Thompson takes Symantec well beyond its antivirus roots

Industry Executive of the Year: John Thompson

Michael Allen Jones

Symantec Corp. built its name on its flagship Norton system maintenance and antivirus products. As the 1990s progressed, though, the company embarked upon an aggressive period of acquisition to broaden its scope, reflecting the changing landscape of computing and the expanding reach of the Web.

'Symantec had reached adolescence and had to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up,' said John Thompson, whose arrival as chairman and CEO five years ago coincided with the company's new direction. 'The strategy was to extend our strength in antivirus to a broader Internet-based security platform.'

The results speak for themselves: 30 percent annual revenue growth has transformed Symantec into the world's largest security vendor. Customer satisfaction ratings have steadily increased, and international revenues have expanded to over half the company's total.

Symantec also has done something few high tech companies have achieved: It has reduced staff attrition rates to well below the 20 to 25 percent typical of the industry.

Thompson had had a long and successful tenure at IBM Corp., where he worked as an executive in sales, marketing and software development. He was ready for more responsibility, and the opportunity to run one of the largest software companies in the world proved too tempting.

'It was an opportunity to join a company with great potential, as well as being a personal and professional match,' he said.

Focus on the Web

He quickly reorganized the company's product portfolio, dropping anything not relevant to its central strategy and driving the adoption of Web-based security technologies.

To execute this plan in the public sector, Thompson brought on board Tom Mazich, a 13-year veteran of Comdisco Inc. of Rosemont, Ill. From the beginning, Mazich said, he was impressed by Thompson's commitment to the government side of the business.

'In my 13 months in the job, he has made seven trips to Washington specifically to meet with our federal customers,' said Mazich, public-sector vice president at Symantec. 'How many high-tech CEOs in a company this size show that level of interest in government?'

Symantec's government users include the Defense Department and the intelligence community. Mazich said federal, state and local, and education are all steady growth sectors for Symantec.

Although Thompson acknowledged progress in reshaping the Symantec brand, he said there is still a long way to go. And in the meantime, the entire security landscape is undergoing yet another radical shift.

From antivirus software to point products for intrusion detection and from firewalls to integrated suites, the security market is morphing once again.

This time, it's developing early warning systems that evaluate and minimize risk, and ensure the integrity of an entire IT infrastructure.

'Government IT managers have realized that the notion of any one security product that can solve everything is a figment of the imagination,' Thompson said. 'We are now helping our large federal customers to ensure the integrity of their infrastructures and data, as opposed to trying to secure it.'

The idea is to be fully prepared, detect warning signs and ward off attacks before they do any damage. That entails a combination of three traditionally separate strands of technology'network management, systems management and security.

'While these areas are normally addressed by different vendors, there is a clear trend toward convergences,' Mazich said. 'The federal government is very much an early adopter in this as well as other areas of security technology.'

Drew Robb of Glendale, Calif., writes about IT.

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