CEO Robbins Has Cisco On The Fast Track, And Partners Are Ready, Set, Go

In less than four months on the job, Cisco Systems CEO Chuck Robbins is moving the company forward at a breakneck pace and backing up his goal of making Cisco the biggest IT organization on the planet. Channel partners say Robbins' acquisition strategy, openness to forming new technology partnerships, internal restructuring of the company, and aggressiveness in entering fast-growing markets has been "unprecedented" at the networking giant.

"Chuck's really just accelerated Cisco's investments and changes to the organization to a great degree since he's taken over," said Bob Cagnazzi, CEO of New York-based Presidio, one of Cisco's top solution provider partners and ranked No. 21 on the 2015 CRN Solution Provider 500 list. "About 18 to 36 months ago, Cisco was having a harder time being relevant in a number of different areas. I think they've really addressed those product area needs, certainly in the last 18 months, and very dramatically in the last few months since Chuck's been on board -- so we're very encouraged about that. … I'm a big Chuck fan."

"You've never seen Cisco move this fast; it is unprecedented," said Jamie Shepard, senior vice president for health care and strategy at Dallas-based Lumenate, No. 145 on the 2015 CRN Solution Provider 500. "Chuck [has instituted] a new breed of thinking," he said.

[Related: 10 Deals That Show Robbins Is Shaking Up Cisco]

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"Chuck is trying to address exactly what is needed and is opening things up. There's more partnerships now, they've acquired a bunch of different things, they're starting to tie things in a very unique way where now Cisco is becoming this company where they're fostering relationships rather than pushing them away," said Shepard.

The road ahead for Cisco will not be without some bumps, however. Cisco last week beat Wall Street estimates for its first-quarter earnings for fiscal year 2016, pulling in $12.7 billion in sales, representing 4 percent growth from vs. the same period last year. Although Robbins was pleased with the results, Cisco's forecast for its second quarter was bleak, with the company expecting revenue growth of only 0 percent to 2 percent.

"Yes, the guidance we just gave for Q2 is lower than what the market expected, and I don't take that lightly, but for me, nothing has changed in how I feel about the business," said Robbins during the earnings call. "We're moving incredibly fast and doing all the right things to drive our growth and strategic relevance. We expect the results of these moves will start showing up in the coming quarters. … Our portfolio has never been stronger, more relevant and more strategic."

Robbins was unanimously selected by the Cisco board of directors to lead the San Jose, Calif.-based networking leader in May following a 16-month search to replace longtime leader John Chambers. On Robbins’ very first day on the job, he revealed that he had hired Hewlett-Packard's former top cloud executive, Zorawar Biri Singh, as its new senior vice president and CTO.

And before Robbins even took the helm, he formed a completely new 10-person leadership team, while Cisco witnessed a slew of top executives departing after long tenures at the company.

Robbins said his plan is to make a more agile, flatter and faster company by streamlining Cisco's internal organization and creating technology solutions to solve customers' business problems.

"We have to move faster, faster, faster, faster," Robbins said during his keynote at Cisco's Global Editors Conference last month. "Our teams may be getting tired of me saying this already, but if someone says, 'We'll have it ready in 30 days' I say, ’Three weeks.’ … How fast can we get our customers to benefit from our technology is going to be based on the simplicity that we drive … and that's going to allow us to move at greater speed."

Internally, Robbins is building smaller R&D teams made up of around 20 people who work months on a project aimed at solving a specific customer issue. Cisco has consolidated its Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud organizations, while also appointing new leaders. The company also recently finished combining its product and services sales teams.

"In the past they were focused more on the technology and not on the outcome," said Chris Bottger, senior vice president of collaboration services at IVCi, a Hauppauge, N.Y.-based solution provider and Cisco Gold partner, ranked No. 226 on the 2015 CRN Solution Provider 500. " They weren’t thinking of the overall picture of, 'What is the outcome we're trying to achieve from a customer perspective?' They were thinking more about how the technology would help them as opposed to now, 'Will that technology achieve a certain business outcome in a way that actually adds value to customers and our overall portfolio?'’

Another key point Robbins has made clear is his intent to form more strategic technology partnerships to quickly capitalize on emerging markets such as IoT and mobility.

"I think that strategic partnerships are going to play a more important role in the future than they ever have been with the pace of change," said Robbins during an on-stage interview at The Channel Company's Best of Breed conference last month. "The pace of change requires us to move so quickly that we think that strategic partnerships are going to be as important as our acquisition strategy has been in the past."

On Nov. 9, Cisco revealed a blockbuster partnership with mobile communications behemoth Ericsson focused on next-generation networking and IoT. The networking giant also unveiled a monster alliance with Apple in August that aims to bridge the consumer and enterprise world with the tightening of Apple devices and Cisco enterprise collaboration products.

Other new partnerships in the Robbins era include one with electricity distributor and global energy management company Schneider Electric and one with robotics specialist Fanuc America as part of Robbins’ IoT initiative, which he believes is Cisco's biggest opportunity in its history.

"There's so much ahead of us that I think this [digitization movement] is going to be five to 10 times bigger than what we've seen so far," said Robbins at the Best of Breed conference.

On the acquisition front, partners say Cisco is moving at a breakneck pace.

Over the past three months, Cisco has revealed plans to buy IoT and data analytics company ParStream; security consulting firm Portcullis Computer Security; threat analysis and protection specialist Lancope; and cloud-based video provider 1 Mainstream.

"Cisco appears to be in no mood to waste opportunity and let someone else acquire a good technology," said Faisal Bhutto, vice president of corporate strategy at Houston-based Computex Technology Solutions, a Cisco Gold partner ranked No. 130 on the 2015 CRN Solution Provider 500 list. "They know it's very competitive in the tech industry and if they don’t move, someone else will.

"Chuck is making his moves setting the tone, which is positive, full of excitement and shows Cisco's intent that they want to be a market leader in every category they play in," said Bhutto.

On the channel front, partners are excited to have a channel veteran like Robbins at the helm. Over his 18 years at Cisco, Robbins previously held titles including senior vice president of worldwide field operations, senior vice president of the Americas, senior vice president of U.S. enterprise, commercial and Canada, as well as senior vice president of U.S. channel sales, among others.

"What makes Chuck amazing is that he was in the channel for so many years, he knew what customers were looking for and demanding, and also was very good at getting feedback from guys like us," said Lumenate’s Shepard. "He would listen and always want to know and ask questions. You could be extremely direct with him. There were no games with this guy and the reason why he was so open was because he realized Cisco needed to be a lot more responsive to customers and not take it for granted who they were."

To lead its channel charge, Robbins appointed Cisco channel veterans Rick Snyder to run the Americas and Wendy Bahr as the company’s new channel chief. Bahr told CRN partners can expect Cisco to refine its programs and program enhancements around security and software which, she said, "go hand-in-glove."


"We're amplifying around security in terms of incentives," said Bahr. "We're amplifying around software, collaboration, and those kinds of things are obviously very exciting for our partners."

Presidio’s Cagnazzi said the channel is playing a more significant role than ever before due to customers demanding more solutions that are less siloed and more multivendor-oriented.

"When you're working in a world like that it's very important to have partners who understand and trust in you," said Cagnazzi. "There's a greater sense of urgency and the vision is getting better on where Cisco needs to be from a product standpoint. … We have a big belief in Chuck and high expectations in Chuck, and he's certainly delivering."