John Thompson: Chairman and CEO, Symantec

Larry Hooper
In Silicon Valley, he's known for his good taste and love of expensive cars, fine wines and designer suits. So what was Symantec Chairman and CEO John Thompson doing at a dude ranch in September? Driving cattle, of course.

"I do appreciate the finer things," the 54-year-old Thompson says. "But I'm really just a country kid. I love art and big cities, but if I had to choose between staring at a painting inside a museum and feeling the wind and the air outdoors, I would definitely choose the latter."

Those who know him well say the late-summer dude ranch excursion isn't out of character for Thompson. But Seagate CEO Steve Luczo adds: "I'll bet he had creases in his jeans."

He describes Thompson, who sits on Seagate's board, as "a well-dressed country boy" who is as comfortable with himself in a formal business setting as he is on a duck-hunting trip. Luczo also appreciates Thompson's honesty and clarity in board meetings. "He's not afraid to get in my face and tell me what he thinks," Luczo says.

Thompson isn't abrasive, though. Dick Clarke, former cyber-security adviser to President Bush, says he can be disarmingly frank and very hard-charging while appearing to be giving the soft sell. "He can be very determined and convincing in making a point without making you feel like you've been hit between the eyes with a bullet," Clarke says.

The one characteristic that defines Thompson's leadership abilities, however, is his ability to maintain a broad perspective, associates say. "As a person and as a business leader, John Thompson is dynamic, trustworthy and truly understands the big picture, while at the same time he has the uncanny ability to focus on the moment," says John Chambers, president and CEO of competitor Cisco Systems.

Clarke, who worked with Thompson on President Bush's National Infrastructure Advisory Council, says Thompson brought a holistic view of IT security to the Council table that no other IT CEO could bring. "The IT industry is so stovepiped: Everybody focuses on their own niche," Clarke says. "But John has a good understanding of how it all relates."

There is no doubt Thompson has a grasp of the big picture. His success in transforming Symantec, Cupertino, Calif., from an antivirus-software company into an end-to-end provider of IT security is proof enough.

Since taking the reins of Symantec in April 1999, Thompson steered the company from a consumer software provider with $632 million in revenue to an enterprise security products vendor with fiscal 2003 revenue of $1.4 billion, all during a time when most IT companies were shrinking. In its quarter ended July 4, Symantec earned $68 million on revenue of $391 million, up from $56.5 million on sales of $316 million last year.

"I have watched John transform the company from a hodgepodge of disparate product lines into a very pure, clean and focused security business," says George Reyes, CFO of Google and a Symantec board member.

After applying his holistic approach to Symantec's product offerings, Thompson embarked on changing the way security technology is marketed and deployed. He integrated Symantec's security offerings more tightly and filled in gaps. In just the past two months, the company announced three acquisitions to help it deliver a more integrated platform. Thompson also beefed up training for partners to deliver integrated solutions.

"It's a wonderful model for ensuring that more small businesses and midsize companies are able to take advantage of sophisticated security in a time when the skills necessary to do that are in very short supply," Thompson says.

Some partners say Thompson's holistic view of security is just what customers need. "From a vision standpoint, John is redefining the company from a security software vendor to a full life-cycle security partner for enterprises," says John Freres, president of Meridian IT Solutions, Schaumburg, Ill. "He's spot on with what the security market needs right now."

With a constant flow of new competitors entering the security market,including Microsoft and Cisco Systems,Symantec's future success is hardly etched in stone.

"Having Microsoft enter your market is always a cause for concern, but it will not eliminate Symantec's opportunity," says Roger MacNamee, managing director of venture capital firms Integral Capital Partners and Silver Lake Partners. "It may change it, but when the dust settles, Symantec will have a place."

Published for the Week Of November 17, 2003

When it comes to security experts with clout, these executives are at the top of the list:

As corporate vice president for Microsoft's Security Business Unit, the ex-Data General software engineer arguably has the most highly scrutinized job in high-tech security. The company's Trustworthy Computing Initiative, led by Nash, is working feverishly to shore up the native defenses in Microsoft's products.

Whenever a highly publicized security breach occurs, Schneier is invariably tapped for comment. Among other things, the founder and CTO of Counterpane Internet Security, Cupertino, Calif., designed the Blowfish encryption algorithm and has written six books on security.

Yoran, the nation's new cybersecurity chief, will hold a lower-profile position than his predecessor. But Yoran is no stranger to the Beltway. Before starting Riptech, an intrusion-detection software firm sold to Symantec in July 2002, he was director of the Defense Department's computer emergency response team.

The ex-mayor of New York and former Time Man of the Year has quietly been building a security consulting practice through Giuliani Partners, of which he is chairman and CEO. Most recently, Ernst & Young called on Giuliani's team to create its Advanced Security Centers in New York and Houston.

Once President Bush's point man for cybersecurity, Clarke became chairman of Good Harbor Consulting, an Arlington, Va.-based security consulting firm, this year. Unimpressed by the government's effort to implement its National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, Clarke this summer unveiled an alliance of IT firms pledged to work toward a safer national infrastructure.

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