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Covisint Running Out of Excuses to Deliver on Its B2B Promise

How -- and how soon -- the auto-parts exchange becomes reality is crucial for the entire B2B sector.



can't blame it on the government anymore.

When word came Monday that the

Federal Trade Commission

had green-lighted the Big Three automakers' Internet exchange, the business-to-business world breathed a collective sigh of relief. That huge cloud of uncertainty, known as government intervention, had been lifted.

Which means Covisint can't blame its state of disarray on the policy wonks anymore. Instead, the company will have to execute on its B2B promise -- soon -- for positive momentum to continue in the B2B sector.

The influence of the mega exchange, in which


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General Motors

(GM) - Get Report




plan to buy materials and supplies on the Internet, has already affected the performance of business-to-business stocks. Just look at

Commerce One


on Monday, when Covisint's FTC clearance was made public. It shot up $3.75, or 5.3%, to close at $75.13, though it had traded as high as $78.13. But Tuesday, after the initial impact of Covisint's clearance had waned, so did Commerce One's stock price. It closed down $6, or 8%, at $69.12.

Similarly, when the antitrust issues started creeping onto the B2B scene, and the government made known that it was looking at the exchange over antitrust concerns, B2B stocks swooned. Now, going forward, how Covisint executes on making B2B a reality, and not just the substance of a press release, will surely play itself out on B2B stocks.

Right now, though, the company's prospect for swift and flawless execution of its vision doesn't look good. It hasn't named a CEO. It hasn't finalized yet where its headquarters will be. And perhaps most important, it has yet to hammer out exactly what technology it will run on.

"Covisint doesn't have a crutch or an excuse anymore," says Scott Crompton, vice president for global automotive practices at consultant


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. "Before, they could lean on the FTC as to why they weren't going forward, but now, they're going to have to show some meaningful progress."

To date, there has been anything but. In its first few months, the company stumbled about nameless, until Covisint was decided upon. That moniker, which is meant to evoke the ideals of communication, vision and integration, instead elicited visions of corporate wonks sitting around a triangular table white-boarding their separate goals.

All the while, the company had four interim co-CEOs and two competing technologies to run on. Because


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had worked with Ford and Commerce One with GM before Covisint was announced, the two software firms were both brought into the deal. But ever since then, speculation has run rampant over whether one firm would push the other out of the picture.

On Monday, Commerce One's CEO told

that the technology question still hadn't been settled, even if the FTC's antitrust ones had.

Combine all those things and what you've got is the picture of a joint venture between three highly competitive companies that's going nowhere fast. Or, as Crompton puts it, Covisint is "three different companies, two different technologies and everyone talking about whether there's a lot of arguing and infighting."

But Covisint's already come up with someone else to blame. Now that the FTC has passed, the company says that it's waiting for approval from the Bundeskartellamt, or the German equivalent to the FTC. Covisint insists it can't even begin operations in the U.S. until it gets the go-ahead from that agency.

"If you were a supplier and I was a manufacturer, both located in San Francisco, we could not do business because the Bundeskartellamt still holds this control over Covisint," says Thomas Hill, a Covisint spokesman. "Everyone at Covisint is anxious to start this business. Once the Bundeskartellamt gives its blessing, we expect to see Covisint up and running in 30 days."

Hill concedes that might sound like another excuse for justifying its lack of actual operations.

"Sure, that might seem like another convenient excuse to delay a launch," Hill said. "I would say if people could work 25 hours a day to get this done, they would. ... Everyone at Covisint is focused on launching in a really timely fashion."

The company hasn't settled on a headquarters, in part, because it expects its yet-to-be-named CEO to have some input into that decision. And as far as that CEO goes, Covisint is still looking for one. Again, Hill said it was hard to fill the spot when the FTC was probing the endeavor because of the uncertainty that it brought with it.

"If you're a CEO, why would you leave your current job and take the Covisint job before the FTC approved it?" Hill offered. "And on the other hand, if you're the FTC and you see the company you're reviewing hiring people, that might make you look a little more closely at what they're doing."

Both good points. But the fact remains that Covisint still has a lot more work to do to get up and running, and these kinds of challenges tend to take more time than expected, not less. And if those challenges become problems for the company, the company could become a problem for the entire B2B sector, as investors realize all over again how hard it will be to make B2B work.

So the FTC's approval, while good for the ideal of B2B in general, might have come a bit early for Covisint and the public B2B companies now trying to show real results going forward.

"My perspective is that this approval from the FTC is very important for the industry as a whole, but it shouldn't be a suggestion that Covisint has anything wonderful in the works," says Ben Smith, a consultant with

A.T. Kearney

. (His firm is a subsidiary of


, which formerly was a part of General Motors.) "Now we can move on to execution. But this doesn't suggest that Covisint has moved to that stage."

Which means investors in B2B should watch the performance of this exchange closely.