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Why EMC is feeling the heat

EMC CEO Joe Tucci on stage with "Mr. Spock" at EMC World 2015.EMC CEO Joe Tucci on stage with "Mr. Spock" at EMC World 2015.
EMC CEO Joe Tucci on stage with "Mr. Spock" at EMC World 2015.Courtesy of EMC

Enterprise storage is a difficult business. Just consider the industry’s kingpin, EMC.

In its latest earnings, the company’s storage division had $4.4 billion in sales. But revenue grew at a paltry 1% on a year over year basis.

The rise of cloud computing, in which companies buy computing resources when they need it from tech giants like Amazon (AMZN) and Microsoft (MSFT), has upended the storage industry by eating into its sales. This shift is not lost on investors who have been pressuring EMC’s board to restructure the business.

EMC (EMC) operates under what it calls the EMC Federation, a constellation of five independent companies that cooperate as if they were one. This federation includes data center software company VMware (VMW), big data and software development company Pivotal, RSA Security, and business computing hardware maker VCE.

EMC’s storage business is the primary cash cow in the EMC Federation, but when compared to some of its sister businesses, it’s a tortoise because of its lack of growth. In the second quarter, VMware’s sales, in contrast, rose 10% while Pivotal’s grew 18%.

Even EMC CEO Joe Tucci admitted in the company’s recent earnings call that EMC continues to “see declines in traditional storage products.” Concerned, investors are pushing for the EMC Federation to be split up so that the faster growing members can avoid being bogged down by the stagnant storage business.

Hedge fund Elliott Management has been a vocal critic of the EMC Federation and has pressured its management to sell off a 80% stake in VMware. In January, Elliott Management agreed to stop pushing for the breakup in exchange for two new board seats.

But in September, the truce will end, prompting a number of rumors about EMC’s future. One frequently mentioned possibility is that EMC will sell VMware, like Elliott Management wants. Another is that it will combine with VMware to create one company, contrary to Elliott Management’s wishes. Or maybe it will engineer a deal in which VMware buys out EMC storage business. In such a scenario, VMware would become the dominant business in the federation.

What is clear is that a series of top VMware executives have recently left the company, just before the company’s flagship VMworld conference, which kicks off today in San Francisco. It’s also clear EMC can’t count on its storage business to reignite growth and make investors happy.

In an interview with Fortune, EMC’s president of products and marketing, Jeremy Burton, agreed that the company needs to look beyond its storage business. That’s where EMC’s faster growing sister companies come into play along with a new sales strategy.

Before, EMC Federation companies had separate sales teams that only pitched their own products, Burton said. But now, the federation is moving towards a unified sales force that can hawk anything and everything in the federation family.

Therefore, when sales teams meet with potential customers about data analytics, they can also bring up EMC’s storage gear. Cross selling products will be much easier, Burton said.

He gave the example of Pivotal, which handles data crunching for customers. Because it is in a hot sector, top executives at other companies are far more willing to take meetings to hear about its products. They would be less likely to get a meeting if they had wanted to exclusively talk about EMC’s storage products, explained Burton. Normally, top executives consider storage less interesting and often delegate meetings about it to their IT teams.

But at the end of day, Burton said that sales teams would only talk about what the customer wants to. After all, no one wants to risk losing a deal.

“They are going to do what’s necessary to win that business,” Burton said.

At least for the next year, this new go-to-market strategy will be used on a couple of hundred accounts, Burton said. However, it’s not going to be easy.

While some of the federation’s businesses, like Pivotal, are in what Burton refers to as “hypergrowth” phase, they still just produce only a fraction of the revenues that the storage business brings in. Eventually, they need to grow big enough to offset the declines elsewhere in the federation, Burton said.

And it’s no guarantee that these smaller but hotter businesses will continue with their more rapid growth. VMware, for example, while still growing faster than the EMC storage business, is not the hot Silicon Valley company that it once was just after its initial public offering in 2007.

Earlier this summer, VMware announced that it was going to concentrate on mobile technologies for businesses to help lift growth. The company is primarily known for virtualization, a technology that makes operating data centers more efficient.

Even VMware is experiencing some growing pains. Although its challenges are not as severe as EMC’s, VMware still faces “existential threats to many parts of the VMware business” from rival technologies, Sanjay Poonen, VMware’s general manager of end-user computing, acknowledged recently in an interview with Fortune.

A fast-rising startup called Docker has popularized something called container technology, a variant of virtualization. That’s partly why VMware pushed to create its own containers and related container management technology, which it announced Monday, to help fend off a growing list of competitors.

Although the new VMware container technology supposedly plays nicely with Docker and other container technologies like Google’s Kubernetes service, it’s clear VMware needed to have its own take on the technology that’s garnering a lot of attention.

Burton seemed well aware of the many challenges facing the EMC Federation. But he voiced confidence that the federation should continue to work together.

However, the federation is a complex beast that investors have a tough time understanding. Burton conceded that it suffers from a branding problem, a notion that was echoed by Tucci during his company’s latest earnings call. He said that the fact there are essentially two EMCs — the parent company and the storage business — makes it hard to articulate strategy.

All of this brings us back to investors like Elliott Management that are pushing to reengineer the EMC Federation. If EMC’s plan to reorganize its sales teams succeeds, then maybe investors will be pleased.

The problem is that time is running out, and with Elliott Management hovering, it’s not clear whether EMC’s new go-to-market strategy will be enough. Come September, when the truce between the two sides ends, we may just find out.

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