Q&A: Check Point Sales Chief On A Big Business Realignment And Competing Against Palo Alto Networks

On The Point At Check Point

Pierre-Paul Allard joined Check Point Software Technologies in August as executive vice president of worldwide sales and global field operations. He had previously held top sales roles at Avaya and Cisco. In the months since he joined, Allard has driven a sales refresh at the company, realigning the company's sales units and pushing a strategy around coverage and capacity. The strategy shift comes at a critical time for the network security vendor as its competition saw a "disappointing" sales performance in the last quarter and shuffled its own sales strategy as a result. In an interview with CRN, Allard outlined the company's new sales strategy, what it means for partners and why he thinks these changes show Check Point "isn't your grandmother's firewall vendor" anymore. Take a look at what he had to say.

What changes have you made since you came on board in August?

Strategically, it's a pretty simple algorithm for us. It's a very high-growth market – an extremely high-growth market – and every customer is underinvested and wants to talk to us about it. So, for me, it's all about increasing coverage and capacity. When you think of coverage, it means having feet on the street and having people working with our partners, working through our partners, and working directly with customers in a high-touch model. It's just about creating much more market demand and visibility for our solutions sets – not just the traditional firewall and next-generation firewall, but everything that we do – and getting the word out there … Then, when I talk capacity: the sales capacity is a combination of coverage and people, process, segmentation, better analysis, better alignment of our go-to-market to verticals, industries, segmentation – global, large strategics, the enterprise and the commercial space. It's just about better aligning ourselves with partners and through partners to these specific market segments, and not just aligning products to it.

What challenges do these changes address for Check Point?

The biggest change is that we were, candidly, underinvested in our coverage models. I put a lot of the focus of the enterprise on continuing to sustain growth of product sets and quality of solutions. We're not going to bring that down in any way shape or form. We are going to continue to be at the leadership level. We have three times the development capabilities of our nearest competitor. But, we're going to now work to equal and surpass the coverage and capacity structure of the market. I want to do that while every day continuing to earn the trust of our partners and the trust of our customers.

How do you think these steps will position you to avoid a sales hiccup like Palo Alto Networks in their last quarter?

One of our competitors that faltered the other week, when I was reading through the analyst reviews one of the comments that were made was that they had overcomplicated segmentation and go-to-market. Certainly that is not our objective … If you go back to your MBA class, a well-run company isn't just successful because there is topline growth through inordinate investments elsewhere … We are focused on creating a profitable business with deep pockets that gives us the capacity to invest in development and react quickly to market inflections. That is the right strategy and what we are doing in our development group … On top of that, we want to grow our sales capacity and sales force, so grow SG&A, but not do it in a way that is going to disproportionally hit our profitability. Customers, when they are looking to make large-scale investments, more and more they are looking for companies that are going to be around for a while and will be there for the long run … That's the difference with us. We are more of the "Steady Eddie" with our growth. If you look at the last two quarters, you will see that our growth has scaled dramatically and surpassed some of our competitors. My attempt is to maintain that bar. I want to maintain that high growth and structure. Why? Because I think we have the market share to grow and competitive market share to take back.

Why did you decide to join Check Point?

First of all, the opportunity for me is extremely exciting to join Check Point and to join an organization that clearly is in the leadership position in an industry that is as close to hypergrowth as I've seen since the early days of Cisco. There is not a CIO, or an organization, or a CISO that isn't dramatically caring about and investing in security as their prime area of investment within the IT industry. It's very exciting to be part of that. The last thing on our mind is to regress, it's actually to continue to grow.

Can you be more specific about what changes you made to realign the business to increase coverage and capacity?

We have a flat organization structure, thankfully. It's not so complex ... We have a very clean approach to our customers. We have extremely loyal customers. But, it's about increasing the number of customers that we touch and growing that. Gaining market share means growing the number of customers we have, not just growing business with the existing customers. Through the years, I think we have grown a little heavy on what would have been deemed overlay – a lot of specialist roles and functions in the company that were subservient to the first line sales people. We shuffled that around a bit … and we moved people into front line sales roles that may have been more of a business development function or not so much a quota-carrying function … My objective is to go and surpass the industry best practice in terms of coverage, and all to the benefit of our partners and our customers to be better aligned. If you talk to a partner, the No. 1 thing they want us to do, other than giving them more money and more margin, is to drive more demand in the market. If we drive demand and customers are asking for Check Point product, it makes their job a lot easier and they add value to that through services and integrations. We have to do that. I have to do that through greater sales capacity and that's what I'm focused on.

Did those changes come with any layoffs?

The objective was growing the number of people responsible for a goal and doing it flat, so not increasing management layers. I didn't remove management levels on purpose, but where there was attrition we haven't necessarily replaced every management layer that went away. We're trying to create a higher span of control for each manager, aligning to what I think is best practice in the industry, both on the systems engineering or security engineering as well as on the coverage side for reps. Then, supplementing that with a tremendous amount of activity on the hiring scale. We are hiring daily and weekly new people into the company to fill the gaps in many of the segments where maybe we were under-covered or understaffed.

Who is leading the U.S. sales efforts? How is that evolving?

We had some people who retired when I joined. Bob O'Keefe was the leader for the U.S. sales team and he decided to retire before I came on board. I decided not to replace him immediately, so I'm playing the acting role of the U.S. sales lead as well as the global sales lead because I really want to understand the business, the dynamics of the business and the sales force before I gave it over to someone to continue to run. This has been very profitable for me over the last six months. We have dramatically changed the landscape in the United States. We have regained market share and grown in the last two quarters, which you can see in our results … Now, I've set the bar high and I will continue to do that for the next several quarters. We are ready now to start adding some new roles.

What effect will these sales changes have on partner leadership?

We added new leadership at the channel level in the United States with Kurt Speck [from FireEye], new leadership in Europe with Olivier Huck, new leadership in our Asia-Pacific region with Gary Kinsley, and added below them what I think is a great structure of coverage for our nationals and our distribution partners. You will start seeing the echoes of that through partner engagements … It's about listening to partners and listening to how we need to be better, be easier to work with, align better and, at the same time, help them align to our growth schedules … For me there are two elements of success: I have to grow not just our business within the existing partner base but I have to also grow the number of new logos … Secondly, we have to grow not just in our core business, but also in emerging technologies. We have a fantastic architecture that goes from data center solution sets, the strongest cloud-enabled security industry, and the strongest cloud partnerships with Azure, Microsoft, AWS, and you saw just recently with Google… Those two growth areas, if we take care those that will take care of everything else.

How are you incenting the sales force and partners in emerging technologies versus core technologies?

I'm not going to tell you a lot of my trade secrets, but we do have a different scheme of accelerators for emerging technologies and the core product sets. The lights stay on because of what we sell in our core products and our support structure … The reality is the majority of what is being bought in security and sold in security architectures is still firewalls and next-generation firewall technology. We are extremely focused and growing incredibly fast, in high-double digits, in our advanced threat strategy. We're very proud of it. We're growing in our mobility play. I just want to do it dramatically faster. I will pay increments more to our partners, and our accelerators are different to get that growth going even faster. Frankly, it's not much different from what the competitors are doing because it's just good business.

How will you be investing in marketing as a piece of that coverage and capacity strategy?

I think a lot of the competitors have wanted Check Point to fade into the past and maybe some of the weaknesses we've in marketing some of our solutions to market … The technology is extremely strong and extremely robust and the strategy around the architecture and the management layer above it is unequal. My challenge really is to make sure they know what we've got. You can have the best technology in the world, but if nobody knows what you've got you won't sell any. That's the coverage and capacity strategy… Marketing plays a dramatic role in that… Through marketing and field marketing, we're focused on creating much more field contacts and much more touch points and contact points with our customers at all levels … It's all about creating more visibility to and through our partners so, in turn, our customers have better knowledge of what we can do, the capacity, the use cases. It's not just the technology, but the problems that we solve and the objectives that we meet for them. I can tell you that over the last several years we have let the technology and the quality of the technology be the primary driver, but we recognize that you have to be out there selling it.

There's been a lot of talk around product testing in the security market lately – how do you look at that?

We scored, if you look at the NSS Labs alone, we scored in 13 categories we scored top. I think our closest competitor is scored in two, and it's not Palo Alto Networks, by the way. It's interesting to watch all of those elements of comparison and testing and validation in the industry. My job is to make sure people know about it, not just that we scored but how we did it, what the solutions are that we bring to market, and that we're not your grandmother's firewall company.

Any other final message to partners?

From a customer and a market standpoint, they are going to see a lot more of Check Point and a lot more often. That's my promise to the market. I'm not just going to sit on these great solution sets and great product strategies and solutions strategies. We're going to make sure they are visible, and we're going to make sure to increase coverage, increase capacity, and our marketing capabilities. You will hear more about that shortly. From a pure delivery through our partners, I want to regain the trust of the partners that have not felt like we've been there for them around market delivery and market demand. Already I'm getting really good feedback from across the partner base that that is happening. I want to maintain that. I want partners to understand that we are not competing with partners – partners are our way of life. Our partnerships are key to our success, so investing in them, making sure the margins are strong, their growth is strong and that they see in us a long-term partnership is a key piece of our go to market.