The Best CEO in Silicon Valley - Page 2 of 6

The Best CEO in Silicon Valley

the local grocery store [or] might very well have had a dry cleaning service. A business in the black community back then was fairly localized, not something that had national or global scale.”

Thompson would attend Lincoln University in Missouri on a scholarship, until he learned that a condition of the scholarship was that he major in music. “I thought if I fulfilled my commitments to play in the marching band and play in the woodwind ensemble and play in the concert orchestra, that I had in fact fulfilled the obligations under my scholarship — not that I had to major in music,” recalls Thompson. So the following year, he transferred to Florida A&M University, where he majored in business administration, and with the ink from his degree still damp, joined IBM in 1971 as a sales representative.

Thompson had initially planned to work for IBM for two years and then go to law school, but those plans never materialized. “I got hooked, like many young IBMers,” he explains, “on the excitement and success that you can have from a fast-paced career at what, at the time, was a very, very rapidly moving and growing company.” Thompson would hold several positions in his first decade at Big Blue, including regional sales rep, sales manager, regional practices adviser, and regional sales manager.

One of Thompson’s challenges at IBM was to turn around the company’s flailing Midwest region. The division had a high cost of sales and declining revenues, and the solution of Thompson’s predecessors was to cut a percentage of the sales force each year and hope that the cuts were deep enough to offset the declining revenue balance. So Thompson created a system in which there was a set of people, who would remain constant, responsible for customer relationships. Behind this group was a team of product specialists, who would service accounts based on existing demand. The new model lowered costs, improved customer satisfaction, and allowed the business to stabilize its revenue performance, while reducing headcount from roughly 9,000 to 4,400.

Shortly thereafter, Thompson ran IBM Americas, a $37-billion-a-year division, where he helped integrate e-commerce into the businesses and services of corporate and government clients throughout North America. While in this role, Thompson began to realize that he wanted a shot at running a company as CEO. “It was clear to me that the itch I had couldn’t be satiated or scratched inside IBM,” Thompson says. “I was going to have to leave to go fulfill what had become my aspirations at that point in time.” So in April of 1999, Thompson left IBM with 27 years, 9 months, and 13 days behind him — just two and a half years away from a gold watch.

Unknown to Thompson at the time, the board of Symantec felt the company needed to go in a new direction, and a search was under way to find a replacement for Founder and CEO Gordon Eubanks, who was leaving the company. The board enlisted Heidrick