IT Hall Of Famer Vitagliano's Success Is A Testament To Lessons Learned From His Parents

Frank Vitagliano credits the lessons he learned from his parents growing up in a tight-knit Italian family in a blue-collar working-class neighborhood for leading to his rise from a teenager working in the IBM mailroom to a technology channel sales icon and the newest member of the IT Hall of Fame.

"My parents are a big part of my success," said Vitagliano, recalling growing up in a six-family home that was filled entirely with 15 members of his extended family. "I learned from them the importance of integrity and doing the right thing. It sounds easier than it is sometimes. I learned about treating people right and getting things done. Watching how my mother and father did things while I was growing up was very good for me."

Vitagliano's father, Frank – whose nickname was "Footsie" – drove a truck for 30 years for The Massachusetts Lumber Co. and then finished his working life as janitor. Footsie was admired as one of the most likable guys in the neighborhood – affable, gregarious and always ready with a kind word for others.

[Related: Channel Icon Frank Vitagliano To Be Inducted Into IT Hall Of Fame]

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His mother, Julia – who worked as a waitress at Elsie's, a Jewish deli – was always in motion, never sitting down, a Type A personality. Even after a full day of work, she always made sure dinner was on the table at 6 p.m. and then worked into the night cleaning and putting two kids -- Frank and his younger sister, Angela -- to bed.

Those early lessons on character and doing the right thing have served Vitagliano well. Nicknamed "Little Foots" as his father's son, Vitagliano put himself through Northeastern University under the IBM tuition reimbursement program and then worked his way up the ladder to become by all measures the greatest channel chief of the modern IT sales era.

Over four decades, the Iron Horse of the channel has helped deliver literally billions of dollars in technology sales as the channel chief for three companies- - IBM, Juniper Networks and Dell. And then the hard-working kid from East Cambridge, Mass., created the ultimate second act to his fabled channel career by becoming CEO of one of the most respected national solution providers in the country – Computex Technology Solutions.

Through it all, Vitagliano has forever redefined what it means to be a channel chief, mentoring dozens of channel executives and becoming a hero to a new generation of channel executives. They see Vitagliano as the "Mayor of the Channel" -- a living legend for his ability to develop long-lasting, unbreakable bonds with partners with his old-school neighborhood ethos. Partners say Vitagliano combined a natural integrity and tireless work ethic with an uncanny ability to make things happen in the sales trenches. They say Vitagliano's word was his bond.

As for his colleagues in the vendor and distribution communities, they credit Vitagliano with being a channel symphony conductor of sorts, bringing together the unique strengths of partners, technology vendors and distributors to drive game-changing solutions for customers with an unbending commitment to drive win-win-win relationships in the often-tenuous channel ecosystem.

When the channel business model was under attack as Dell's supply chain prowess came to the fore in the PC era with a direct sales model, it was Vitagliano, then at IBM, who stood his ground and led the charge on a head-to-head economic analysis between the Dell direct model and the channel – an economic analysis that showed the channel model was just as cost-effective. Vitagliano also was one of the driving forces behind the distribution partner communities that have become a staple of the industry. And when Dell wanted to prove its channel mettle, it was Vitagliano the company turned to for help accelerating channel momentum.

Bob Faletra, CEO of the Channel Company and a 2014 inductee into the IT Hall of Fame for his fierce channel advocacy over three decades, said CompTIA, which took over the IT Hall of Fame seven years ago from The Channel Company, made a great choice in Vitagliano. He said Vitagliano -- the ultimate channel chief – succeeded by doing business the "old-fashioned way," meeting people face-to-face and building win-win scenarios for partners and technology vendors with unmatched integrity.

"As a channel chief, Frank did it better than anybody else and, more than anybody else, and he did it the right way -- with integrity and perseverance," said Faletra. "At the end of the day, Frank always did what he said he was going to do. And he did it by getting on a plane every week, meeting people face-to-face and asking, 'What is going on in your business, and how can I help so we both can be successful?' It's the way business used to be done and still should be done. Everybody thinks they can sit down at a keyboard now and make stuff happen. The reality is business is still a face-to-face proposition."

Vitagliano always looked at the thousands and thousands of partners he worked with day in and day out as customers, said Faletra. "Many vendors just don't look at the channel as a customer," he said. "Now Frank is a customer for all these vendors. He has come full circle. He is one of the few executives that has done it all, from working for a big company like IBM to a smaller company like Juniper and then a company trying to break into the channel like Dell. And now, as CEO of Computex, Frank is a partner. Frank knows the channel at a very deep level. If I need to ask somebody about a nuance in the channel, Frank is the guy I call."

Faletra said Vitagliano's trademark in the channel was honesty and integrity. "Partners always knew that Frank would give it to them straight and try to work with them, and if he couldn't help he would be honest and tell partners that," said Faletra. "Frank wouldn't just tell you what you wanted to hear."

Through it all, Faletra said Vitagliano has never forgotten his roots as a kid growing up in East Cambridge. "His closest friends are still the guys he grew up with, none of whom are in the IT Hall of Fame," said Faletra.

Going To College And Working At IBM

Vitagliano realized early on that if he wanted to go to college he would have to figure out a way to pay for it. That door swung open when Vitagliano's father got him a job in the IBM mailroom. "I was 17 and needed a job," he recalled. "My father knew somebody who knew somebody at IBM who said, 'Call this guy.' It was as simple as that."

As a high-school senior starting in December 1972, Vitagliano, who played high-school baseball and football, would leave school at noon and make his way to IBM's Newton Corner office, where he would help package and ship typewriter and typewriter ribbon orders. In his typical go-the-extra-mile manner, Vitagliano turned what was a part-time job into a full-time job by hanging around the office after his 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily duties were done and helping out in other departments like accounting and operations.

"When it came time to graduate high school, IBM offered me a full-time job," he said, recalling his good fortune. "Of course, I didn't grasp the significance of the fact at the time that this was IBM – one of the renowned companies in the world. The reason I took the job is I knew they had a tuition refund program."

Vitagliano worked at IBM during the days and attended Northeastern University at night. After seven years of going to school in the evenings, Vitagliano received his Bachelor of Science in business management.

Three years into working for IBM, Vitagliano's channel career was almost derailed when his Uncle Bobby Boncore -- who had a well-known tuxedo rental business in the Boston area called Mr. Tux -- offered young Frank a job managing one of his stores.

Vitagliano's father, rarely one to interfere, stepped in to make sure Vitagliano stayed the course with IBM. "My father, who never really pushed me, heard about it and made it very clear that was not something I was going to go do," said Vitagliano. "He realized what a great opportunity I had in front of me working at the greatest IT company on the planet. To this day, I don't know why I listened to him, but I did."

Vitagliano has more than once questioned what kind of turn his life would have taken if he did not listen to his father. "I know this," he said in deadpan fashion. "There is no Hall of Fame for tuxedo rentals."

Vitagliano's father was not one to sit down and have heart-to-heart conversations. He led by example, said Vitagliano. "I watched my dad and how he dealt with people and how people liked to talk to him and be with him," he said. "He was just a good guy. You can be a good guy and succeed. I learned that from him."

Vitagliano also knew when he saw his father working second shift as a janitor after The Massachusetts Lumber Co. had gone out of business that he wanted to build his own career doing something he loved. "That had a very profound impact on me," he said. "You could tell my dad wasn't happy during that time, but I watched how he handled it. He got up every day and went to work. That is the way I have always approached things: You show up. You get on the field and do what you need to do."

As for his mother, Vitagliano recalls her as a force of nature – always pushing and driving forward. "If she wasn't working she was cooking or cleaning the house," he said. "She was always doing something and was always there for my sister and me. She would take the bus from East Cambridge to Harvard Square each workday and arrive back at home in the afternoon with a full dinner on the table for the family."

Vitagliano remembers fondly those dinners, especially his favorites: eggplant parmigiana and stuffed peppers. "Sunday dinner was always a big event," he said, recalling the house that was purchased by his first-generation immigrant grandfather. "That was a big deal because it was our entire family in that house."

Meeting Ross Venuti

The 21-year-old Vitagliano's big break at IBM came when he was hired by Ross Venuti, an IBM supplies business manager, first as a shipping executive and then as a sales rep in a new business organization focused on typewriters and supplies.

Venuti, who was 10 years older and became a big brother of sorts to him, understood Vitagliano innately. They had similar blue-collar and ethnic roots. "He was a very ambitious young man, even with the long hair," said Venuti. "I was looking for people that wanted a career, not just a job. That was Frank. I liked him right from the beginning. He had a good reputation as a hard worker, family-oriented, determined, loyal and trustworthy. He fit the mold."

Venuti said Vitagliano's greatest gift even then was his street smarts. "Frank knew and understood people and how to get things done," he said. "You can take all the courses you want, read all the books you want and make all the honor rolls you want, but street smarts are invaluable, and that is something that Frank always had.".

Vitagliano quickly emerged as the new business unit's sales leader – always going the extra mile for customers and colleagues. "We started that business from ground zero, and Frank was instrumental in making it successful," said Venuti.

One sign of Vitagliano's dogged determination came when a critical weekly sales report with a profile of all the group's accounts was mistakenly left out and tossed into the trash by a janitor. Vitagliano knew the trash truck had not come yet, so he jumped into action, ran straight to the dumpster, dove in and came up waving the report. "All I could think was, 'Here comes the trash truck. Am I going to have to fill out a death report?'" joked Venuti, recalling the act of corporate derring-do.

From the supplies business, Vitagliano moved into a role as a sales leader for The IBM Product Centers- - IBM product stores. A major turning point came when Nynex bought the IBM Product Centers. Vitagliano initially made the decision to join Nynex and then pulled back. It was a life-changing decision. It was then that Venuti stepped in and got Vitagliano a job in the IBM channel.

At the time, Venuti, who remains one of Vitagliano's closest friends, reached out to Dave Boucher – one of the founding fathers of the PC channel and a 2000 inductee into the IT Hall of Fame -- for help landing Vitagliano a job. "Just what I need, another Italian from Boston," joked Boucher after giving Venuti the green light to bring Vitagliano on board.

Getting A Ph.D. In The Channel

It was at this point that Vitagliano's career took off with Boucher -- considered a giant in the channel – taking him under his wing. Vitagliano watched and learned with Boucher acting as "Mr. Outside," working the country and building strong relationships in the field with Vitagliano acting as "Mr. Inside" dotting channel I's and crossing channel T's in the home office.

Venuti marveled as he watched Vitagliano climb to the top of the channel pyramid under Boucher with a rare ability to look at all sides of the channel ecosystem and develop a win-win-win situation. "Frank understood the needs of the manufacturer, distributor and reseller and was able to tie it all together into an offer so that there were incentives there for the reseller and distributors to win along with the manufacturer," said Venuti. "It had to be a win-win-win."

Even when there were unpopular decisions that had to be made, Vitagliano was able to consider the needs of all concerned and maintain a balance so that all parties were happy, said Venuti. "It's a unique talent that can understand and implement that," he added. "You have to be a good listener, a good communicator, and you have to be likable. Frank didn't have a big ego like a lot of people. What I saw in Frank over the years is someone who had the ability to be respected and respectful, and when he had to take a tough stand, he could do that too without breaking a lot of glass."

Vitagliano, for his part, said it was his years working for Boucher that gave him what he calls a" Ph.D." in the channel. "Boucher was the original channel chief," said Vitagliano. "Dave was by far the best, most inspirational sales leader I have ever met. He was just a tremendous sales guy. People trusted him and loved him because he really cared about people. You talk about building relationships. He was a master at building relationships. Partners loved him and trusted him. I learned a lot from watching him. He was a role model for me and many others."

Whenever a business partner was on the phone, Boucher would drop whatever he was doing – even in the midst of meetings scheduled weeks and even months in advance -- to take the call. It was a lifelong lesson for Vitagliano – who once complained that Boucher would take those calls each and every time. Boucher looked Vitagliano straight in the eyes: "Just remember. Nobody in this office is buying anything. The only people buying anything are our customers and our partners. So I am always going to drop everything I do to pick up the phone for them."

Vitagliano said he has never forgotten that lesson in sales and relationship-building from Boucher. "I learned from Dave the only way to get a Ph.D. in the channel was to spend the time with partners and really try to understand their business, try to understand what they were doing and why they were doing it, how they made money, what they worried about, and what their strategy was," said Vitagliano. "You just don't do that as an 8 to 5 job. That gets done on weekends when you are at an event with a partner. It happens at night at dinner and at the bar."

Vitagliano said he was determined to know more about the channel than anyone else. "For me, the channel chief job wasn't a transitional role, it was a destination, it was something I wanted to do and wanted to keep doing," said Vitagliano. "In some cases, there are folks in certain companies that view it as a stepping stone to do something else. I never viewed it that way. As a result, I spent a lot of time and met a lot of people and tried to understand their business so when they called I could understand the significance of the problem."

The Boucher Impact

Vitagliano credits Boucher with mentoring him and giving him the channel education of a lifetime. "We throw the word 'legend' around lightly at times," said Vitagliano, recalling Boucher's impact on him and many others. "That guy was a legend. There are probably a group of 20 channel chiefs and CEOs that worked under him and came from what we call 'the Boucher tree.' I got lucky when I hooked up with Boucher and Venuti. There was trust with them, and you knew they had your back. At the end of the day, they were great mentors and we had a lot of fun."

Boucher, for his part, recalls Vitagliano as someone that you could always count on, who built up a professorial knowledge of the channel. "Frank is like money in the bank," said Boucher. "He will always be there for you whether it is midnight or 6 in the morning. He took to the channel and built up a tremendous amount of expertise. No one knows more about the channel than Frank."

Vitagliano's channel knowledge came in no small part from the pounding he took from Boucher on the importance of understanding the role that partners and distributors play in the channel. "Sometimes the direct guys want to take advantage of the channel," Boucher said. "You can't let that happen. That doesn't mean you don't remember who writes your paycheck. But if the channel isn't making money selling your product, you are going to lose them. Frank understood that."

Vitagliano also had the trust and integrity that is essential to succeeding in the channel, said Boucher, who used to give Vitagliano the same advice his own dad gave to him: "The Good Lord gives you integrity and you never want to give it away. The only one that can give it away is you."

"It all comes down to integrity and being true to your word," said Boucher. "Frank had the trust and confidence of partners, and he was able to maintain it over a long period of time with three different companies. That is not an easy thing to do. Frank deserves a lot of credit for that."

When Vitagliano started to rise up the channel ranks and pressed Boucher for more time out in the field – developing relationships on the golf course with partners -- Boucher would joke, "We want to keep our customers Frank -- not lose them. If partners knew I had a guy that worked for me that can't play better golf than you, they would stop selling IBM product. I used to joke with him – you have to stay on the inside. I don't want the customers to see you."

Of course, when Boucher stepped aside, it was Vitagliano he called upon to take the top job and become "Mr. Outside."

Going To Juniper

After 33 years at IBM, Vitagliano decided it was time to tackle a new challenge. So in March 2006, he took the senior vice president of global channels role at networking up-and-comer Juniper. At Juniper, Vitagliano proved he was no one-trick pony, taking the channel education he got at IBM and using it to build a highly successful channel business taking networking market leader and channel kingpin Cisco head on in the heart of the channel. At Juniper, Vitagliano got to work doing what he had always done – building relationships in the sales trenches with a rock-solid economic proposition for partners. The result: taking what was a $1 billion business and building it into a nearly $4 billion business.

Vitagliano credits Juniper channel veterans Steve Pataky, who is now vice president of worldwide sales at SonicWall, and Donna Grothjan, who is now vice president of worldwide channels at Aruba, for providing him with the channel muscle to help him through what was a rocky transition for him at times. "They helped me immensely," recalls Vitagliano. "Having worked for a big company for a long time, it was a tough transition to go to a smaller company with a different culture. I am very proud of what we did there. The team we had there put Juniper on the map as a channel player in the networking business. That was a beautiful time. We had a tremendous run."

Grothjan, who has worked with Vitagliano in various channel capacities for 16 years, said Vitagliano's genius at every job he has taken on is his authenticity and his ability to bring all sides of the industry together to succeed rather than just looking out for No. 1. "Frank is always Frank first," she said. "He is genuine. Frank has been in many positions and at any given time he represents the industry collectively. When you are in a meeting with him he always manages to take into account all points of view."

Grothjan said she doesn't think Vitagliano gets the credit he deserves for influencing the entire channel ecosystem over the course of his career. "Frank has set the channel standards and expectations for others to live by," she said. "In every capacity he has worked in he always brought the highest level of integrity – keeping in mind as a partner advocate what is right for the partners and what is right for the company and how to bring them both together and make it happen."

Grothjan, a former executive for distribution giant Ingram Micro, also remembers Vitagliano leading the charge as the channel business model came under attack during the zenith of the Dell direct sales era. Vitagliano was one of the few executives who understood the channel business model end to end, including the importance of distribution, she said. "That was unique," she said. "Frank had a significant impact on distribution and building the SMB partner communities."

Vitagliano himself recalls the exhaustive channel versus direct business model analysis he did, at the time challenging conventional wisdom. "We proved that in fact it wasn't more expensive to go to market through the channel -- that there was clearly value," he said. "Back then the value wasn't being calculated properly. I spent a lot of time studying it. The economics were there. You just had to spend the time to go through it."

The Dell Blockbuster

In partner circles, it is recalled as the channel shot heard round the world. That was when Dell in April 2013, looking to kick its channel effort into high gear, hired Vitagliano as its North American channel chief. Partners hailed the coming of Vitagliano to Dell as a turning point that brought instant credibility to the Dell channel offensive.

The Dell channel charge at the time was already building momentum under the steady hand of Greg Davis, a channel veteran who had cut his channel chops at IBM under none other than Vitagliano.

Vitagliano was a sales manager in Atlanta in the late 1980s when he made a sales call on The University of Tennessee bookstore where he met Davis, who was working as an IBM intern. "Greg was a smart young guy," said Vitagliano. "I told him to call me when he got out of school and he did. So we hired him as a channel account manager in Florida."

Davis, who considers Vitagliano a mentor and friend, said he was not surprised in the least by the plaudits that came from partners when Vitagliano came to Dell. "I knew Frank's legacy in the channel, and I fully expected the reaction we got when we hired him," said Davis. "Partners were excited. The addition of Frank to the team just revalidated our commitment to the channel. It gave us another level of credibility on the importance of the channel at Dell. Frank was a trusted leader in the channel, and when he communicated what we were doing, there was a level of credibility that gave us a boost with a great many partners."

Davis said he is one of many, many channel executives who has learned from Vitagliano's example. "I consider him a very valuable friend and leader," said Davis. "You don't have to go too far to get a long laundry list of channel executives that have worked for Frank. When you look at mentorship, leaders and channel advocates, all you have to do is look at the number of people that have worked for Frank that are now in executive leadership roles broadly across the channel. It's a big number. The facts speak louder than all the words you can write."

On Becoming A Solution Provider CEO

When Sam Haffar -- who had spent 30 years side by side with his brother, Jason, building Computex Technology Solutions of Houston into one of the most respected solution providers in the country -- knew he wanted to hand over the reins of the company to a new CEO, there was only one choice: Vitagliano.

Haffar – who built Computex with the credo "Customers For Life. Employees For Life" – said he had known Vitagliano for 15 years when he approached him to take the CEO role at Computex.

"Frank is high integrity, very trustworthy and you know you can count on him," said Haffar. "When Frank was on the OEM side of the business, anytime he said he was going to do something he did it. When Frank made a commitment, he delivered on it. It is that plain and simple. Doing what you say you are going to do. Your word is your bond. Believe me, that is not something that is very prevalent in the world in general. To find someone like Frank who has high integrity, a good work ethic and is trustworthy is rare. When you find people like that, you hold on to them. It was a very easy decision to go after Frank."

Haffar said Vitagliano's knowledge of the channel was key to bringing him on board. "He had intimate knowledge of the channel and how VARs operate and all the channel dynamics," said Haffar. "He already knows all of the OEMs and distributors. He has very good working relationships with all the executives in the channel. That has been very helpful. Frank has hit the ground running."

Vitagliano, who took the Computex helm in January, is already making a big impact with new managed services offerings and the hiring of a new senior vice president of sales to lead a security sales charge.

Vitagliano said the Computex job is a dream come true. "That's a job I always wanted to do," he said. "I admired solution providers for a long time, so when the opportunity came along, I jumped at it."

Vitagliano said he is having a lot of fun working with the smart and talented employees at Computex. He said he is driven by his passion for the solution provider business and his desire not to "let the Computex team and customers down."

The Hall of Fame

One sign of Vitagliano's impact on the industry is the long list of those making the trip to attend the Hall of Fame ceremony to honor him on Tuesday night at The Channel Company's XChange 2017 conference. Among the guests: Venuti; Boucher; Grothjan; Davis; Blaine Raddon, senior vice president of sales at ClearCenter; Ken Marks, vice president Americas Channels at Splunk; and Derek Maggiacomo, director of U.S. partner sales at Juniper.

Also in attendance will be Vitagliano's own family – his wife of 40 years, Jane, and his daughter, Jillian, a third-grade school teacher in the Fulton County School district in Atlanta. "I wouldn't be doing what I am doing and we wouldn't be having this conversation without the love and support of my family," he said. "I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate."

When asked in particular about his parents' influence as he gets ready to accept the IT Hall of Fame honor, the 62-year-old Vitagliano -- who these days finds himself frequently on the road meeting with Computex customers and employees throughout the country -- mentions a phone call he recently received at the Atlanta airport. It was from a Boston number he didn't recognize. It turned out – "believe it or not," said Vitagliano, to be his 93-year-old aunt – the wife of his Uncle Bobby who had offered him a job at Mr. Tux when he was starting out at IBM. "Oh my God," she exclaimed when she got Frank on the phone. "My son just read me the article on you entering the IT Hall of Fame. I had to call you. 'Your father would be so proud."'

Vitagliano said that was when he realized the importance of the Hall of Fame honor. "That was when the significance of it really hit me," he said, choking up at the memory of his parents. "When she called to tell me she was proud and my father would be proud, that was a big deal."