They say things always happen in threes. In early April, John W. Thompson, 49, became the third African American to be tapped to head a major corporation in as many years. The 28-year IBM veteran was named president, CEO and chairman of Symantec Corp., making him one of the most highly ranked African Americans in the software industry. The $633.8 million Cupertino, California-based company is the worldwide leader in personal computer utilities, including Norton Utilities, the well-known anti-virus and PC assistance product.
“Thompson has had the opportunity to build strategic alliances with a number of corporations,” says William Stewart, president of Apollo Programming Industries Technology, a consulting and executive search firm in Los Altos, California. “Building trading partners and alliances is what’s going to raise the level of business in the Valley.”
As general manager of IBM Americas, Thompson was responsible for its $37 billion sales in 1998, a 14% increase over the year before. IBM Americas is in the business of offering support of Big Blue’s technology products and services business. With 30,000 employees, Thompson helped integrate e-commerce into the businesses and services of corporate customers, government agencies and small business owners. He played a major role in developing market requirements and alliances that led IBM Americas to be the top performer in IT customer satisfaction.
Prior to that, Thompson was general manager of personal software products and responsible for the development and marketing of OS2, IBM’s Intel-based server products, and communication product distribution (see “Running to Win,” Powerplay, June 1997).
Ironically, Thompson’s appointment came on the heels of the Rev. Jesse Jackson calling on Silicon Valley to include more minorities within its ranks. Amid the flurry, Thompson handled with grace the questions asked last year of other African Americans named to head major corporations, among them Richard Nanula, formerly co-head of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and Franklin Raines, who currently leads Fannie Mae. “The world will watch and be curious if I am the leader who can bring this company to the forefront. This is a testament to where I have progressed in my career, not to my race. If I’m prepared, we will do well.”
Nonetheless, Wall Street will be watching. “He has definitely helped to raise the profile of the company,” says John Puricelli, senior analyst at A.G. Edwards in St. Louis. “Symantec has a retail orientation, but with his background in corporate alliances, he has the potential to grow the company more than 20%.” In fact, Symantec formed an alliance with IBM prior to Thompson’s arrival that would allow it to further penetrate the corporate market.