Sage Software kicked off its annual customer conference with a welcome from top executives and a dynamic keynote given by Christopher Gardner, a formerly homeless man whose story inspired the film "The Pursuit of Happyness."

Chicago-born Nina Smith, president of the company's Business Management Division, addressed the more than 2,200 confab participants at the McCormick West Convention Center, telling them, "It's only by talking with our customers that we know how we're really doing, the good and the bad."

Doug Meyer, president of the Industry & Specialized Solutions Division, took the message a step further and named specific issues that the real estate and construction, nonprofit, and employer solutions area are facing.

"Because our products are tightly focused, we feel we might be the part of Sage that understands our customers the best," he said.

Those working in the construction industry cite the weakening housing market and the lending crisis as having a major impact, as well as difficulties attracting and retaining a skilled workforce, Meyer noted. Those in the nonprofit sphere are worried about the burdens of regulatory compliance and finding more highly involved board members, while those in employer services are confronted by the major staffing scare that comes with Baby Boomers leaving the workforce.

Both Smith and Meyer steered clear of discussing the termination of four top executives in October, which included the company's North American chief executive, Ron Verni.

Gardner told an inspiring story of how he went from being homeless, while caring for a young son, to becoming a Wall Street executive and eventually the chief executive of his own brokerage firm.

"These people spent $70 million to recreate what I did with nothing," Gardner said of the Hollywood movie starring Will Smith. "That just blows me away."

Neither drugs nor alcohol caused his situation. "Life happens," he said.

Sleeping in train stations, hotel lobbies and airports, and wondering each night if he had enough money to feed his baby and himself, Gardner landed a job at Dean Witter Reynolds in 1981 and was recruited by Bear Stearns in 1983. He said he found his match when he got a call from the chief executive saying the company wasn't founded by people with MBAs, but by those who were PSDs ("poor, smart and had a deep desire to become wealthy"). Gardner stayed with Bear Stearns through 1987, becoming a top earner. After leaving, he founded his own firm, Gardner Rich & Co.

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