of outside developers that would customize, sell and service Notes. His efforts helped boost sales greatly by the time of IBM's takeover of Lotus in July 1995. IBM made him co-president of Lotus in 1995 and sole president in 1996.

Papows's jet-fighter stories gave him "credibility with the techno-geeks" of the software world, says Don DePalma, a former analyst with Forrester Research who now heads a start-up e-commerce consulting firm in Chelmsford, Mass. Papows told him he was a skilled pilot of F-18 fighter planes, still regularly flew with the military and "had an 86% intercept rate" in war games, DePalma says. In the high-tech world, he adds, "Anybody who flies an expensive piece of metal is going to ... have credibility."

While in the Marines, Papows earned a master's degree from Pepperdine, which is in Malibu, Calif., but offers courses at some military bases. But Weiler and another ex-colleague say Papows told them he had a Ph.D. from Pepperdine.

After an anonymous tip questioned this, Lotus's personnel chief sought assurances from Papows that he really had a Pepperdine Ph.D., and received them, say people familiar with the matter.

Papows says in an interview that he has never claimed a Pepperdine Ph.D. He says he is proud of the doctorate he got in 1985 from California Coast University, the unaccredited correspondence school. "It ain't Harvard, but I busted my a__ to get it," Papows says.

General orders
In 1995, after the Marine reserves won congressional approval to build an Internet network for its members, they looked at Notes and Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange. Gen. Wilkerson, then the reserves' commander, favored Exchange but yielded to his staff's preference for Notes. He went to see Papows, and he says that as soon as the Lotus executive told about his days as an F-4 pilot, their "friendship was immediate and strong." Gen. Wilkerson says Mr. Papows also talked of his tae kwon do skills. "It's no secret that he's a black belt," he says.

Partly on the general's recommendation, the Marine reserves decided to buy about 10,000 additional copies of Notes, raising the total to 15,000. Gen. Wilkerson says Papows's military past "made a difference" in this decision.

Gen. Wilkerson retired last year and became head of a unit of MBIA Inc. in Armonk, N.Y., where he hopes to switch the messaging system to Lotus Notes.

Papows said this month that he is "very certain" he never told a customer about either flying in the military or practicing martial arts.

Notes enthusiasm from the Marine reserves helped persuade the Marine Corps to take a look at the Lotus product and place a trial order. Marine Maj. Gen. D.A. Richwine met with Mr. Papows, and says the executive recounted his days as an aviator. The general says Mr. Papows's military background was one reason the Corps later decided to increase its spending on Notes tenfold to about $10 million. "It's always easier to work with someone who knows the military," he says.

And last year the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command ordered 4,000 copies of Notes. Rear Adm. John Gauss, who made the decision, says a meeting with Papows, during which "he told me he was once in the Marine Corps as a pilot," left him feeling good about the Lotus president's "personal characteristics... . I find Jeff a man of integrity."

Military record
When first interviewed this February, Mr. Papows said that while a Marine in the 1970s, he began flying regularly in the F-4, after training that covered "how to eject ... and how not to get sick as often." He also had a brief tour of duty on an aircraft carrier, he said, and after leaving the service flew for a time in the Marine reserves.

But Marine Corps officials say his records make no mention of flight training, carrier duty or service in the active reserves. "There is absolutely nothing that indicates that he was a captain or on a plane, either as a pilot or in the plane," says Doris Piriak, of the Marine Corps Personnel Management Support Branch in Quantico, Va. "He was an air-traffic controller. That's it."

Told of these records in an interview this month, Mr. Papows says he did receive formal flight training. "I got backseat qualified," he says. He adds that his primary responsibility was as "an air-defense control officer" but that he did "some minority of flight" time as a radar-intercept officer.

In 1997, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., decided to give Papows an honorary doctorate after hearing that he was a former Marine flier, says Steven M. Sliwa, the university's president at the time. Embry-Riddle asked Papows to give the commencement speech. Lotus faxed it a resume for Papows, which called him a former Marine captain and radar-information officer for F-4 Phantoms.

Embry-Riddle listed those credentials in its news release and also said Papows had been Massachusetts tae kwon do champion for two of the past three years. That was based on a separate fax from Papows, says Lisa Ledewitz, the university's head of communications.

Tae kwon do officials who organized the state championships in 1995 and 1996 say they can't find any record of his entering, although his son competed in 1995. Papows says he can't recall whether he competed in those years or whether he told Embry-Riddle he was a champion. "I don't run around promoting my martial-arts hobby," he says.

But he sometimes said he had a tae kwon do black belt, according to several people, such as Patricia Ratulangi of Ogilvy Worldwide, who has served as a publicist for a book he wrote. What he has is a red belt, a lower level. In an interview, Papows says he does have a black belt in another martial-arts discipline, Shotakan. He says he earned it in the 1970s but can't recall his trainer's name.

Fighter jock
According to the transcript of his speech at Embry-Riddle, Papows referred to himself as "a fighter jock, M.B.A.-type," and said he had been "assigned to a classified mission out of the country" in his last three months in the Marine Corps. Asked about this, he at first denied having said he was on a classified mission. When told of the transcript, he said he had chosen a "bad term" in calling it classified. Actually, he said, he was out of the country "for a few days" looking for jobs, though he can't remember where.

Sliwa, the former Embry-Riddle president, recently became CEO of Colt's Manufacturing Co. in Hartford, Conn. Colt's has placed a small order for Notes, and Sliwa says he favors installing it across the company, partly because of his favorable impression of Mr. Papows.

Sliwa likes to retell a story he says Mr. Papows told him, about making fun of Bill Gates and prompting the Microsoft chief to storm off a stage. Papows denies ever telling such a story.

But he did relate another Gates tale. In January, he told a roomful of Lotus business partners of how Mr. Gates had twice tried to reach him at home, but was stymied when Papows's young daughter took the calls and said she wasn't allowed to tell strangers where her father was. "This is actually a true story," Papows told the Lotus gathering.

Asked about this, he says someone from Microsoft called and he assumed it was Gates. Though not sure, he adds, he told the customers it was Gates because he thought this would amuse them.

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