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EPlus executives agree that the practical investments philosophy comes from the top down: Philip Norton, ePlus' no-nonsense chairman, president and CEO. Norton, who declined to be interviewed on-record for this story, has kept ePlus focused by pushing financial objectives, margin opportunities and big-picture technology trends while eschewing trendy marketing and tactical maneuvers, and shrewdly building practices with vendors while staying neutral under their saber-rattling, according to ePlus employees.
It's Norton's particular belief, employees said, that ePlus field reps have to think big-picture. Kley Parkhurst, senior vice president for ePlus Technology, manages an intercompany newsletter, for example, that goes out to all of ePlus' sales, marketing and business development reps and includes news articles, analysis features, technology research and financial data that ePlus' executive team thinks bears watching.
"Phil thinks that a lot of salespeople are so tied to the products they sell and the account relationships they have that they're somewhat ignorant of big-picture trends that could drive thought leadership for us," said an ePlus executive who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press. "He doesn't want ePlus reps to be able to talk up data center products but not understand network virtualization and the trend around programmable networking."
Marron and Parkhurst explained that ePlus' goal is to focus on organic growth, but also address acquisition opportunities where it sees them, particularly with the post-recession fallout and shift toward architecture-based sales, creating a need for partners with more specialties.
Following a few years of staying largely quiet on the M&A front, ePlus has made a handful of acquisitions going back two years, including three during its fiscal 2012: NCC Networks, a Chicago-based security VAR, in June 2011; VantiCore, a Bedford, N.H.-based UC, contact center and managed services provider, in January; and Pacific Blue Micro, an Irvine, Calif.-based Cisco specialist, in February.
"We have a set of corporate objectives we're trying to meet," Parkhurst said. "We're building a national footprint, and we're looking at companies that can give us presence in a particular territory, give us a way to extend value or expertise we already have, or give us expertise we don't have and that can go across our entire base. We are very selective, disciplined and strategic in both our approach and execution."
Cisco remains ePlus' biggest vendor line by revenue, but its published line card includes more than 100 vendors, from tier-one behemoths like Cisco, HP, Microsoft and EMC to specialty players like Infoblox, Blue Cat Networks and Violin Memory, plus growing practices behind major vendors like Apple that are increasing their enterprise channel footholds.
Several observers told CRN that part of the reason ePlus can support so many lines while minimizing conflict is that it is particularly adept at vendor diplomacy.
"To their credit, they've largely avoided the Cisco-HP dogfight," said the chief executive of a nationally prominent solution provider and ePlus competitor, who asked that his name not be used. "All of us who carry competing lines like that have to be diplomats, but rather than glad-hand one and glad-hand the other, I've actually seen [ePlus'] top executives at council meetings say to these guys' faces they will continue to support the other guy more than ever and, 'We'll keep things steady where we see the best opportunities' and stuff like that. None of the top sales guys at HP or Cisco ever want to hear that, but ePlus is big enough to them that they can say that, and if they don't like it, tough."