The Best CEO in Silicon Valley

John Thompson has transformed Symantec into a multibillion-dollar security software juggernaut

& Struggles International, a publicly traded executive search firm, which in turn contacted Thompson. After spending three hours meeting with Robert “Steve” Miller, lead director of Symantec’s board, Thompson, who was curious about the possibilities at a much smaller firm, “became even more curious and decided to pursue it.”

Thompson felt Symantec was a perfect fit for him, as it allowed him to move from a corporate behemoth to a smaller, more nimble company. “I have a sports car, and I have a big sedan. If you just want a nice, comfortable, cruising ride, you take the big sedan,” Thompson says. “But if you want to feel every bump in the road, and you want to have real performance, you take the sports car. Symantec is the sports car. I’ll let you conclude what the other car is.”

In 1999, Symantec was a sort of mid-cap conglomerate in the software business — a company that managed brands, not technology and channels, not customer relationships. Thompson decided to change all that and opted to focus on one technology category: security. And so two years before 9/11 brought security — including network security — to the forefront of the minds of Americans and the global community, Thompson and company jettisoned all technologies that weren’t relevant to securing the Internet infrastructure. “We had Java development tools, we had personal contact management systems,” recalls Thompson. “We had a whole range of things that didn’t relate to anything in common, except they could be moved through the same distribution channel. And my answer is: Who cares about that?”

With the blessing of the board, Thompson had free reign to work his transformation. To this end, many of the firm’s top managers were replaced. Even b
oard members were replaced. “It was clear from the very beginning that if this was in fact going to be a transformation of a company, there was no way that the board could have recruited me or anyone else and not been supportive of the strategy that we were trying to implement,” the CEO recalls. According to Thompson, only two of the directors that were at Symantec when he arrived are still on board.

The turnaround plan was simple but effective: focus on a set of core technologies that target both the consumer and corporate/government entities. “By saying ‘We’re going to become the leader in Internet security,’ it was clear to everybody inside the company and outside what we were trying to get done,” Thompson recalls. “And by saying we have a consumer business and an enterprise business, it was clear that we had to service two very distinctly different markets and had to align our technology, our distribution approach, [and] our development approaches all around how you serve those two diverse markets.”

From there, Thompson’s team spent over $2 billion on a series of acquisitions “all oriented around building up the portfolio or the capacity we have to do a better job of securing the transactions and the Internet infrastructure that customers have put in place,” says

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