Computer Crime Research Center

SYMANTEC CORP. On the record: John Thompson

Date: February 16, 2004
By: John Thompson

... traded company. My first responsibility as CEO is to look out for our investors. So if somebody showed up and said, "We think this would make some sense as part of our portfolio," we'd certainly listen.
But we value the independence that is not compromised by being part of a platform. If you're an operating systems provider, you might think differently about how you solve a security problem.
We deliver software products on top of Linux, on top of Windows, Solaris, a full range of operating platforms.
If Microsoft had us, do you think it would want us to do all those things for those other platforms? If IBM had us, do you think it would want us to put as much energy into Windows as we do, since it is very much on a Linux kick?.

Q: Has anyone approached you in the past year or two? Have you had any informal discussions?

A: I don't talk about M&A. We spend more time buying than selling. That's for sure..

Q: You were at IBM for well over 20 years ...

A: Twenty-seven years, 9 months and 13 days..

Q: What was it like making the transition to CEO of a much smaller company?

A: You cannot come into a company like Symantec and decide you are going to create a little IBM. I mean, that's kind of stupid. There's only one IBM.
The issue that was relevant to me was would I be able to use the muscle between my ears to apply what I had learned at IBM to get Symantec moving in the marketplace that would make it as effective as IBM was. I think we've had a modest amount of success doing that. .

Q: Are there any lessons that Silicon Valley can learn from Lou Gerstner's turnaround of IBM?

A: Well, that may be a better question for Lou, because he's the guy writing books about what he did all by himself.
The issue that was important in IBM's resurgence was being clear about its focus, being clear about what results were expected and being clear about what behavior was acceptable or unacceptable.
Lou was a champion of a few important points of focus that got the company back on the right track. It was incredible to be part of that.
I actually contemplated leaving IBM in the fall of 1993. I had a conversation with Gerstner when I decided to leave, and the challenge he gave me was, "Why wouldn't you want to be part of one of the greatest turnarounds in American industry?".

Q: What was your role in the turnaround?

A: It was an army of 200,000 people, so don't ever assume that one person did it. I say that all the time about my role at Symantec.
When people go to a football game, and the band comes out on the field at halftime, there's a drum major who's leading the band, and he or she is setting the cadence for the people that are marching behind him. But the audience should be listening to and admiring the band, not the drum major.

Q: When you were going to school in Florida, was it a drum major you wanted to be?

A: I went to school my first crack out of high school on a music scholarship, so maybe that is what's behind the analogy..

Q: What instrument?

A: I used to play clarinet. That was my primary instrument, but I played a little bit of sax and blues and all that. But even then, I knew I wanted to be a businessman..

Q: Without even knowing what kind of business you would be involved in?

A: Right. In the 1950s and 1960s when I grew up, a businessman in the African American community ran the local store or dry cleaner. There were no other business role models.

I just had a sense of what I wanted to be. Now, what that businessman was going to do, I didn't know. One day one of my undergraduate school professors said, "You ought to talk to IBM." So I landed at IBM as a salesman. The rest is history..

Q: You talk about a lack of role models when you were growing up. Did you ever experience racial discrimination during your career?

A: I can't point to any overt form of discrimination that occurred. I started out as a salesman in Tampa, Fla., and ended up running the largest geographic profit center for IBM, so it would be hard for me to say that I was discriminated against -- having had that kind of career advancement.

I can't speak to you about the more subtle forms of discrimination, because sometimes you don't see those..

Q: When you were named CEO of Symantec in 1999, a lot of the media jumped on the angle that here was the highest-ranking African American executive in Silicon Valley. If I remember correctly, you weren't very happy about that. You didn't want that to be the lead paragraph of every story. How do you feel about it now?

A: I still feel that way. I don't think it's relevant. It's not news that I'm black.
The issue here is are we able to do something important at Symantec that transcends gender, transcends race, transcends nationality, and do people view that with enough significance that they say, "I can do that too."
If that's the case, that's good. But you never set out to wear your ethnicity on your sleeve. That's not the set of stars and stripes you want. What you want to wear on your sleeve is your accomplishments.
So I wasn't interested in having the discussion that says, "Well, he's the first African American to lead a major Silicon Valley company." So what?.

Q: Others wanted to have that conversation, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson's here on a regular basis ...

A: I spend lots of time with Jesse every time he comes, and Jesse and I agree on many issues, and we disagree on some issues. But you shouldn't assume that because we're both African American our agendas are identical. That would be a huge mistake..

Q: What about politics? Are you still supporting (Massachusetts Sen.) John Kerry for president?

A: Absolutely. Our hope is that people will realize that one of the most significant problems this country has is its standing among the community of nations. Then they'll look to someone who has the necessary experience..

Q: What's your position on the governor's recall election in California?

A: It was a travesty in democracy. I don't think democratic societies were built with the idea that says, "You know something? I just decided that I don't like the job that you're doing, therefore I'm going to kick you out of office."
This has nothing to do with my political leaning, or my like or dislike for the current governor or the former governor. I just don't think the process was appropriate..

Q: What's your view of doing business in California?

A: It is horrible. If the new governor is going to do anything, he ought to make that a top priority. I'll give you a good example.
Three years ago, we decided we were going to build a small operation in Newport News, Va. We decided after a series of acquisitions that we were going to consolidate our northern Virginia operations into a new facility there.
I can't tell you how much the governor of Virginia and the business development team of the state of Virginia thought of our plan to put 200 people in Virginia.
I can't tell you how much interaction and involvement we had from the state, from the county and from the cities on helping us think through the site-selection process, on providing encouragement and incentives.
Now we just went though a decision to spend tens of millions of dollars to buy a piece of land in the Los Angeles area to consolidate operations in Southern California.
I have yet to have anybody from the state of California call to say, "Gee, thanks for staying in the state" or "Thanks for growing in the state." There are many issues that make it hard to do business in California..

Q: So why are you here?

A: History. More growth in our business has come outside California than in California. If I had known in 1999 what I know today, Symantec wouldn't be here today..

Q: Do you think you might move?

A: I didn't say that..

Q: We've heard that from almost everyone we've talked to. It's a scary proposition when you hear CEO after CEO say that the state is a difficult place to do business.

A: Our business is driven by the intellectual capacity of our team. So if you don't solve the education problem, business is going to leave here. I have to go somewhere where I can find the talent. And, by the way, I can get the talent in other parts of the world that are as well or better educated, for anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of the costs..

Q: That leads to my next question. It's a huge issue facing the nation --
American jobs going overseas. Do U.S. corporations have a responsibility to maintain jobs stateside?

A: U.S. corporations' first responsibility is to their shareholders. You cannot say: I'm going to put national interests ahead of shareholder interests.
That said, well-managed companies are able to balance the interests of their investors, the interest of their employees and the interest of the countries in which they serve.
Our company derives half its revenue from outside the United States. And while we are a U.S. company, we have active operations in dozens of other counties. So we have an equal obligation in places where customers provide the underpinning revenue that helps grow our business.
Ultimately, the day will come when you're going to have to move to where there is a reliable, excited, viable workforce. If that's not California, it'll be somewhere else, and this state better get on the stick to solve the problem.

Add comment  Email to a Friend

Copyright © 2001-2024 Computer Crime Research Center
CCRC logo