A lover of fine wines and down-home cooking, fast cars and horseback riding, John Thompson knows how to strike a balance.
The consummate salesman, the Symantec chairman and CEO has been known to serve ribs and beans with a $500 bottle of wine and convince his guests not only that the combination makes sense, but that it is right.
And that skill carries over into the business world, says Doug Elix, an IBM senior vice president who worked with Thompson when he was at IBM and has attended one of his “bordeaux and barbeque” dinners.
“He has a way of making things very simple,” Elix says. “He has a very clever and calm way of getting people to focus on the bigger picture and get everybody on board.”
While those skills have served Thompson well in his career at IBM and as CEO of Symantec, never have they been put to the test as they have in the past 11 months as he worked to convince Wall Street, customers and partners that combining the security leader with storage software leader Veritas Software not only made sense, but was the right thing for both companies.
If he succeeds in executing on his vision of combining security and storage technologies within Symantec, Thompson could very well reshape the entire infrastructure software landscape.
If anyone can do it, Thompson can. It was his vision that morphed Symantec from a $632 million consumer antivirus company in 1999 into an enterprise security player with $2.5 billion in sales last year as industry observers scoffed.
With the completion of the Veritas merger in July, Symantec about doubled in size, adding more than $2 billion in annual revenue. But Thompson still needs to show that this particular combination of beans and wine makes sense.
Initial reaction to the merger announcement in December took Thompson by surprise. Symantec’s stock went into a slide as investors voiced reservations about Thompson’s plan and his ability to pull off such a large integration.
“Anytime you do a transformational transaction or a large transaction, there will be some pressure on the equity of the company,” Thompson told CRN. “So we certainly did anticipate that there would be some downward pressure on the equity, but not to the degree that we saw.”
Thompson says people had not been paying attention to all the things Symantec had been doing. The company had launched a marketing campaign around information integrity, talked about the need to link security and availability, and acquired two companies with backup and recovery technology, all to deliver on a vision of creating a more secure, resilient infrastructure. “But obviously those things did not resonate with the market as we thought they would,” he says.
Partners of both companies were also uncertain. Symantec partners worried that the more direct Veritas culture would overtake the traditionally channel-friendly Symantec and dilute its razor-sharp focus on the fast-changing security space. And Veritas partners expressed concerns that a “consumer” company such as Symantec would not know how to play in the enterprise.
Still, Thompson was not deterred. Often referring to himself as the “chief sales officer,” Thompson put on his sales cap and hit the road, speaking wherever and whenever he could on why the Symantec-Veritas combination was right and necessary.
“He did not back off [for] one moment on everything he said about Veritas and the need and the value of that acquisition, despite the pressure that he was under,” says Bruce Chizen, CEO of Adobe, San Jose, Calif., who met Thompson through a Silicon Valley CEO peer group. “He did not cave. The leadership he demonstrated under difficult circumstances was admirable.”
In fact, Thompson’s dogged determination in the Veritas merger served as an example for Chizen as his company worked through the hurdles of acquiring Macromedia. “I continue to ask him to share with me his experience, and that has helped me form my own opinions on how to move ahead with Macromedia,” Chizen says. “I learned a great deal from the experiences he had.”
Through it all, Thompson never lost his sense of humor. After an energetic keynote speech touting the virtues of the merger at Veritas Vision in San Francisco in April, Thompson took questions from the audience of Veritas partners and users. When one VAR stood up to say that he “got” the merger and approved, Thompson asked him to speak loud enough for Wall Street to hear.
Still, going into a September partner conference in Phoenix, Symantec and Veritas VARs were hungry for information on how the merger would affect their businesses, and many expressed doubts about combining security and storage—or availability, as the newly merged company had begun to call it. But as details of product bundles and a combined channel program dribble out, partners, too, are coming over to Thompson’s side.
“I am pumped about it now,” says Steve Barone, president of longtime Symantec partner Creative Breakthroughs, Shelby Township, Mich. That wasn’t always the case. “The acquisition was so big, and we didn’t play in the Veritas space before, so I truly questioned whether we would play in it afterwards,” Barone says. “I was worried that companies like ours would get lost in the transition, and I was a little overwhelmed by it.”
Thompson’s leadership was a big factor in changing his mind. “When it comes down to it, I really believe in the guy,” Barone says.
Even before selling Wall Street and the channel, Thompson had to convince Veritas Chairman Gary Bloom that the combination made sense. “When he asked to get together for a glass of wine, I knew there was more to it,” Bloom says. “But I wasn’t sure what he had in mind.”
While Bloom’s initial reaction to Thompson’s proposal over a glass of wine at the Village Pub in Woodside, Calif., was that Veritas was not for sale, Thompson was able to persuade Bloom to take the idea to his board for consideration. Veritas was already considering expanding into the security market, Bloom says, so the idea was interesting.
The wine, however, was not. “I’ve always heard that John has this amazing knowledge of wine,” Bloom says. “But we got together over a cheap glass. He still owes me a good glass of wine.”
With the job of selling the merger behind him, Thompson still owes partners a good glass of wine as well. That may take awhile. In the first earnings report since the merger, Symantec sales were up 71 percent to $1.06 billion for the second quarter ended Sept. 30, but acquisition-related charges resulted in a loss of $251.3 million. What worried analysts more was the departure of CFO Greg Myers and a weak sales projection.
But the true test of whether Thompson can make good on his promise of integrated security and availability—delivered through an integrated channel—will come in the months ahead. If history is any indication, Thompson will likely cook up an interesting feast.
Vice President, Global Channel Sales and Strategy
MISSION: After the departure of longtime channel champion Allyson Seelinger, Parris is the go-to executive responsible for the smooth integration of the Symantec and Veritas programs.
Vice President, Americas Channel Sales
MISSION: Symantec's U.S. point person for the implementation of partner programs. Cochran hopes to keep disruptions in the field to a minimum as the security giant's transition continues into the new year.