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Meeting The Moment: HPE CEO Antonio Neri’s Year Of Extraordinary Leadership

HPE President and CEO Antonio Neri has met the global pandemic head on, leading with his heart and stepping up to help partners navigate the economic fallout with a bold edge-to-cloud Platform-as-a-Service future.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise President and CEO Antonio Neri was up as the sun rose over his San Jose, Calif., home on June 17 for an early morning webcast with strategic partner Comport Consulting.

For HPE Platinum partner Comport, Ramsey, N.J., the webcast for about 50 customers was a chance to show off its technology prowess, its ComportSecure managed services muscle and its tight partnership with one of the most technology-savvy CEOs in the business.

What none of the Comport team or the customers on the virtual event knew was that Neri would announce later that evening that he had tested positive for COVID-19 the day before.

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For Neri -- who during the webcast delivered a passionate discourse on the business, social and technology implications of the pandemic -- it was just another day of doing what he has come to be well-known for as CEO of HPE: stepping up and delivering for partners, even in the most difficult of times.

During a year that has seen the coronavirus pandemic rip apart the global economy while the U.S. and other parts of the world grapple with social unrest, Neri has been singled out as the No. 1 Most Influential Executive in 2020 by CRN .

Call it meeting the moment. At a time when leadership mattered most, Neri rose above this year’s class of Top 100 Executives, providing a calm and steady hand, an open heart and an unflinching commitment to partners.

Neri has stepped up time and time again to ensure that HPE delivers on its “Here To Help” pledge, from providing much-needed COVID-19 financial relief to calling for an end to systemic oppression and racism with a personal commitment to do more on that front to ensuring HPE employees feel safe by declaring that return to HPE offices would be voluntary.

Comport Consulting founder and CEO Jack Margossian, who has been teaming with HPE for more than 30 years, said Neri’s leadership is an extension of his humanity, character and personal commitment to HPE, its partners and its customers.

“Antonio’s a genuine person,” said Margossian. “He knows his partners and customers. He knows you personally. He cares. We are not just businesses to him. We are human beings and people. We have to be able to relate to one another and be able to change. Change doesn’t come from our governments. It comes from people who can actually influence other people. Antonio cares about his people, his business, the world around him, and he can influence that. He leads by example. If you do the right things, that helps everybody.”

Doing the right things for Neri means providing $2 billion in financing for an HPE Financial Services payment relief program and increased liquidity for HPE partners with extended payment terms for HPE distributors. It means committing to increased R&D and accelerating HPE’s pivot to an edge-to-cloud Everything-as-a-Service GreenLake on-premises consumption-based platform that is resonating more deeply with the rapid shift to work-at-home in the wake of the pandemic.

For HPE, the global pandemic has brought into focus the three central cultural traits that Neri has put forth to drive an HPE renaissance: partner, innovate and act.

For Neri, the full force of those three cultural traits has been a hallmark of his leadership during the pandemic. Of course, they aren’t new to Neri. They have been part and parcel of his career since he started at HPE 25 years ago in an Amsterdam customer call center.

Neri lives the principles of partner, innovate and act each and every day. Case in point: A few years ago a truck carrying a $2 million mission-critical storage solution for a Comport customer rolled over in a snowstorm, destroying all of the equipment inside. It was the Sunday before Christmas and Comport needed help. Margossian texted Neri and heard back within 10 minutes: “We’ll take care of it.”

“Antonio did take care of it with a replacement shipment that was expedited, and to bridge the gap we got some loaners from HPE Financial Services,” said Margossian. “Best of all, everything worked out for our customer. That’s the kind of friend Antonio is to Comport and our customers.”

Neri’s decision to follow through on the Comport webcast in the midst of battling COVID-19 is just one more example of his commitment to partners and customers, said Margossian.

“We were all surprised to find out Antonio had tested positive for COVID-19,” he said. “Antonio was on that call at 6:00 a.m. his time. He was there. He talked about business and the world, social unrest and the need to address these things. It wasn’t just one-dimensional. It meant a lot to Comport and our customers. It gave us credibility. Antonio cares about helping partners grow their business. He knows the partners and the value of the partners. That’s really important.”

Neri -- who refers to channel partners as part of HPE’s “extended family” -- said it was simply a matter of keeping a long-standing engagement, just one more example of what he calls HPE’s “unwavering commitment” to partners. “That’s what makes this company special and unique,” he said.

In an interview with CRN after self-quarantining and going 16 days without COVID-19 symptoms, Neri said he is feeling great. “All good,” he said. “All clear. No symptoms.”

Neri said the pandemic has made HPE’s edge-to-cloud Platform-as-a-Service strategy more compelling for customers and partners. “It is unfortunate what we are living through today with the pandemic and other issues which are creating social unrest,” he said, referencing the protests that sprang up across the world following the death of George Floyd. “But what these unfortunate events have proven is that our strategy could not be more spot on. We said three years ago that the enterprise of the future will be edge-centric, cloud-enabled and data-driven. Guess what? That is exactly what it is. We are living now in a massive distributed edge world with more and more people working from home. The enterprise is going to be more distributed than it ever has before.”

For partners, it opens the door, Neri said, to “tremendous opportunity to work with us to move into this new era and grow with us by becoming even more relevant than they ever have been before. As you know, this company has been, is and will continue to be a partner-led company.”

The partner-led focus was front and center at the Discover Virtual event in June, at which 750,000 people watched Neri unveil HPE’s latest and greatest technology innovations. Among the biggest blockbusters were a new open-source, cloud-native Kubernetes container software platform called Ezmeral and the next generation of HPE GreenLake cloud services -- 17 standardized “building block” cloud service offerings for small, midsize and large businesses.

Neri said the HPE Discover Virtual experience raised the bar for what a virtual event can be for customers and partners -- a complete reinvention of the virtual format. He credits HPE Chief Marketing Officer Jim Jackson and HPE Chief Communications Officer Jennifer Temple for leading the charge. “They took up that challenge and said, ‘How can we deliver a completely different experience to our customers and partners and analysts?’” he said. “In that context, they designed this from the ground up.”

Doubling Down On HPE’s Everything-as-a-Service Strategy

Even as HPE embarks on a three-year “Cost Optimization And Prioritization Plan” aimed at delivering $1 billion in gross savings, Neri has not blinked on the company’s big bold bet to deliver the full HPE portfolio in an as-a-service model by 2022.

In fact, Neri has doubled down on the Everything-as-a-Service bet with a strategy to move even faster to bring HPE and its partners into the future with an unmatched consumption-based cloud experience for customers from the edge to the core to the cloud.

At the same time, HPE has maintained the robust 17 percent up-front rebate on GreenLake sales. That’s helping partners fund a transformation to the longer sales cycle that comes with the business-outcome-based GreenLake model.

To move even faster, Neri has also restructured the company for a “post-COVID-19 world” as a more agile organization with a new GreenLake Cloud Services Business Group headed by Keith White, a former Microsoft cloud superstar who joined HPE last December.

In addition, he has appointed a new chief technology officer, HPE Senior Vice President Kumar Sreekanti. Sreekanti -- who is taking on a dual role as both CTO and the head of software -- is the one-time co-founder and CEO of artificial intelligence/big data highflier BlueData, which HPE acquired in 2018.

Last but not least, Neri now has all seven of HPE’s business group leaders reporting to him as part of a new executive committee charged with accelerating the company’s Everything-as-a-Service strategy.

C.R. Howdyshell, president of Advizex Technologies, No. 110 on the CRN 2020 Solution Provider 500, said Neri’s bold Everything-as-a-Service bet has had a “transformative” effect on Cleveland-based Advizex. In fact, he said, it has been pivotal in moving Advizex to a business-outcome-based services sales model that is designed to provide customers the ability to consume everything as a service.

“At this time when it comes to everything as a service and an on-prem[ises] consumption model, HPE has a distinct competitive advantage,” said Howdyshell.

That competitive advantage is paying off, with the Advizex GreenLake consumption sales pipeline up 40 percent this year, said Howdyshell.

“GreenLake changes the conversation for us to what is the impact the cloud has on the business versus how much compute or storage do you need,” he said. “It changes the game to what are the business challenges customers are facing and how we can put together a solution that will address those challenges. Kudos to HPE for doing this. This is all about consumption. HPE gets it. This is accelerating our transformational efforts.”

The financial pressures from the global pandemic are driving a significant uptick in interest in GreenLake, particularly among customers in markets facing cash-flow challenges, such as health care, said Howdyshell.

“With one health-care customer, we moved away from the storage conversation and put together a proposal for everything in their data center that they could take action on and not have to pay anything until January,” he said. “GreenLake gives you the ability to look at things holistically.”

Partners said HPE’s leadership in consumption-based offerings has given them a potent weapon to help customers build a hybrid cloud strategy that provides the right cloud for the right workload -- at the edge, at the core, in containers or even in public cloud. The hybrid cloud security, cost and compliance benefits of GreenLake Central are causing more customers to adopt the GreenLake model.

One of the biggest Advizex GreenLake wins was an impressive on-premises cloud services deal announced earlier this year with an initially skeptical Mohawk Valley Health System of Utica, New York.

Advizex, a 35-plus-year HPE partner, implemented GreenLake Cloud services as part of a complex move from four electronic health-care records systems inherited through a merger down to a single Epic Systems software electronic health care records system.

Key to the winning the deal was providing an on-premises cloud-like customized consumption model with licensing and support bundled together in a predictable monthly pay-per-use model that has won raves from the customer, said Howdyshell.

“If customers can experience the flexibility and agility of cloud on-premises, I don’t know of any customer who wouldn’t listen to that,” he said.

Howdyshell credits Neri with making a gutsy Everything-as-a-Service bet that has the potential to reshape the channel landscape by ushering in a deeper, longer-lasting strategic relationship with customers and a more stable recurring revenue model for partners.

“This is not an experiment,” said Howdyshell. “This is HPE putting a stake in the ground with conviction. It’s a collective effort. Antonio is genuine, authentic and has channel commitment. If you’re going to make a bet on consumption, you want to do it with someone that has those three key attributes. Where Antonio is taking HPE is where we want to go as a company. I have confidence in HPE and Antonio’s leadership. Our leadership team feels the same. This is a good bet for Advizex.”

Advizex’s push toward Everything as a Service -- which started with a high-level two-and-a-half-day strategic training session last year -- is accelerating Advizex’s own transformation. As part of that transformation, Advizex has hired Kurt Schnieders, the former CIO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, as its chief operating officer. “Bringing Kurt in as COO was a big move for us, but it has paid off significantly,” said Howdyshell. “He has challenged us to look at some things differently and has been behind this whole consumption-based effort. We’re encouraged about where we’re going.”

The company is also investing heavily in emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, DevOps and container-based solutions. “This is part of the commitment we are making to helping our customers with the challenges they are facing,” said Howdyshell.

A Channel Commitment That Is ‘Second To None’

HPE’s commitment to work hand in hand with partners has always been “second to none,” but during the pandemic Neri has taken it to another level, said Steve Tepedino, president and CEO of IT Partners, an HPE Platinum partner based in Tempe, Ariz.

Neri and HPE have stepped up repeatedly during the pandemic to backstop partners, said Tepedino. “HPE’s channel commitment goes beyond words,” he said. “HPE has made tremendous progress on Everything as a Service. A real hallmark of Antonio’s leadership has been his vision and the ability to execute against that vision. For a partner, that is refreshing.”

During a crisis that has tested all leaders, Neri has provided a “strong and steady leadership hand,” said Tepedino. “There he was at HPE Discover [Virtual] with COVID-19, and he didn’t miss a beat,” said Tepedino. “These are uncharted waters. Antonio’s leadership is so solid with the pandemic and civil unrest. He is consistently in front with steady, calm and clear leadership. It’s very impressive. In times of chaos and crisis, the steady and calm hand is the most valuable. That was Antonio just being himself. It was pretty cool.”

Neri’s consistent vision regarding Everything as a Service has been key to helping the channel make the move to a complete on-premises consumption-based offering, said Tepedino. He credited HPE with investing in and carefully honing the Everything-as-a-Service channel model over many years, a strategy that has given HPE a battle-tested offering to go up against Amazon Web Services.

“We wouldn’t have a good story to fight against AWS if GreenLake was not as mature as it is,” he said. “All the investments that HPE has made over the years have made HPE the most ready as-a-service technology company today.”

The flexibility GreenLake provides is key to enabling channel partners to truly compete in the as-a-service space, Tepedino said.

“Other vendors are going to struggle because catching up takes time,” he said. “The flexibility that GreenLake provides currently isn’t available through other OEM cloud provider services.”

As long as HPE keeps accelerating with breakthroughs like the new standardized GreenLake building blocks, the lead will remain significant, said Tepedino.

“The GreenLake pipeline is building,” he said. “Some of the deals are really big and could be truly game-changing. With every new customer conversation, GreenLake has become a door-opener. I’m expecting it to be a big factor in the second half of the year with customers conserving capital and protecting the balance sheet. In tough economic times, you protect the balance sheet. That’s what GreenLake does -- it allows you to still be able to provide services while protecting the balance sheet.”

HPE’s pandemic relief efforts have also provided partners with much-needed additional financial liquidity in the midst of the crisis. IT Partners’ customers in late March/early April began delaying payments, said Tepedino. “Without HPE back-stopping distribution it would have been really difficult to keep the supply chain going,” he said. “Distribution is where the credit comes from, so between HPE and Tech Data we were able to continue to navigate the pandemic.”

HPE putting “liquidity back into the channel” with extended terms is comparable to the Federal Reserve taking action to stimulate the U.S. economy, Tepedino said. “We absolutely need that liquidity to keep moving on,” he said. “We haven’t had to use too much of it, but the fact that it is there is important. ... It has to be in place to prevent order loss. You sleep well knowing it is there.”

One of the big benefits of working with HPE is its strong channel leadership in every part of the organization, including HPE Global Channel Chief Paul Hunter; North America Channel Chief Leslie Maher; HPE Senior Vice President and Managing Director, North America Dan Belanger; U.S. Enterprise East Vice President and General Manager Terry Richardson; Vice President and Managing Director of Global and Enterprise Accounts Peter Brennan; and HPE North America Senior Sales Director Marc Sarazin, said Tepedino. “These are channel stalwarts, longtime friends to the channel,” he said. “It’s great when you have the entire organization behind the channel.”

Case in point: IT Partners’ ability to close a blockbuster HPE Superdome high-performance supercomputer deal with a major credit card processing company in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. That deal is helping the financial services player process 30 million-plus transactions a day, a big boost to the small and medium businesses across America relying even more on credit card transactions during the pandemic.

“We are a big part of keeping that infrastructure rolling,” said Tepedino, noting that it‘s not the type of business that is for the faint of heart. “When you are in the credit card business you can’t drop a single transaction, a single bit of data. Superdome is simply rock-solid, so we could support the heavy volume of transactions and the absolute highest level of availability in the industry. There aren’t many infrastructure products that you can say will have zero mistakes. That is what Superdome delivers.”

Tepedino credited Sarazin and his team with helping IT Partners close the deal. “Marc understands the customer, the deal and the channel,” he said. “That’s powerful stuff. The HPE partnership was critically important to getting that deal done. Nobody wins a big deal alone. You win it because you have a strong partnership.”

HPE's Intelligent Edge Advantage

It has been five years since HPE acquired Aruba Networks, a deal that was architected by Neri, who at the time was heading up HPE‘s enterprise compute business. That acquisition has been critical to the reinvention of HPE, a defining moment that paved the way for the company’s edge-to-cloud Platform-as-a-Service strategy.

“HPE was the first to actually declare that there is an opportunity at the edge, so we built an organization called Intelligent Edge,” said Keerti Melkote, Aruba founder and president of HPE’s Intelligent Edge business. “Antonio called it first from a vision standpoint. Now I see AT&T and Microsoft [each] have an intelligent edge organization. AWS is talking about intelligent edge. The industry is validating that vision Antonio had.”

Ultimately, Neri has reignited the HPE innovation engine, focusing the company and its employees on what’s possible in the future, said Melkote. That has resulted in an edge-to-cloud Platform-as-a-Service strategy that is focused sharply on where customers need to go to be successful, not where they have been.

At the same time, Neri has focused HPE squarely on innovating -- one of the original hallmarks of the Silicon Valley jewel. He has also restored the Hewlett-Packard culture of trust and respect for individuals and being a force for good, a central doctrine of Neri‘s leadership philosophy.

Those cultural tenets from HP founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard have struck a chord with HPE employees, said Melkote. “There has been a fantastic congruence of forces within the company,” he said. “That has really given us a lot of energy to move forward with confidence.”

As Neri has moved HPE into position to capitalize on fast-growing market opportunities like edge, artificial intelligence and data insight, he has at the same time been forced to grapple with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously every CEO gets tested and every organization gets tested,” said Melkote. “The first half of 2020 has been a severe challenge for many organizations. This is where I feel organizations that are built to last will not only survive but actually do well coming out of a crisis like we have today. It was really heartening to see us as an organization under Antonio’s leadership really meet the moment.”

With the coronavirus crisis taking hold, Neri moved quickly to reach out to HPE’s 65,000 employees worldwide, assuring them that their safety was priority No. 1 and that HPE and its employees would emerge stronger from the crisis.

“Acknowledging the tough times and reassuring employees we would get through this was very meaningful,” said Melkote of Neri’s leadership.

After Floyd‘s death in Minneapolis, Neri became a strong voice against “systemic oppression and racism,” telling employees that he is “personally committed” to ensuring the company is “doing everything within our control to ensure equal treatment, equal opportunity and equal inclusion” for all HPE employees.

Maintaining strong communication with employees, partners and customers was a critical ingredient of Neri’s leadership, said Melkote.

The entire organization took Neri’s “force for good” pledge to heart, from providing hospitals with telemedicine capabilities and schools with remote learning solutions to providing supercomputing capabilities for COVID-19 research to providing financial relief to those impacted by the pandemic with support for the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

Neri called it embracing the HPE spirit of “Yes We Can” -- supporting team members, customers, partners and communities through the unprecedented crisis and being there to help all the company’s stakeholders “recover, evolve and thrive.”

Melkote said the “force for good” ethos that Neri has put in place inspired HPE employees to step up and act. “That is the power of a leader who can actually set the course with the culture of the organization and then be there to back it up,” he said.

When Melkote came up with the idea for an Aruba Airheads Volunteer Corps -- an opt-in registry of engineers to help build network infrastructure for medical facilities in need -- the entire program was launched over a weekend. It was Neri who cleared the legal and financial path -- on a Saturday.

“We behaved like a startup would,“ Melkote said, noting that a large bureaucratic organization could not have accomplished the same. “It starts with somebody at the top who says, ‘This is the culture I want to support, build and emphasize.’ Antonio is always there -- always there -- anytime you want to get a hold of him. Email, text, instant messaging, it doesn’t matter. He is responding within an hour. Even when he was going through the COVID-19 illness, he was available.”

It has been “inspiring” to see the impact Neri’s “servant leadership” style has had on the HPE culture, said Melkote. “As a team member you want to work for him. You want to do good and excel,” he said. “That is the team culture that Antonio has built over the last two years. That is one thing he will be known for -- rejuvenating the culture, bringing it back to what it once was.”

Neri’s decision to double down and reinvent the business in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis is another sign of his “action”-oriented leadership, said Melkote. “That’s a critical decision,” he said. “We need to reinvent the company, and the next 18 months is the time to make it happen.”

To accomplish that, HPE is innovating at a breakneck pace with aggressive internal research and development and a targeted acquisition strategy. That includes HPE’s $925 million blockbuster deal in July to buy SD-WAN superstar Silver Peak Systems.

That “targeted M&A” strategy has added hot new technology talent and boosted the “value proposition for customers and partners, said Melkote.

Curtis Dery, vice president of sales and strategy for Powerland, the $100 million Winnipeg, Manitoba-based solution provider that is betting big on GreenLake and Aruba, said the Silver Peak deal is going to have a dramatic impact on customers.

The combination of Silver Peak with SD-WAN services, security and micro-segmentation combined with Aruba’s edge muscle provides a “disruptive” technology force that is going to power big opportunities for partners, said Dery.

“That’s a massive, massive edge benefit that HPE can leverage,” he said.

The Education Of A CEO

Neri, who is the 11th HPE CEO and just the fifth from inside the company, said he has been fortunate during his 25-year HPE career to learn critical leadership skills from some of the best and brightest executives in the business.

“These were leaders that created multibillion-dollar franchises like the printing and the PC business in the old days,” he said. “I picked [leadership qualities] from everybody here and there. As a leader, I don’t reflect just one person. I reflect multiple aspects of leadership -- somebody I worked with was strong in communications, somebody was strong in strategy, somebody was strong in financial acumen. I tried to absorb and learn from as many people as possible. It could be business leaders, community leaders or others.”

Neri’s discipline, drive and empathy as a leader -- partners said he leads with both his head and his heart -- were forged in a loving, tight-knit Italian family.

Looking back on his parents’ influence, Neri acknowledged that his Italian roots instilled in him a strong sense of family and giving back. “We always reflect first and foremost our parents, how they teach you life,” he said. “Then ultimately you see them as a mirror of yourself.”

Neri’s parents, Salvatore and Carmela, both were raised in rural Sicily with humble beginnings. Both came from large families -- eight siblings on his mother’s side and seven on his father’s side -- and both experienced the pain and ravages of war.

In fact, Neri’s grandfather served in both World War I and World War II. That left Antonio’s father and his two brothers as the caretakers of a large family during trying times. “They had very hard times,” said Neri. “They appreciated everything they could get in life.”

Neri said he is proud of his parents and the values they instilled in him. They were married in 1960 when his mother was just 20 and his father was 33. They lived a “very happy, humble life together for 52 years” before Neri’s father passed away in 2012.

Neri’s mom -- who lives in Argentina, as does his sister -- remains an inspiration for him as she turns 80 this year. In fact, Neri speaks with her every day.

Neri said the values of hard work, family and the commitment to give back were instilled in him by his parents. “I have worked hard since I was 15,” he said. “I am proud of carrying out those values, and I hope my kids will do the same.”

A Year No One Could Have Imagined

Neri said no one could have predicted the pandemic, social unrest and the myriad issues that have hit the world economy this year.

“If you would have told me on Dec, 31, 2019, this was how 2020 was going to look I would not have believed it,” he said. “Nobody could have imagined this.”

Given all the challenges, Neri said, he is most proud that HPE’s strong culture came to the fore during the crisis, with an emphasis on protecting team members while at the same time continuing to act as a “force for good” by giving back to the communities that HPE is part of. That, he said, is part of the essential HPE character to do the right thing. “I’m really proud of the fact that this is a company with a very strong culture that puts our team members at the core of what we do,” he said.

That strong cultural commitment has paid off in soaring scores from HPE’s all team member meetings during the pandemic. In surveys conducted from March 18 to June 25, 96 percent of team members polled said they were confident in the leadership of HPE, with 93 percent confident in the future of HPE. What’s more, 95 percent were confident in the actions HPE is taking to better drive diversity and unconditional inclusion.​

In times like these, Neri said, trust is paramount. “Right now we are living in a very chaotic time where I think there is a little bit of a vacuum when it comes down to leadership and being steady at the helm,” he said. “That is why channel partners are all interested in seeing who they can work with and who can they can trust. Trust is essential. …Ultimately, people will follow leaders they can trust.”

One thing partners can count on -- no matter what kind of challenges HPE faces with the continued uncertainty from the pandemic -- is HPE’s “unwavering” commitment and trust, said Neri.

In fact, he remains optimistic about HPE’s future and the prospects for its partners even in the midst of a challenging year. He said he feels the same drive and spirit that he did when he took the CEO job two and a half years ago -- when he called it “living the dream.” He considers himself to be “incredibly privileged” to lead 60,000 employees at a company with a rich 81-year history.

Neri sees his legacy as not being just about the numbers, but what he leaves for employees, channel partners and the communities that HPE is part of. “We are here for the long game, not for the short game,” he said. “If it was only for the short game, trust me, there would be other ways to create value. But I am here to create long-term value so that this company continues to be very relevant and important to our customers and partners for years and years to come.” 

 

 

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