How to avoid a culture clash post-acquisition

Melding disparate businesses is never easy, but controversies surrounding the takeover and her predecessor’s parting message have made the task even trickier for Rania Succar, CEO of Intuit Mailchimp. She explains how she’s risen to the challenge
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It’s hard to imagine two companies with more different cultures than Mailchimp and Intuit. While the former wants to be seen as an upstart disrupting the status quo, the latter is firmly part of the establishment. 

Mailchimp portrays itself as “proudly weird”. In 2019 it was happy to deface photos of its founders in what marketing vice-president Sean Cook described as an “act of cheeky vandalism”. Intuit, by contrast, is very much a corporate conformist, as evidenced by its liberal use of US-standard management-speak (“stronger together”, “integrity without compromise”, “we care and give back”) to describe its “operating values”.

This clash of styles meant that Intuit, maker of the popular accounting package QuickBooks, faced a struggle to bring Mailchimp into the fold after it acquired the email marketing platform in a deal worth about $12bn (£9.4bn) in November 2021.

The person who has been responsible for this task since August 2022 is Rania Succar, a former QuickBooks senior vice-president, who moved over to run the new subsidiary – renamed Intuit Mailchimp – as CEO.

While Succar’s experience had prepared her for handling many of the tricky situations that business leaders have to handle, from leading transformation projects to dealing with PR crises, the integration process presented an entirely new set of challenges. 

Bringing Mailchimp and Intuit together

Succar recalls that the acquisition was “a bit of a shock to the system” for the Mailchimp contingent, many of whom hadn’t been expecting a sale. “It felt alien to their system to be acquired by such a big organisation at the beginning,” she recalls.

Team spirit suffered as a result, with several employees fearing that their firm would lose its underdog ethic, having literally sold out. Commenting anonymously on the employee forum, one staff member wrote that the takeover had “devastated trust and morale”. 

Indeed, staff turnover shot up soon after the takeover, with a string of senior engineers leaving the business. Intuit’s CEO, Sasan Goodarzi, reportedly held a Zoom call to address the concerns of the subsidiary’s employees, most of whom were offered pay rises of 10% in a bid to stop the exodus.

It all made for a delicate situation for Succar to handle in her first CEO role. Explaining her intentions, she says: “I want to preserve what’s unique and special about Mailchimp’s culture while also creating a sense of belonging with Intuit, so that people feel appreciated, valued and part of something bigger.”

It felt alien to their system to be acquired by such a big organisation at the beginning

Recognising that this is a tricky balance to strike, she adds: “On some levels, the cultures are very different: whereas Intuit is well established, Mailchimp is a relative startup that’s home to an insane amount of creativity.”

But she soon found that the two companies do share some characteristics, particularly a commitment to helping small enterprises and their “strong customer obsession”.

By concentrating on these commonalities, Succar was able to start bringing the two disparate organisations together. 

“I focused on moving beyond the issues that the acquisition had created and getting back to a point where teams felt excited by their work,” she explains. 

After conducting several listening exercises and adding new members to the leadership team, Succar felt confident enough to set out new priorities for Intuit Mailchimp to “refocus the organisation”. 

She describes these as “bold, energising – and durable”, alluding to the fact that many employees had complained about Mailchimp’s “constantly shifting priorities. We laid out a compelling, energising product vision and, as a result, saw a material increase in morale. The energy has improved. We’re in a much better spot.”

Replacing a company founder

The other big challenge for Succar was the fact that she was succeeding one of the business’s co-founders, Ben Chestnut. Having served as Mailchimp’s CEO since starting the business in 2001, he announced that he would be handing the reins over fully to her in August 2022. (He remains listed as an adviser.)

Succar says that the pair had “a good partnership through the transition” and that Chestnut had briefed her about the history, ethos and values of Mailchimp before her installation, so that she could “represent and honour them as soon as I walked in”.

Shortly before stepping down, the tech billionaire sent a 1,400-word company-wide email complaining about the use of preferred gender pronouns at work, arguing that it did “more harm than good”. Some observers speculated that these contentious comments directly influenced the decision to replace him with Succar.

A spokesperson for Intuit said at the time: “We expect everyone, including leaders, to be accountable for approaching all situations with empathy, always considering the experiences of others… We addressed this immediately and took appropriate action in alignment with Intuit’s values and principles.”

Succar won’t comment on the situation directly, but does say that Intuit “takes diversity, equity and inclusion really seriously. We absolutely embrace people using pronouns. This is a part of people’s identity and something we really want them to come to work with.”

How to be an authentic leader

As a leader, Succar – who is the daughter of Syrian merchants – also espouses the importance of authenticity. “I increasingly talk about my own diverse background,” she says. “And I lead with tremendous transparency.”

When introducing herself to the business, she went to considerable lengths to ensure that people understood her on a personal level as well as professionally. 

“I was blown away by the degree to which that resonated with the team,” Succar recalls. “People were telling me how much it mattered to them to hear about my kids and see pictures of my family.”

People were telling me how much it mattered to them to hear about my kids and see pictures of my family

A mother of two pre-school children, Succar describes her time with them as “by far the best part of my life”. She starts her days early – at 4am on weekdays – so that she can shut her laptop at 5.30pm sharp and spend quality time with her children before putting them to bed. 

Explaining how she balances leading a multibillion-pound business, raising two young children and working as a director of Jusoor, a charity helping Syrian children to access education, Succar says: “As long as you know your values and fill your time with energy-expanding activities, you can accomplish quite a bit.” 

It’s the kind of positivity that should equip her to complete a mission that would test a seasoned CEO, let alone a first-timer entering an organisation with a completely alien culture.