In April 2000, Fortune magazine featured Cisco CEO John Chambers on our cover and asked, “Is he the best CEO in the world?” The networking giant’s market capitalization had exploded at the turn of the millennium, soaring to more than $550 billion—topping even Microsoft’s. It was the apogee of the dot-com bubble.
If Cisco (CSCO) had been a hot air balloon, this was the moment it had ascended into the stratosphere.
But Chambers soon found himself forced to pilot the free-falling airship as it crashed back down to Earth. Since it reached those lofty heights, the company’s share price has consistently wavered between about $15 and $30, never again regaining the $80 peak it reached.
On Monday, the company announced that Chambers will be captain no longer, assuming the title of executive chairman at the end of July. The move, long anticipated by those in the technology industry, leaves many to wonder about his elected successor: Who exactly is Chuck Robbins? Why did the company’s board of directors select him to take the helm—rather than, say, president of sales and development Robert Lloyd, who some considered a frontrunner in the contest? And does Robbins have it in him to revive a company that has struggled for years to reclaim its pre-bust glory?
Meet Cisco’s new CEO
As he prepares for a round of questioning after the announcement of the news, Chambers sounds buoyant and breezy on a private Monday afternoon call with reporters. “Chuck is just an execution machine,” he says in his easy drawl, praising Robbins’ productivity. “He take vision and strategy and turns them into results.” Forgetting his audience for a moment, Chambers addresses Robbins directly before passing him the proverbial mic—and torch. “What I like most of all is you’re a fast learner,” he says. “You know what you know, and you know what you don’t know.”
Robbins, a 17-year veteran of the networking business, most recently served as Cisco’s senior vice president of worldwide field operations. Joining the company as an account manager in 1997, he survived the business’s downward hurtle and assumed increasingly important roles and responsibilities within the organization.
“I’m obviously very humbled and very honored with the announcement made today,” Robbins says, going on to invoke Cisco’s halcyon days and painting, in broad strokes, where he intends to steer the company. “Think about what we did in the late ’90s,” he says. “The next wave we’re facing is digitization through IoT,” he says, abbreviating “the Internet of Things,” the technology trend of connecting historically non-networked appliances and devices to the Internet. “It’s going to be two-to-three times bigger than anything in the past.”
Glimpses of Robbins’ vision are perceptible on the call. He proceeds to talk about “connectivity and convergence,” for example, the merging of applications and technologic infrastructure, allowing for a more flexible and easily manageable system of networking. (One that threatens to gobble Cisco’s core business if it cannot adapt quickly enough.) He mentions how he would like to leverage the information garnered from all the company’s network-connected sensors and devices, and to create application layers offering analytics and intelligence, that are sourced and processed “at edge.”
Why Robbins won out
Cisco’s CEO selection process took 16 months. Though Chambers would not reveal details, citing the process and candidates as confidential, he did let on as to why Robbins was named the victor. In the last 10 months in particular, he says, Robbins pulled away from the pack. “What Chuck did so well was demonstrate the character you want out of your CEO.” Chambers again held up “vision,” “strategy,” and execution,” as key markers of success. “I tend to be more command and control, telling people to make it so” Chambers says with a touch of self-deprecation. Robbins, on the other hand, “makes the process part of his decision,” he says, mentioning his successor’s ability to coordinate complex solutions.
Chambers adds: “He’ll make the changes that need to be made.”
What might those changes be? There are hints. Despite acquiring many businesses over the course of its history, Cisco has never quite found one to replace its core moneymaker: networking and switching. Some believe the new CEO will set out to adjust the company’s prioritize. “In many cases where the CEO has been very acquisitive, the next guy pares down and refocuses the company,” an analyst tells Reuters, “and that is what I would be expecting with this change.”
Indeed, one cannot ignore how Chambers touts “execution” as Robbin’s premier trait. It’s a term that connotes not only an ability to produce, but also, to some ears, an axe. In its last earnings call, the company beat expectations, but announced that it would be slashing thousands of jobs. Perhaps one can expect the new CEO similarly to hone in on certain areas and cut the deadweight. That would would fit the analyst’s thesis.
Robbins says he’s not sure what he’ll prioritize just yet. But his track record provides some clues. He was integral, according to his company biography, as “a key sponsor for the Sourcefire and Meraki acquisitions.” Those business, in the security and collaboration spaces, respectively, may signal enticing areas of growth for the equipment maker.
As his decades-long reign enters its twilight days, Chambers is not a trace of wistful, at least as far as his tone of voice is concerned. At age 65, he is just as emphatic as ever about the opportunities presented by technological innovation. “We’re about to have a chance to have a repeat of the ’90s with the digital revolution that is occurring,” he says, harkening back to the comment made at the beginning of the call. He then turns his attention to his heir. “Chuck, you’re going be a great leader here,” he says. “I couldn’t be more excited to be your coach.”
With that, he adds an avuncular exhortation: “Take us to the number one IT company.”
Robbins replies in kind. “John, I also want to thank you,” he says. “You built this into one of the most successful and admired companies in history at one point.”
He adds: “My goal, candidly, is to make the next decade better than the last two.”