Cisco CEO Robbins on John Chambers: 'You're The Cornerstone In Our History'

The John Chambers era ended with little fanfare Monday as Cisco Systems' former CEO stepped down from his position as chairman of the board, officially leaving the leadership ranks of the company he helmed for 20 years, but the event didn't pass without a few heartfelt words from his successor, Chuck Robbins.

"You're the cornerstone in our history," Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins told Chambers during the company's annual shareholder meeting Monday. "No other person is more responsible for Cisco's significant technological and societal contributions, and you'll always be a part of Cisco just as I imagine Cisco will always be a part of you."

Shareholders elected Robbins, along with a slate of other candidates, to the Cisco board, and he is expected to be appointed chairman. Chambers, who was CEO between 1995 and 2015, announced last September that he would step down from the chairmanship when his term ended.

[Related: Cisco's Chambers Term As Chairman Ends Monday, Board Expected To Pass Torch To CEO Robbins]

Chambers Monday looked back on a 27-year career with Cisco, and said the company under Robbins is poised to lead a rapidly changing IT market.

"You're going to see a company that will lead in digitization and continue to change the world," Chambers said. "When you look at our employees and look at the pride they have in the organization, it's what really makes me most excited. This company has the courage to dream big dreams like nobody else. It sets audacious goals of being one or two in everything we do."

Under Chambers' leadership, Cisco grew from $1.2 billion in revenue to $47 billion. "Everybody likes to write about the success, but it's really how you handle your challenges and your setbacks that determine if you've got a great company or not."

"We had the courage to say we can change the world and do it to the benefit of creating unprecedented opportunities for our shareholders, our customers, our employees and our partners," Chambers said. "We had the opportunity to also establish a culture, which is what I'm probably most proud of."

Chambers joined Cisco in 1991 as head of sales, and was CEO from 1995 to July of 2015. He's been a member of the board of directors since 1993. He'll now have the honorary title of chairman emeritus.

Cisco partners said Monday that Chambers leaves a legacy of channel advocacy, respect and communication. Robbins, partners said, is so far proving himself up to the task of carrying on that legacy.

"I watched the Cisco organization turn from a fairly unfriendly position on the channel to one that's the best in the business," said Michael Girouard, executive vice president of sales at Teklinks, a Birmingham, Ala., Cisco partner. "Cisco's channel program sets the bar. It's the one we compare to every other, and they did that under John's leadership."

Robbins' efforts to steer the company into more software- and subscription-based products and services rather than its traditional, proprietary, expensive networking hardware are already bearing fruit, said Girouard, noting that Teklinks saw triple-digit year-over-year revenue growth this year. "We've really embraced what's Cisco's doing in security, that's it's a really important part of the market. They're really making up ground and moving more toward an annuity model. That's really smart, and the quicker they can make that change and master it, the sky's the limit. I couldn't pick a better partner in this business," he said.

Chambers "managed the partners and the street with equal respect," said Gary Berzack, CTO of eTribeca, a New York, N.Y.-based Cisco partner. "That's not so easy when you have to make decisions on behalf of partners that may not be popular with [Wall Street.]"

As a result, Chambers "has a fierce following of channel partners," Berzack said. "I always found it interesting that the large partners would rebrand roles in their own company to be similar to those roles at Cisco."

"Think of all the transitions John steered Cisco through, and the growth he's led by investments in innovation, and also shrewd acquisitions, and the vast majority of those acquisitions came to market very quickly as new products or adding functionality to other product lines," said Kent McDonald, vice president at Long View Systems, a Toronto solution provider.

More than just a shrewd corporate chess master, Chambers was the "spiritual leader" to Cisco and its partners, McDonald said. "He would have us all mesmorized by what we had achieved and believing that the world was our oyster, that we'd be a force to be reckoned with, and would dominate the market," McDonald said. "We trusted him, and his investment in us and our investment in him have proven good bets. You could have an informal conversation with him at the halls of the partner conference, and you can see him on stage with world leaders. You saw him on the world stage, but it didn't create a barrier to engaging the partner community or the customer community."

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Robbins, McDonald said, has earned the channel's confidence that he can lead the company and its partners through a changing IT landscape and into significant revenue growth in new technologies like the cloud.

"He's the right guy," McDonald said. "He knows the channel. We know him. What he's managing is very different from what John has seen: Cloud, recrurring revenue, etc., and we see the results of his stewardship and the bets that he made.

"We've seen significant growth with Cisco – double-digit growth in a market that people say is freaky. It's shifting, and it's not about the number of boxes you ship, it's about the solutions, the architectures, the software, the enablement and the adoption. There's some element of the partner community that might be troubled by that transition, but we're bullish."