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Thompson Era At Symantec Drawing To A Close

Yesterday, the news broke that decade-long Symantec veteran John Thompson would be retiring. Symantec's board of directors appointed Enrique T. Salem, currently chief operating officer at the company, to be president and chief executive officer effective April 4, 2009.
Yesterday, the news broke that decade-long Symantec veteran John Thompson would be retiring. Symantec's board of directors appointed Enrique T. Salem, currently chief operating officer at the company, to be president and chief executive officer effective April 4, 2009.The Symantec that Thompson, now 59, took the reins of in 1998 was a much different Symantec than it is today. Back then, Symantec sold a hodgepodge of consumer software: WinFax, the contact management application Act!, as well as Norton Utilities and Norton Anti-Virus. The company's quarterly revenue, in those days, was measured in the millions, not billions.

I had the good opportunity to interview Thompson on a number of occasions. He always was sharp, articulate, and as disciplined in thought as you'd assume an IBM veteran would be. He knew his business, and the software and security industry very well.

He's also an avid duck hunter, though I was never able to confirm how good of a shot he actually is.

Some of Thompson's initial goals included transforming the company from a medium-sized seller of consumer and SMB shrink-wrapped utility and security software to a provider of enterprise applications. He also set the seemingly, back then, ambitious goal of seeing Symantec break the $1 billion mark in annual sales.

Symantec's total sales in fiscal 1999 were $632 million. They reached $1.4 billion by its 2003 fiscal year.

Thompson achieved those goals by shedding productivity applications, such as the fax, contact management, as well as its Visual Café software to focus on security and system management utilities. Those applications provided Symantec (especially the recurring antivirus subscription revenue) a cash flow that Thompson aggressively put to use.

In the summer of 2002, Symantec acquired managed security services provider Riptech, IDS software maker Recourse Technologies, as well as SecurityFocus. Over the years Symantec also acquired PowerQuest, Mountain Wave, Platform Logic, TurnTide, Brightmail, and most recently MessageLabs.

Some of those acquisitions worked out, some didn't. Some are too recent to tell.

One of Symantec's most questioned buys was application security consultancy @stake. I, for one, never quite understood @stake's fit within Symantec's ecosystem. But the most controversial acquisition of all was the December 2004 decision to buy storage software maker Veritas for $13.5 billion.

When the Symantec/Veritas deal neared shareholder approval, I interviewed both Thompson and Veritas' CEO Gary Bloom. The vision they told was to provide enterprises integrated security and storage-management software to more effectively secure data where it travels and resides.

At the time, I thought the vision was a good one. Today, with the rapid virtualization of storage, networks, and end points, it's even better.

Wall Street didn't think so. Just before the acquisition plans were made public, Symantec's stock was around $33 a share. It'd be a 52-week high the stock would never see again. Not even during the stock market boom years that remained through last October.

However, Enrique Salem believes in the future convergence of storage and security, if he's serious about the comment he made below, quoted in this Dow Jones story:


Salem, who takes over in April, said in an interview Monday that the company would continue to diversify in order to fuel stronger revenue growth, a strategy Thompson also pursued. "(Security and storage) are huge markets that ought to be able to deliver better growth for this company," he said. Focusing on customer relationships and winning market share were key goals, he added, and he pointed to the company's geographical diversity as a strength.

Strength is a good word to close on. Thompson took over a midtier consumer software company, and is leaving in place the world's largest independent security software maker. And a market share more than twice that (last time I checked) of its closest competitor, McAfee. And, oh yea, it sells the bulk of its software to enterprises.

I'd say, all in all, Thompson proved himself a good shot.

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