QandA With Juniper's Frank Vitagliano

After a distinguished career at IBM, longtime channel advocate Frank Vitagliano decided that, rather than retire, he'd take on a new challenge in a new market. Now three weeks into his new gig as Juniper's vice president of worldwide channels, Vitagliano sat down with VARBusiness to talk about the state of the company's channel program and what partners can expect from Juniper's J-Partner Summit in May.

VB: How did you get connected to Juniper?

Vitagliano: It's hard not to know Juniper if you've spent any time in the channel. I've been watching how they were doing over the last two or three years. For someone who's been in the channel as long as I have, to watch someone come in and essentially build a program from scratch was intriguing for me. It caught my attention, and I was very impressed with what I've seen, how quickly things have gotten put together and how well-orchestrated everything is. They put together a bunch of different companies via acquisition, brought them in and built the J-Partner program, put a distribution network in that really didn't exist before. And over the last year or so, a lot of partners will tell you it's a terrific program that they've been making money with.

VB: Were you planning to leave IBM before the Juniper opportunity came up?
Vitagliano: The truth is, about every 30 years or so I get a little antsy [laughs] and want to do something else. I'd been doing the channel thing for about 25 years. The decision I made a long time ago was that I wanted to become an expert in the channel. A lot of times people come in and do it for a couple years, but then move on to do something else. But if you're a vendor working with channel programs, you really have to understand how the business works, how they make money, how your decisions impact the channel in things like not being consistent with the program. Partners are out there betting their livelihood that their vendor has their best interest at heart, but when they don't understand the channel, it doesn't make sense.

But after 30 years at IBM, I started looking around and concluded that if the right one came around, I'd move on. But it had to be fun to do, a challenge and clearly something associated with the channel.

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VB: How have you seen the channel evolve in your 30-plus years?
Vitagliano: There's been a lot of discussion over the years about the influence the channel has over what products get placed into an end-user installation. Partners playing in the SMB space now are the outsourced IT department for their customers; that wasn't the case 10, 12, 15 years ago. It's the case now because they're selling end-to-end solutions. It doesn't matter what size they are. Now we have partners who do consulting, integration, deployment, installation and then all the services pieces, including managed services, on the back end. I believe the channel is capable of doing all of that; the only difference is scale. Everything IBM Global Services is doing, small VARs are doing out in the middle of America every single day.

The other thing is that if you do believe that, then you have to believe that VARs have a tremendous influence over whether your product gets implemented to solve a customer's problem. Studies have shown that VARs have a 70 to 75 percent influence factor on what gets placed. Also, 10 to 15 years ago, vendors didn't think they had to sell to the channel. [Now they] think, I have to sell to the channel, to work to get the channel to integrate my point products into their solution, and that's the most effective way to go to market.

You also want a program where investments are of mutual benefit to both parties. You can take our products and integrate them into your solution, but you still have to have the capabilities to install, support, sell, etc. There are a lot of vendors who don't look at it that way; it tends to be more about vendors pushing products onto the channel.

VB: Was moving from IBM to a networking and security company a big leap for you?
Vitagliano: I don't think so. I knew our partners' businesses very well at IBM. The truth is, there isn't that much difference in terms of business models and how they sell. I've reached out to our partner base and contacted 20 to 25 different partners in my first few weeks. These are people I didn't do much or any business with before, but two minutes into the conversation, we talked about everything vendors and channel partners talk about: What kinds of things you're doing, what can you do better, what you're happy with. I think it's a natural progression.

I've talked to a combination of Elite, Select and other partners. If you only talk to the top-level guys, you don't get a perspective on the whole landscape. I'm trying to get a better understanding of each of their models. I think it's important to understand what products we have that fit into their space. That's one of the differences from the world I came from: everybody can sell a PC, and everybody was a customer. This is a little different because it requires more investment on their part and is much more specialized, but it's a very natural progression.

NEXT: What partners can expect from Vitagliano daily, plus his vision for Juniper's J-Partner program.

VB: What can partners expect from you day to day?
Vitagliano: One is consistency. I'm very, very open, and I communicate with them in an open dialogue. My view is that if a conversation is one-sided in either direction, no one is learning anything. I'm also very open about what our strategy is and how we plan to go to market. That doesn't mean there aren't times when things don't work as they should, but I don't think partners should guess what their vendor's strategy is, because they have to build a business around this.

The other important piece is execution. If we say we're going to do something, we do it, or we say why we couldn't get it done. I'll be the first to admit that everything we've said we'd do hasn't always gotten done, but there's got to be a commitment that says what our strategy is, and the next time I talk to you, I'll tell you how we're doing. You have to set realistic expectations and then go out and get it done.

You have to put yourself in the channel's seat. Take three or four really smart people and try to look at the action you're about to take from the vantage point of your partners--small ones, large ones, distributors and so on. At the end of the day, companies will do what they do. We may roll out something that the partners don't much like. But you need a real understanding of how the business works, so when we announce something, we can anticipate how each type of partner will react to it as much as possible.

I've always had a network of partners that I have personal relationships with from years of working together, so I can pick up the phone and ask them what they think about something I'm working on. They'll give you input that won't be self-serving; they'll tell me from a marketplace standpoint what makes sense and what doesn't.

VB: Where do you see J-Partner as being particularly innovative?
Vitagliano: It's very well-thought-out and well-executed. You can build all kinds of bells and whistles into a program, but at the end of the day, no one understands them. It's relatively simple to understand, and every partner I've talked to says they can make money selling Juniper products. It's well-invested, but we haven't diluted it to the extent that thousands and thousands of partners are involved. The executives here really understand the channel and have put a great program in place. It's a really solid foundation, so what can we do to tweak it and make it better?

VB: So what can you do to tweak it?

Vitagliano: One of the things we have to figure out is how best to continue to incent our partners. There has to be an element of business that's unassisted--partners going out and driving business. At the high end, we'll continue to work together with partners and direct sales, but as you go down the scale toward some of the smaller opportunities, we want to do a better job of training our partners to drive business in spaces where there aren't direct salespeople to do it. We've done a terrific job of bringing in partners; now the question is, how do we really leverage the capability those partners have? The good partners will tell you that while they want to work proactively with a vendor, they don't need to rely on a vendor to give them leads. They need training, investment in enablement activities, and then it's, "Get out of my way and let me go drive some business." That's something we have to look at. The best way to figure it out is through me spending time with partners.

VB: One of Tushar's more notable quotes was, "Rebates are medicine for a disease we don't have." Do you agree with that?

Vitagliano: I saw that quote and I loved it. In this space, I share that philosophy; the world I came from was totally commoditized, so rebates were an important part of the business. This is not a commoditized space. When you've developed a program like we've developed that hasn't been diluted or saturated, and you can manage it carefully, I think we can continue with that philosophy. But the thing I have learned over the years is that you have to adjust to what makes sense in the marketplace. So over time, depending on what happens in the marketplace, we might want to incent partners through rebates or some other form of incremental margins.

VB: What are your specific goals for J-Partner over the next six to 12 months?

Vitagliano: One is to grow our revenue and improve our ease of doing business. We're going to continue to invest in J-Partner training and enablement. And we want to continue to figure out ways to enhance the relationship between Juniper, our direct team and the channel. We haven't finalized anything, but when I stand up at the conference, those are the things I'll include. You never do everything perfectly or have every partner pleased, but I don't think there will be any debate about our commitment or our strategy.