Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Five Questions for Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers

Today’s results from Cisco Systems came in almost exactly on target with the consensus of Wall Street analysts, which, given how bad things were one and two years ago, amounts to progress.

But after a major company-wide restructuring and the divestiture of several non-core businesses, CEO John Chambers (pictured here at D5) is finding that turning the massive Cisco ship around — something he seemed to have started two quarters ago, and which continued last quarter, isn’t coming easy.

There’s the global economy to worry about. All that messy complicated news coming out of Europe about sovereign debt and cuts in government spending around the world has a way of eating into technology budgets both at Cisco’s government customers and at its large enterprise customers.

Cisco’s guidance for the quarter ending in July was especially worrisome for investors, who promptly sent Cisco’s share price plummeting by more than 8 percent in after-hours trading. Cisco called for revenue to grow between 2 percent and 5 percent, which works out to sales in the range of $11.4 billion to $11.8 billion, well off the consensus forecast of $12 billion.

Guidance on earnings was equally disappointing. At 44 cents to 46 cents a share, the midpoint lags the consensus by two cents.

So what’s going on? I asked Chambers about it in a phone interview with AllThingD held after the conclusion of Cisco’s conference call with analysts.

AllThingsD: John, the markets clearly don’t like very much what they saw today. So, from a high level, what happened — good, bad and indifferent — with this quarter?

Chambers: The first thing from a high level is that we’re executing pretty well on our vision and strategy, and we did exactly what we said we would do. We guided for growth of 5 percent to 7 percent for the year and for the first nine months we’re at 7.5 percent [revenue]. We said profits faster than revenues, and we’re at 9.5 percent. Earnings per share increasing 13 percent year over year for the first nine months and gross margins down just 1 percent primarily on product mix. We’re winning versus our key competitors and winning at a pretty fast rate. When you’re number one or two in most product categories, holding your own in switching and making it very challenging for the Huawei’s of the world, the Junipers and Hewlett-Packards … Juniper and HP we’re pulling away from and we’ll see if we can maintain it. Huawei, for the first time we’re getting much better and competing against them and understanding their weaknesses. And if you look where we are in terms of the bigger picture, we’re in the right markets. We’re in the mobility market. We’re in video. We’re in the cloud market. We’re in the social networking segment. We’re pulling them all together, and our customers are buying the architecture in a pretty good amount. Even in service providers, where most people thought they would never move toward having preferred vendors, we’re seeing something close to that at some service providers and at many of them they are starting to think about going all-Cisco.

So on things we can control and influence I think we’re in pretty good shape. In terms of the market, I’d like to add another couple of points [of growth] in service providers, another couple of points from commercial customers. The public sector is at 3 percent. I’d take that for the year, but we think it’s going to be flat, give or take a couple points.

The issue is the enterprise. And there the problem is not that they don’t have the money or that they don’t understand that it’s important to get productivity. It’s that they’re uncertain. When they are uncertain, that’s because of economic issues primarily because of Europe. And uncertainty on government policy. Then you see people deciding not to invest. And that affects not only capital spending but jobs.

So I think the market understood what we’re saying and I think most people would give us credit for being a very good indicator of what the point in time change is. But this is not necessarily a given for what is going to happen in the second half of the year. I’m just trying to be as transparent as I know how.

The July quarter is usually your seasonally strongest. Given that your guidance was relatively weak compared to the consensus, what are we to make of the quarter coming up? Is it a secular weakness or mostly the economy? Are your competitors just taking it on the chin worse that you are?

Let’s look at Juniper. It’s down 6 percent a year and routing down 9 percent. Huawei is growing 11 percent a year, but its service provider segment is growing only 3 percent. HP’s networking business is back to the levels in their switching business to what they were when HP first bought 3Com. There’s an explosion in the data center business, it’s to the point that companies who have been there a long time like IBM or HP, we’re growing 67 percent and their servers are flat or slightly down. So the results speak for themselves in terms of what we’re doing right in some areas. But we’re learning to tie things together in a way that saves customers money, saves them time to market and allows them to achieve their business goals quicker. That is the game we’re playing for. The major thing we’re after is getting the enterprises spending again. Customers — almost uniformly — are saying that my business is okay, not great, they expect it will go up gradually, and that they’re probably going to spend more in the second half of the year than they did in the first. But immediately as a follow-up to that, they all say that’s true only if they’re not surprised by something from the economy. That’s the kind of uncertainty we’re seeing, and in talking with my peers in the industry who are in similar markets, they can finish my sentences. The question is whether it’s temporary or is it a blip? We just don’t know yet.

So given the restructuring we’ve been talking about for the last year or so, is Cisco the right size? Your overall headcount is down more than 8,000 from a year ago, but it’s up by more than 1,300 since the last quarter. Are you at the right size or are there more changes coming?

Out of the 1,353 people we added, the vast majority were either advanced services or engineers. We needed more engineers. The additions were around either building products or converting services. In terms of our organization structure, we re-did Cisco. We’ve learned from what we did well in the past, and you wouldn’t see the turnaround as quickly as we did if the structure weren’t so strong. But we needed to restructure how our customers buy, and how we build products. We needed to be nimbler and simpler in how we get decisions done. And that is a journey. In the past we tended to get a market transition, good or bad, and take off on a good one or address a bad one, and we would end up gaining market share almost always coming out of these. We’ll see if we do it again this time. But we weren’t constantly reinventing ourselves to avoid hitting the next wall or the next inflection point. That is what we’re trying to do. This is a continuous journey. While we were four or five inches around the waist, I think there’s still more work to be done in our middle levels. I think you’ll see us address that in the next year or two. Does that mean we’re going to adjust the market given that the market may have slowed? I’m not sure it has yet, we’ll know in a couple of quarters which way it’s going. The answer is, not in a major way. It’s too early to say which way this market is going. We’re not going to over-react or under-react.

You just made a major acquisition with NDS, about $5 billion. You still have a lot of cash on the balance sheet. What’s your stance on acquisitions?

Ongoing at Cisco we will do innovation through internal development, including internal start-ups, through strategic partnership, and acquisitions and intergrating all of the above. NDS is one of multiple moves that we will make, not just in the video space for us, but it was also a major cloud play for us and a major social media move if we do this right. It plays right into the sweet spot of our service providers and content providers. Our ideal target has not changed: 100 engineers with a product that is just about to come to market, where our customers say that if they were owned by Cisco they’d buy a lot of it. The $5 billion price is higher than what we’ve traditionally paid, but it’s on the order of Stratacom and Tandberg, for which we paid about $3 billion each. But our ideal target is smaller, and you’ll see us continue to be selectively active in the market.

You’re said to be heavily focused on gross margins. One point that came up on UCS: You say it’s growing like crazy, off a low base, but one of the analysts pointed out this week that it has the overall effect of bringing down the gross margin a bit. How are you addressing that?

That’s true on specifics. UCS by itself, even with a premium versus our peers, is going to be below our gross margin of 65 percent. So, by definition, as you add more of those it has a major effect on gross margin. When you combine UCS with our Nexus 2000 and 5000 switches the blended version gets the margin higher, though still not as high as the overall gross margin. Our challenge on gross margin, and the reason why we’re going to focus aggressively on each gross margin area this year, is that it’s more of a product mix issue than it is an issue of pressure on gross margins on any specific product. In terms of the base for UCS, it’s getting close to a $2.5 billion run rate and probably closer to $3 billion by now. So the base is getting larger, and in North America our market share is close to 20 percent and globally our best guess is 14 percent as best as we can tell. So that’s pretty good execution.

At this point, as he did last time we talked, Chambers asked me what song I’d pick to musically illustrate Cisco’s quarter, sticking with a tradition started a few quarters back and continued last quarter. I told him I wanted it to be a surprise, but that I think he’d like it.

This quarter, I dedicate to Cisco Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy.” The hard work of transformation done, Cisco is finding that, despite being leaner and meaner, it has still got some way to go and finds itself in a tough market. In the video below, Ringo performs with fellow Beatle George Harrison at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. As everyone at Cisco knows, nothing worth having comes easy.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald