JOHN W. THOMPSON: TOP AFRICAN AMERICAN “FORTUNE 500” C.E.O.
John W. Thompson worked for IBM for 28 years before he chose to take a daring risk. Instead of waiting for retirement, which was only a couple years away, he accepted an offer to become head of Symantec, a leading software company located in California’s Silicon Valley. It was the kind of challenge that he was ready to tackle. Through his vision and determination the company renewed its focus and goals.
Thompson was born April 24, 1949, in Fort Dix, New Jersey, and raised in West Palm Beach, Florida. His father was a postal worker and his mother was a teacher. Thompson claims to have had an early education in business when he accompanied his father as he collected rent on some apartments the family owned. His parents inspired a strong work ethic in Thompson. His parents believed very much in the concepts of working hard for what they wanted and making sure they were prepared for what their pursuits were.
Thompson went to college on a music scholarship at Florida A&M University, where he studied business administration. Although he played clarinet and saxophone, he did not want to become a musician. His goal was to become a businessman, he just did not know what kind of business he wanted to pursue. Toward the end of his college career, during which he had married and had a child, Thompson was encouraged by one of his professors to apply to IBM.
He started out in 1971 as a salesman for the company. In the beginning, he was determined to be his own person. He avoided the traditional look of corporate culture and sported a mustache, a large afro hairstyle, and wore leisure suits. The plan that Thompson had laid out for himself was to work for IBM for two years and then apply to law school. As it happened, he and his wife at the time had a second child and he was promoted several times. His winning and charismatic style helped him work his way up the corporate ladder.
He worked as general manager to develop and market IBM’s operating system OS/2. He also helped market the company’s server products and communication product distribution. Midway through his career, Thompson took a leave-of-absence to earn a master’s degree in management science from the Sloan School of Management at MIT. By 1993, he was general manager of IBM Americas, a division of IBM worth $37 billion with 30,000 employees.
In 1999, R.S. Miller, CEO of Bethlehem Steel and a board member for Symantec met Thompson. Founder Gordon Eubanks was stepping down as head of the company and a search was on for a new leader, one who had to be from outside the company. At the time, Symantec was strong but lacked focus and did not seem to know what direction in which to head. Thompson seemed like the best candidate and he was up for the task.
Thompson and his second wife, Sandi, relocated from Connecticut to California and began another phase in their lives. Sandi, who had worked for IBM as well, returned to school and earned a law degree. Thompson took on the mantle of chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Symantec. He wasted no time implementing changes at the floundering company. One of his first moves was to replace two-thirds of the senior executives. He also increased the number of employees by 40 percent. As part of a new focus on corporate customers, Thompson sold off several divisions including Internet Tools and its Visual Cafe as well as ACT contact manager software.
Many of the changes that took place when Thompson took over Symantec made his investors nervous. In his first couple years, he faced criticism and concern over his decisions. In order to shore up Symantec’s resources for corporate customers, the company bought many smaller companies during a time when most other software companies had withdrawn from such acquisitions. But by 2001, Symantec had hit a revenue goal of having 60 percent of its sales coming from corporate accounts, a switch from its previous focus on individual users. Symantec’s health was given a boost by Thompson’s extensive list of contacts from his former IBM associates, who had always considered him trustworthy.
Thompson took a bold step in 1999, leaving the comfort and security of IBM, to take the helm of Symantec. His efforts have helped the company achieve sales in 2003 that reached $1.4 billion. He credits his success to his determination and focus as well as mentoring.