John Thompson to step down as Symantec CEO

Symantec (NASDAQ: SYMC) CEO John Thompson is retiring and his replacement, COO Enrique Salem, will be a familiar name for many of the security vendor’s channel partners.

Thompson, 59, has led the Cupertino, California, security vendor for the past decade. He will be replaced by Enrique Salem, the company’s chief operating officer, effective April 4, 2009, Symantec said in a statement released Monday afternoon.

Salem came into the channel spotlight over the summer when comments he made during a conference call – that if distribution is not adding value, there’s no reason to keep them as part of the equation, and that it didn’t make sense to continue to leverage both a distributor and a partner to serve the largest customers in the world – caused many to question Symantec’s commitment to the indirect model.

The firestorm created by Salem’s comments pushed then Symantec channel chief Julie Parrish into damage-control mode, reassuring the partner community that Symantec’s commitment to the channel is as strong as ever and that the vendor is not moving from a two-tier to a one-tier distribution model.

“(His) comments were misconstrued and got twisted around which is unfortunate,” said Parrish this summer. “The media outlets didn’t talk to enough partners or come to me first to help put those comments back into context.”

Commenting on Salem’s appointment as CEO, Paul Edwards, director, SMB and channel strategies with IDC Canada, said Symantec is a very strong channel organization and that will continue with Salem as CEO

“He’s going to have to pay attention to that part of the business,” said Edwards. “If you’re an organization like Symantec that does so much business through the channel, you can’t be the CEO and not understand the value of partners and what partners do for your business.”

While there may be situations where it would make sense for Symantec to take more of a direct approach, Edwards said Salem will have to be careful to maintain the support of the channel, and not adversely impact their business.

“If they want to change the direct/indirect ratio of their business, they need to take the time to do that right, to make sure their strategy is in line with partner reality, and that the partners are supportive of that,” said Edwards. “He’s going to have to tread lightly in areas that could cause conflict or impact the company’s revenues, and he’ll be very aware of those things.”

During his tenure, Thompson built Symantec from a consumer desktop software vendor, best known for its Norton products, into a leading enterprise software provider. The company aggressively acquired new software companies including its most high-profile purchase: the 2005 US$10.5 billion acquisition of enterprise storage software vendor Veritas.

“He grew it from what was essentially a desktop software vendor to arguably the most important security pure-play,” said Andrew Jaquith, a senior analyst with Forrester Research who formerly worked for Symantec under Thompson’s leadership. “He’s made a lot of gutsy calls; buying Veritas was an amazingly gutsy call, and it was the right one.”

Investors might disagree with that assessment. Symantec’s stock dropped on news of the Veritas merger four years ago and has never returned to its pre-acquisition highs.

Although Symantec has warned of a slowdown in sales recently, executives said Monday that they have been working on the transition for the past 10 months already, an effort called “Project Texas.”

“I’ve always believed that 10 years was long enough to sit in this role,” Thompson said in a call with financial analysts Monday.

Come April, Thompson will remain as chairman of Symantec’s board of directors, but in an interview following the call he said his immediate retirement plans involve spending “a lot more time” in Hawaii.

A supporter of President-elect Barack Obama, Thompson has been considered a possible appointee to the incoming Obama administration. Thompson said he has had no conversations with the Obama camp and has no plans to work in Washington.

But he didn’t entirely rule out the possibility. “Clearly if I were to get a call from the president-elect, it would be not only stupid, but unpatriotic to not take the call and consider anything that he might want to chat with me about,” he said.

Salem, 43, had been groomed for the post since Symantec acquired his antispam company, Brightmail, in 2004. He headed Symantec’s consumer business and then the worldwide salesforce before being promoted to COO in January of this year.

Years before Brightmail, Salem began his career at Symantec as a 25-year-old software engineer working on Norton Utilities for Windows.

Thompson said Salem would bring new energy to the role of CEO. “Enrique’s got infinitely more energy than I have,” he said. “This is the perfect time for us to put someone who is as energetic and intelligent in the job to run this company.”

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