The Best CEO in Silicon Valley

On the occasional summer day when John W. Thompson manages to get away from it all, he can be spotted along the riverbanks of Alaska’s waterways. Fishing rod in hand and fly securely tied to hook, he’ll carefully scout the wooded shoreline for the ideal location to cast in hopes of landing the perfect rainbow trout or arctic grayling. Though this is Thompson’s ideal way of relaxing, it uses methods similar to his approach to business.

As chairman and CEO of Symantec Corp., the 55-year-old trolls the waters of Silicon Valley to determine the hottest growth areas within the network security software industry and to identify potential acquisition targets with products that complement his company’s software portfolio. And he’s good at it.

One of Symantec’s recent deals, the $370 million acquisition of Brightmail completed in June, gave it access to a suite of antispam technologies. Before that, there was the $100 million buyout of ON Technology Corp., a provider of software used to rapidly deploy applications and operating systems. Deals such as these are all in a day’s work for Thompson, who’s spearheaded dozens of acquisitions since taking the helm of the company in 1999. “Those were, in essence, about expanding us and moving us into adjacent markets — adjacent to the security space — and expanding the opportunity pool for the company to compete in,” Thompson said from the company’s Cupertino, California, headquarters. “So our business opportunity or addressable market went from about $16 billion to almost $32 billion.”

Thompson successfully transformed Symantec from a $632 million consumer software company into a multinational market leader in enterprise security software with 5,600 employees and projected revenues of $2.41 billion for fiscal 2005. Under his leadership, the company’s stock has risen more than 500% (compared with a loss for the tech-laden NASDAQ over the same period of time). In fact, during the five years since Thompson took over, Symantec stock has not only outperformed the stock of its chief competitors — McAfee, Computer Associates International, and RSA Security — but that of nearly every other major technology company as well, including such bellwethers as Microsoft, eBay, Dell, Cisco Systems, and Intel. These results make a powerful case for Thompson to be recognized as “the Best CEO in Silicon Valley.” For Symantec’s explosive growth in the fast-paced and ever-changing world of network security, BLACK ENTERPRISE has selected Thompson as Corporate Executive of the Year for 2004.

Thompson’s road to the executive suite of a company best known to consumers for its Norton AntiVirus product was a lengthy one. Growing up in South Florida, Thompson’s parents instilled in him a set of blue-collar values that he still applies today. He worked odd jobs such as cutting grass, and even at an early age, he wanted to become a businessman. “I always had this aspiration of someday being a businessman,” Thompson recalls. “Now, I didn’t know what that meant, because back in those days — in the early to mid-60s — a business leader in the black community … ran