How Pivotal’s Norm Francis Became a Canadian Software Pioneer

When Microsoft's Bill Gates took the stage to announce the launch of Microsoft Windows 2000 in February 2000, his own firm's software was expectedly the focus of the event. That's why it was all the more notable that Gates took time to demonstrate and promote an outside company's product: Canadian company Pivotal Corporation's Pivotal eRelationship, the first eBusiness relationship management (eBRM) software to be certified for Windows 2000.

Become a Subscriber

Please purchase a subscription to continue reading this article.

Subscribe Now

This business relationship and its high-profile announcement grew out of a private dinner meeting between Gates and Pivotal's co-founder and CEO Norm Francis. While the announcement was key for Pivotal's continued success, the software and services business had been steadily growing since Francis and his co-founder Keith Wales began the company as Pivotal Software in 1994.

The two had launched a groundbreaking customer relationship management (CRM) tool in the mid-1990s, with Francis spearheading the promotion efforts alongside Pivotal's director of marketing Sharka Chobot Stuyt. Pivotal changed its name to Pivotal Corporation in the late 1990s to demonstrate its broader focus on services in addition to software, and the company went public on the NASDAQ in August 1999.

All of this success is especially surprising for Francis, who came from very humble beginnings with a childhood in the quaint farming community of Oliver, British Columbia. He became one of the pioneering class of computer science graduates at the University of British Columbia, simultaneously receiving his certification as a Chartered Accountant.

From there, Francis and his partner Wales formed Basic Software Group (BSG) in the late 1970s. This first venture is remembered for having created ACCPAC and Simply Accounting, a top early accounting software package. BSG was acquired by Computer Associates in 1985.

The acquisition freed Francis to turn his focus to broader ventures. As Francis recently told CEO.CA, "we pulled in some of the guys that had worked with us before…top notch engineers…and we just did it again." Francis' next venture started as a pen computing software company in 1991 before turning (in conjunction with Wales) to Pivotal's CRM software in 1994.

Francis retired from an active role in the business in the early 2000s, but has received many industry accolades before and since--including BC Technology Industry Person of the Year in 1999, Ernst and Young's Software Entrepreneur of the Year Pacific Region in 2001, Business Laureates of BC Hall of Fame in 2016 and Fraser Institute Founders Award in 2019.

Even in retirement, though, Francis continues to play an important role in the Canadian software community. He remains an active technology industry advocate and angel investor in British Columbia, and has been a lecturer and student mentor at his alma mater as well as Simon Fraser University.