Cisco’s Chambers: What’s Next?

Michael FinneranJohn Chambers is doing a victory lap on morning TV, talking to Charlie Rose earlier today, as he prepares to hands the reins to Chuck Robbins and assume his role as executive chairman. And who can blame him? Having put $5,000 into Cisco stock in the early ’90s, I have no complaints about Chambers’ tenure.

When he took over as CEO, Cisco was generating about $1.2 billion in revenue; it’s now closing in on $50 billion. Yes, a lot of that growth came through acquisitions, but integrating all of those various pieces parts was no small feat. Among the most notable buys to my mind was the 1998 acquisition of Selsius Systems, which at the time barely made a stir but that put Cisco in the IP PBX, and eventually the UC, business, where it’s now an undisputed leader.

Chambers has also remained committed to Cisco’s channel, including his selection of Robbins, the former chief of the company’s Worldwide Sales Organization and Worldwide Partner Organization that accounts for about 80 percent of the company’s sales, as successor.

Not that there haven’t been missteps. I had a drink with Chambers at a Cisco event a few years back. He was pleasant, engaging and every bit as intense as he is in his captivating, high-energy keynotes. I asked him why Cisco wasn’t getting more deeply involved in mobile, and he responded by showing me his Flip video camera. This was about six months before Cisco dumped the product.

Cisco has also just gone through a massive reorganization in its engineering department, which represents over one-third of its 71,000 employees, and the new direction is not without its detractors. The departures of Gary Moore, president and COO, and Rob Lloyd, president of development and sales, effective on July 25, were widely expected. The loss of Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s popular CTO and chief strategy officer, was less so.

Not all analysts are happy with the company’s direction, either. Jeffrey Bronchick, chief investment officer at Cove Street Capital, calls the company “fat and insular” (not the more usual “arrogant” label, but close) and says “it screams for change.”

Maybe, but no one can deny that Chambers is a business visionary. While his speeches feature a good deal of rah-rah about Cisco, and not many CEOs can stay as relentlessly on script, he also talks a lot about the challenges faced by large companies and the techniques he used to keep pushing Cisco forward. Most of us in the industry have heard the mantra that 40 percent of tech businesses won’t exist in 10 years because of the rapidly changing technological landscape. History has shown he’s probably right, and channel partners ought to be paying very close attention.

Robbins appears to be cut from the same cloth, so I expect to see him “working the floor,” Chambers-fashion, at industry events, but we’ll have to see what type of change he envisions to keep Cisco relevant. Remember, Chambers will remain with the company, so it will be interesting to see how much of a free hand Robbins is given. As CEO of one of the powerhouses of the tech industry, his actions will be under scrutiny from the start. It would take BlackBerry-scale mismanagement to stop the juggernaut that is Cisco, but the big question will be, “How much better can Robbins make it?”

As for Chambers, I’m interested to see what his next chapter is. I doubt he’ll be happy on the sidelines. In his interview this morning, he pointed out that forecast U.S. 2015 GDP growth of 3.1 percent lags India (7.5 percent) and China (6.8 percent) and said we need a “national program” to get America leading on the second generation of the Internet. He cited France’s and Germany’s political leadership on smart cities and digital programs, trotting out the “disrupt of be disrupted” mantra. Clearly, there’s more to come.

Michael Finneran is principal at dBrn Associates, a full service advisory firm specializing in wireless and mobility; services include research, policy development, purchase analysis, and security/technology assessment. Mr. Finneran has worked in the networking field for over 30 years and has operated the practice since 1982. He has published numerous research reports, white papers, and has provided technical and market analysis on the full range of wireless technologies including Wi-Fi, cellular, WiMAX, fixed-mobile convergence, and mobile unified communications (mUC).

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