50 years of SAP, Klein says, “We’re just getting started.”

50 years ago five former IBM executives started the conversation by forming a company called Systemanalyse und Programmentwicklung. Since then, new protagonists have emerged, markets have shifted, share prices have fluctuated and products have evolved, but one thing has remained constant. SAP is the market leader….by a mile.

The Fortune Global 500 tells a compelling story – the world’s biggest companies trust SAP to run their operations. On top of these enterprise credentials more than 400,000 other businesses rely on SAP technologies for finance, procurement, sales, HR, planning and supply chain management. A blue thread runs through the heart of global commerce emanating from a small town in Germany called Walldorf and stretching out to all four corners of the world.

I used to doubt SAP’s claim that it touched 80-odd percent of world GDP: having spent so much time researching SAP’s credentials, the only surprise is that figure isn’t higher. Ninety-nine of the world’s 100 largest companies are SAP customers – and for those who think they are all legacy clients, 85 are already running S/4HANA.

SAP generated €28bn in revenue last year – €9.4bn from the cloud. This year those numbers should top €30bn and €12bn, and by 2025 expect to see SAP generating more than €20bn from cloud alone. By any measure, SAP is the dominant force in enterprise technology and there are no signs that its young and gifted CEO has any intention of letting that title slip.


In April 2022, I went to SAP HQ to meet CEO, Christian Klein, to talk about football, parenting and the next chapter in SAP’s history.

Write a list of your dream dinner party guests and a German tech exec with a penchant for detail and numbers is unlikely to make the cut. It’s easy to stereotype and make assumptions but within two minutes of meeting Klein most of mine were dashed. The man at the helm of the world’s biggest enterprise software vendor was instantly engaging and charming. I’ve interviewed enough people to know the ones who are feigning a persona because they have been media trained and those who are genuinely at ease with the situation. Klein presented a calm and measured personality, unfazed by my photographer’s instructions and eager to tell his story in pragmatic language uninhibited by corporate PR.

His authentic and relaxed approach set the tone for a two hour conversation that covered lessons learned on the football pitch, the demands of parenting young children and the monumental task of reshaping SAP into a cloud-first business that would meet the challenges of the next 50 years. 

Make no mistake, the assignment ahead of Klein was seismic. Its flagship ERP product has not followed the same adoption curve that previous SAP products have enjoyed. Its customer base is largely on-premise and is stubbornly ignoring the cloud. Its own cloud infrastructure ambitions had been shelved in favour of partnering with the hyperscalers. And, most fundamentally of all, there has been a disconnect between its narrative and its customers’ experiences. Add to this Klein’s personal aspirations regarding sustainability together with SAP’s responsibilities as a global influencer and it becomes clear that the scale of change required would be like nothing else in SAP’s 50 year history.

Klein told me: “There’s certainly not a lack of workload! The challenges are complex, the stakes are high but if you walk into the office with the right mindset you can deal with whatever is in front of you.”

Getting started

I start the interview by asking Klein if he remembers his first day at SAP – he replies by telling me his first job was unpacking monitors in an SAP warehouse aged just 15. Not the grandstand beginning I had expected but he goes on to say that his first day actually ended before it even started.

“I got sent home on my first day at SAP. The person who hired me had become a father the night before so he didn’t make it into work. When I arrived for my first day no one knew who I was or why I was there, so they told me to go home.”

The sorry start didn’t deter Klein and after finishing his education he began his first full time job as a support consultant. Klein’s CV is a matter of record so I won’t detail every job and promotion he enjoyed at SAP, but scroll forward a few years and he moved to San Francisco to work for Lars Dalgaard, founder of SuccessFactors, which was by then an SAP company. Klein moved back to Germany in 2013 to head up corporate controlling and then global controlling before landing the COO role in 2016. Three years later, incumbent CEO, Bill McDermott, announced his intention to leave SAP – a move which catapulted him into the top job in a shared capacity with Jennifer Morgan. Just seven months into that role, Morgan moved on and Klein became the sole-CEO.

Klein was just 39, one of the youngest CEOs of any major tech business and one which needed an overhaul. SAP had been the dominate player in the ERP market for decades and had grown through a series of acquisitions under McDermott’s tenure. Those acquisitions had propelled its market cap skywards and created an organisation that included best of breed solutions for every aspect of an enterprise’s operations. But, along with its successes, SAP had been subject to criticism for the lack of integration between its products, for the hulking nature of its solutions and the sheer complexity of running a large-scale SAP estate. 

A blue thread runs through the heart of global commerce emanating from a small town in Germany called Walldorf and stretching out to all four corners of the world.

It’s important to note that despite this need for change, Klein expressly commended his predecessor on a job well done. Bill McDermott had ruled SAP for a decade and during his tenure SAP’s value had rocketed by more than $100bn and turned the German software firm into an international kraft zu rechnen.

“Every strategy has its time and Bill’s tenure was dominated by a lot of important acquisitions which created a lot of value. My tenure is definitely more around how do we bring this together? Not like we did in the last 50 years – that would be a mistake. It’s about turning SAP into a cloud company and helping our customers become intelligent, sustainable enterprises.”

At the same time as these domestic challenges, the macro outlook was presenting a new paradigm for the way businesses, people and technology co-existed. CEOs had a new set of priorities which included baking sustainability into the core of their business model. Enterprise leaders were more experienced in the digital economy and buying preferences were changing – companies around the world were facing generational challenges which were inextricably linked to each other. The issues can be succinctly summarised in just one sentence: how do you build a sustainable business with reliable supply chains in the cloud?

In addition to these internal and external forces there was also a tectonic shift in the fundamental nature of what customers were buying. SAP had grown up on transactional proprietary software – the kind of traditional business applications that once ruled the world. In the past you bought an ERP to manage your back office functions – it was a system of record that controlled finances, inventory and sales data. Today, an ERP is just one component of a business’ technology landscape which must also include the tools for innovation, analysis, planning, recruiting, training, ESG activities and customer engagement. There is no longer any separation between a company’s business model and its technology platform – they have become one and the same thing. 

By the time Klein assumed full control of SAP, global commerce was being played out on a transient landscape where business models and entire industries were being reshaped almost as quickly as new technologies could be conceived and deployed. In order to find an answer to this conundrum Klein had three key challenges ahead of him: how to move SAP’s existing customers to the cloud; how to drive adoption of S/4HANA; and how to deliver against SAP’s ambitions to help the world run better and become more sustainable. Klein found an answer to all three problems in the shape of RISE with SAP, but before we look at exactly what that offering is, let’s examine how and why SAP arrived at that solution.

SAP’s transformation

There’s a phrase in enterprise software that I don’t much like but perfectly describes SAP’s journey over the last three years – dogfooding. The process of consuming your own product and eating what you serve to others. When Klein took over as CEO he realised that root and branch change was needed – not just in the product portfolio but also in the way the company was set up to meet the needs of a new generation of customer.

The issues can be succinctly summarised in just one sentence: how do you build a sustainable business with reliable supply chains in the cloud?

Klein started by rebuilding his executive board: Thomas Saueressig was promoted to head of product engineering, Juergen Mueller became the new CTO, Scott Russell ascended to global head of customer success and, more recently, Sabine Bendiek and Julia White were hired from Microsoft to lead people, operations and marketing. SAP’s executive team look like the poster children for modern enterprise and Klein now sits at the centre of a powerhouse team that has the youth, experience and determination to understand and execute a strategy that is fit for modern commerce.

“There was leadership change because we need people thinking beyond the point of sale,” Klein told me. “The way we are structured internally is very different now and we are with you every step of the journey. We reorganised our teams so that technical, sales, delivery and customer success all work together and are incentivised around a common goal.”

As SAP began its own journey of cloud modernisation it learned some valuable lessons – some of which may have been difficult to swallow. Implementing a large-scale SAP ERP solution is no small task and as SAP went through the process itself the pain of bringing all the elements for a successful transformation together became apparent. 

“I gained a lot of experience during SAP’s own transformation. It was impossible to serve our cloud business model with just a technical upgrade so we then started thinking about how we could better serve our customers who also wanted to make a similar journey. That was the point of time when I put a few people into a room almost day and night and said we need to make it easier for our customers. A transformation is not only about technology it has to go to the core – to the heart of business processes. We acquired Signavio to have this business process capabilities, but we also needed a different engagement model that made us more accountable for the outcomes of our customers’ investments.”


We talk about legacy in a negative way. SAP itself is often described as a legacy technology company and the term usually characterises a set of circumstances, a product or service that is from yesteryear, and as such, should be consigned to history.  

SAP’s legacy is somewhat different. Put simply, there is no ERP without SAP. There is no Oracle or Workday. In fact, without SAP there is no enterprise tech industry – its legacy has paved the way for virtually every brand in the industry (save for IBM which can lay its own claim as a pioneer) and SAP’s rich heritage defines the sector as much today as it did decades ago.

“Our legacy is our gift. When you have 400,000 customers to learn from it’s a huge advantage,” said Klein. “SAP has customers in more than 25 different industries so we can always test our assumptions, benchmark our roadmap and challenge our strategy against the depth of install base and industry knowledge from our customers. Of course, it’s challenging to move such a large install base from one environment to another – but that’s the challenge that we have at SAP and one that we are ready to take on. It’s our biggest challenge but also our greatest gift.”


No other tech company has banged the sustainability drum as loudly as SAP, or for as long. In fact, in the early days of SAP’s mission to propel ESG into the spotlight, some argued that there was too much noise around saving the planet and not enough focus on other areas. Of course, that was at a time when the world was only just waking up to the urgent and imperative nature of ESG action. Today, sustainability is a core component for virtually every business – big or small – new or old – tech or industrial – everyone has a narrative, but few are as compelling or complete as SAP’s pursuit of green commerce.

Klein is a leader who truly believes that SAP has the same inherent responsibility to the planet as it does to shareholders.

Klein told me that sustainability could no longer be separated from other business objectives and that SAP was the only technology company with the scale and scope to address the world’s greatest challenge. It’s sheer reach into global enterprises and supply chains means SAP collects and analyses more commercial data than any other organisation. That blue thread which runs through the heart of global commerce has the potential to morph into a green ribbon combining the data of half a million businesses and supply chains to provide actionable insights for enterprises around the world. 

“We have taken action on our biggest carbon impacts with data centres and car fleets, and we already made very important decisions how to move to carbon free operations in the years to come. But the bigger challenge is how can we help our customers become more sustainable? How can we use SAP technologies to give our customers the visibility they need? When it comes to ESG, our customers tell me, ‘I have a lot of good intentions, I have potential actions, but I have zero transparency.’ We realised we needed to expand our data model and embed sustainability metrics in every process because when you can give customers the transparency, it’s the foundation for taking the right action.”

To achieve these aspirational outcomes and deliver against good intentions, businesses must find ways to address the fundamental challenges of data transparency. An overwhelming majority of organisations are dissatisfied with the quality of data at their disposal to drive sustainability transformation, which is reinforced by the fact that 86 percent of companies still use spreadsheets to measure emissions data. Furthermore, one third do not know how to integrate sustainability into their core business strategy and barely 20 percent of sustainability initiatives embrace business model change. 

SAP is able to solve these challenges at the scale required to meet the urgent environmental demands. The majority of global commercial data sits in, or can be accessed by, an SAP system demonstrating the potential for SAP to address sustainability transformation at a global scale. SAP technology can help organisations gain the industry-specific insights and intelligence they need, combining operational, financial and experiential data across entire value chains. With these insights, organisations can embed sustainability into business processes across their organisation and expanded business networks, building sustainability metrics into every function of the business and ultimately undergoing the type of transformation required to become intelligent, sustainable enterprises.  

SAP’s sustainability portfolio includes SAP Cloud for Sustainable Enterprises – a comprehensive platform that allows businesses to design sustainable products and services underpinned by a holistic view of data, process and regulations by industry. It also partners with the world’s biggest consulting firms like Accenture, EY and IBM to co-innovate and combine industry expertise to create frameworks like SAP Responsible Design and Production which helps organisations gain greater visibility into the environmental impact of their design choices. SAP also works with startups and early stage inventors through SAP.iO – a cohort of innovative trailblazers that focus on solving sustainability problems with SAP technologies. 

If you attended one of the Sapphire events that took place in May, you would have been left in no doubt that sustainability and the environment are as intrinsically linked to SAP and its culture as S/4HANA and BTP.

While many assert that sustainability is a key tenet of their DNA, few if any can support those claims with the kind of credentials that SAP brings to the table. Senior leaders within the enterprise tech community often speak to me about their ESG charters – only to jump in a V8 Mercedes after they have told me how committed they are to saving the planet. With Klein you get a different, authentic, believable narrative that he is personally invested in SAP’s mission – a mission that goes way beyond any corporate PR point scoring. 

Klein is a leader who truly believes that SAP has the same inherent responsibility to the planet as it does to shareholders. While others have touted sustainability to bolster their image, SAP has invested heavily in a comprehensive portfolio of solutions that genuinely lead to a more promising future for the environment. 


When Klein announced RISE with SAP back in January 2021, the market was split: was it just a clever commercial proposition or was it an industry-first that would revolutionise the way tech was sold and consumed?

RISE promised a single handshake deal that provided a pathway to the cloud for any customer, irrespective of starting point or complexity. Delivered on a subscription basis (hence, sometimes called Transformation-as-a-Service) it positions SAP as the responsible party for the end to end transformation of a business independent of any third parties that are also involved in the process. In addition, SAP completely reorganised its internal structures so that every team in the end to end process was aligned with incentive plans pointing everyone in the same direction. 

“As much as I like the sales forecast calls, we now have delivery calls where we go through all our RISE customers and ask, where are we with the business process redesign? Where are we with the back to standard? How many modifications can we get out? Where are we with the platform adoption, and finally the cutover to S/4.”

A single point of contact for SLAs and clear line of sight to the responsible party for business transformation, application services and infrastructure is a breakthrough proposition for customers. SAP had been searching for a compelling carrot to lead its install base to S/4HANA for nearly seven years and RISE delivers that and more.

RISE is a ‘business model as a service’ and one that is finely tuned for the complexities of modern commerce.

SAP’s guiding principles for RISE, in fact its north star for all customer engagements, has four simple components: use Signavio to understand and redesign processes; partner with hyperscalers and move workloads to the cloud; migrate to S/4HANA while maintaining a clean core; augment the solution and build innovations on BTP.

In addition to this simple four step plan, RISE also delivers a plethora of other business benefits which includes one of SAP’s most important but often overlooked offering – SAP Business Network. This new combination of product, services and platform has been in the making for years but it wasn’t until Sapphire 2022 that the moving parts coalesced into what could be one of the most significant contributions by SAP to the global economy since its inception.

The SAP Business Network is a network-as-a-platform for transacting, managing, analysing, and optimising the panoply of processes needed to do business in today’s complex global economy. While the full realisation of the Business Network is still a few years out, it’s already well-positioned to begin supporting the underlying mechanisms of global trade: buying, selling, procuring, supplying, planning, servicing, transporting, operating, partnering, financing, and certifying, to mention just a few. All within a single, many-to-many business platform. 

“The Business Network is a big differentiator because now when you are connecting companies we can not only help with the commerce side of things and with supply chains, but also it has a big role to play in ESG. If you are a car manufacturer and you want to reduce carbon then you have to look outside of your own enterprise. You need to analyse the whole value chain and measure the end to end impact. With the Business Network customers will be able to build these reliable supply chains and measure their sustainability across the entire value chain.”

To answer my own question: RISE is not just a mechanism for a commercial engagement. It’s not just a go-to-market play. It provides infinitely more than just a route to the cloud. I’d go as far as to say it’s not just transformation as a service either – it goes way beyond that. RISE is a ‘business model as a service’ and one that is finely tuned for the complexities of modern commerce. In one handshake both new and existing customers can build a business around an end to end offering that covers every conceivable aspect of doing business.

RISE may well have been originally conceived as an accelerator for cloud and S/4HANA but as the proposition has evolved it has developed into a template for twenty-first century commerce encapsulating the full spectrum of cloud, applications, supply chains and sustainability. 


For five decades SAP has been many things to many people. Its forefathers created an industry that supports millions of jobs and provided the foundations for global commerce to flourish. Many of the business process blueprints that we take for granted were conceived by SAP in the 1970s and today it is creating new standards that will become the code for commerce in the digital age. S/4HANA will power the finances and supply chains of the world’s biggest companies. BTP will provide the platform and architecture that companies use to construct new business models and innovate. The Business Network will be the foundation for a global consortium of intelligent enterprises that design, manufacture and sell the produce that citizens, companies and countries depend on. Above all else, SAP will be the company that provides the technology to convert aspirations into action – both in terms of business performance and sustainability – creating the next generation of industry leaders with the tools and insight to drive global commerce and a green agenda. In short, SAP was and still is the brand that defines an industry. In Klein’s own words, “We are just getting started.” Here’s to the next 50 years.   


The story behind the cover

We were expecting a challenging meeting when we arrived at SAP HQ in mid-April. The conflict in Ukraine was taking a huge amount of focus at SAP and its entire leadership team were also gearing up for multiple Sapphire events around the world. Our experience could not have been any more different to what we anticipated. Klein and his team were patient, welcoming and accommodating and made our experience one to remember. Particular thanks to Sam Finnegan and Thomas Leonhardi for facilitating.