Cover Story: Gary Jackson - Cisco's wild duck quacks before flying north

When he joined Cisco the local operation wasn't swimming all that well.

At Microsoft, he refused to kiss rear ends.

Giving people autonomy and building a team play a major role for Jackson.

He never mentioned golf.

Before he left Australia, John Costello caught up with him. Ian Sharp, Computerworld's staff photographer, was also there. In this edited transcript of the interview, Jackson reflects on his 25 years in the Australian IT industry and his future.

Gary Jackson enjoys one of the highest profiles of any CEO in the Australian IT industry. He's moving on from managing director of Cisco's local operations to a regional role with the company. This will see him re-locating to Singapore to be in charge of Cisco's service provider line of business for Asia/Pacific -- one of the company's fastest growing businesses.

"I've been here for two and a half years. When I joined Cisco they were about halfway through the financial year. They were 77 per cent of their target. That is well off from where they should have been.

"For a company that was supposed to be doing well, that wasn't great. I wasn't coming in to something that was swimming all that well.

"The first quarter I was in, we didn't make our numbers. The second quarter, [the final for that financial year] we made the numbers for the quarter but not for the year.

"Last year, we absolutely blew away our budget and this year we've also blown it away. Last year we grew 70 per cent over the year before. This year we've grown 50 per cent over last year. We've virtually tripled our revenues in two and a bit years.

"In Australia this is a $500 million-plus business. It means it's bigger here than SAP or Microsoft. This is a big business and I don't see it slowing down.

"My team is absolutely kicking arse. We're working hard and having fun. This team feels very good about itself. We're winning more than we're losing. I would say whoever is running this [after me], is looking at a billion dollar company in two to three years.

"Cisco's goal is public. John Chambers [Cisco's CEO] wants to grow it to a $US50 billion business in five years. Do the sums.

"We're now at the size where we're driving into big telco deals that we never had before.

There are huge deals going down in China, India, Hong Kong. If Cisco maintains its current growth rate we'll reach that 50 billion in four years.

Jackson on Sybase

Before he joined Cisco, Jackson was the regional VP for database company Sybase.

"I originally went in on a contract basis with Open Vision Systems which was the distributor.

"Then I wound up being the broker between Open Vision Systems [OVS] and Sybase, which was looking to buy them out and set up its own subsidiary.

"When I was negotiating that transaction on behalf of OVS, Sybase said they thought it was a good idea if I stayed on and ran the operation. That put me in a slightly difficult negotiating position.

"But it all worked out well. Sybase was very good to me. While Sybase wasn't going as well as it could have done corporately, we did tremendously well here. They were a great team."

. . . on Microsoft

Prior to Sybase, Jackson was managing director of Microsoft's local subsidiary. He was asked if he wanted to comment on his brief time with the company.

"The big M," he sighed. "I loved my time there. The difficulties [at Microsoft were] more about style. I'm not somebody that's going to kiss anybody's rear end because they've got a VP or any other title. I guess a couple of players there didn't like the way I did things. Shit happens. It's the one and only time I've been fired. It was a very cathartic experience.

"Look, when things are going well -- and they were going really well for Microsoft -- you just get a little bit cocky and you think you can try anything and do anything. The fact is that unless you own the company you have to accept there are other stakeholders.

"I've always been a firm believer that you forget the politics.

"That's for other people to worry about. Shoot politicians if you can and if you're doing a good job and the numbers are there and the morale is high then that will outweigh everything else.

"That was actually quite a naive view. I probably don't hold that view these days.

"Everyone [in Cisco] would probably still class me as a risk-taker.

"But I'm now more calculated in the risks that I take. I've now got a lot more experience and I'm a little wiser.

"I still don't kiss rear ends."

On Pyramid Technology

Before Microsoft, Jackson had a regional role with Pyramid Technology. "I was there nearly eight years," he said.

"I rejoined Lionel [Singer] to start Pyramid. It was 1984 and we said, 'Well, we think we'll do this Unix thing'.

"That was very early days for Unix. When Lionel sold out to the US and the parent formed a subsidiary, I stayed on to run Australia and then Asia.

"I finished up as VP Asia for Pyramid.

"It was my major foray into Asia and the Middle East where I set up a lot of distributorships. I learned a lot about negotiating in Asia. At Pyramid [in Australia] we were 10 to 12 per cent of the corporate revenues, which gives you an indication of how well we were going.

"Perhaps the company wasn't going as well as it could have done corporately but we did very well and then plateaued. With the 90s everyone wanted to get into software. So did I.

"Then the Microsoft opportunity presented itself."

What he said on golf

Nothing. He said absolutely nothing about golf. In Jackson's last days at Pyramid and his early days at Microsoft, he was involved in the controversial corporate sponsorship of a golf tournament.

His high profile ensured the imbroglio received maximum publicity. It also earned Jackson the nickname 'Nine Holes'.

His view on Prime

"I was there seven and half years. April 1977 was when I first joined Lionel [Singer] as the Victorian branch manager [for Prime Computer]. I'd gone back to Melbourne to join DEC having started my career in Canberra with Information Electronics. I loved IE. I learned so much there.

"Prime was fantastic. After two years back in Melbourne I went back to Canberra to start the branch there. Prime was phenomenally successful in government.

"We just had so many good accounts there.

"Prime made two strategic mistakes and that was, in the end, why I left. It didn't allow a low end, desktop graphics product. "Prime was also the last of the minicomputer companies to embrace Unix. That's when I left to start Pyramid -- selling a purely Unix machine."

The best managed IT company

"This is going to sound like it's what I should say but overall Cisco is the best managed company I've worked for. Bill Gates is without doubt the smartest guy I've seen. But overall, understanding what customers need and how to set up an infrastructure to respond to that and being customer focused while allowing a reasonable amount of autonomy, Cisco is the only company that's got all that.

"John Chambers is a great leader. He knows what he's good at. He knows how to surround himself with good people that do things that he doesn't do so well. He's very charismatic. He believes in customer service and I relate to that. I just love customer service.

"I would put Prime at number two. That was enormous fun. It was an enormous success. It went from nowhere to somewhere in such a short time. We had a tremendously high view of ourselves as a team. We knew we were hot. It took [some time] for me to realise that Prime had gone off the boil. That happened when Joe Henson took over [as president and CEO]. He was a 27-year IBMer. He was coming from that style into Prime and it just didn't quite jig.

On his high media profile

"I learned a lot from Lionel Singer. He knew how to handle the media. But I have always been a very gregarious person. All through school, I was doing madcap things. I loved the attention and I make no apology for that. People that have a high profile in the media are attention seekers in some way, shape or form.

"I'm not frightened of saying what I believe. I think a lot of people, when they get into a senior role are petrified of saying anything for fear of offending their boss or because it may get them in hot water. They end up saying very little.

"It's very difficult from the other side of the fence to have the managing director of a company that's a player in any industry who isn't prepared to be reasonably communicable to the press. I do not understand why they have so many fears. I don't have those fears.

"My view is that sometimes you'll get misquoted -- not all that often. Sometimes you can use it to your advantage because I regard it as theatre. People are looking for the truth and a little bit of difference. I'm not frightened of that. It doesn't worry me being regarded as a little bit off-centre. I am a bit off-centre."

And on the promotion to Singapore

"What does piss me off is all these conspiracy theories about why I'm going to Singapore. It aggravates me when many people who have never said two words to me say, 'I know Garry Jackson -- AND . . .' " He swept his arms out. "It's usually total bollocks," he said.

"The fact is that the service line of business is the most important in terms of where Cisco is going to be in the next two to four years." Cisco's regional operations for the service provider business are based in Singapore.

"So [Singapore] is a funny place to put somebody you want to get rid of," Jackson said.

"The service provider revenues -- telcos and Internet service providers (ISPs) -- have gone from 11 per cent of our revenues in Australia to 33 per cent in two and a bit years. We've got the end-to-end business of Powertel, AAPT, Telecom New Zealand. With OzEmail we've gone from nowhere to primary supplier in terms of access devices. In Optus we're now the supplier for switching and routing. These were all competitive bids.

"We've won virtually bloody everything that we've gone for. So to say that I'm going to Singapore because Richard [Freemantle, Cisco's Asia/Pacific VP] isn't happy that we didn't get all of [Telstra's] DMO [business] is just utter bullshit.

"I don't know how else to say it other than it's utter bullshit. I'm just going to ignore the rumours.

At the end of the day there are people who like conspir-acy theories. That stupid item in Scuttlebutt [Computerworld, July 30, page 56] that linked me to Scott Ferguson -- they are silly things.

"I was going to run Australia, India and Indonesia from August 1. That was the plan. A number of things happened internally and some didn't.

"The service provider job for Asia, including Australia, is the plum job. It covers all the telcos and ISPs in this part of the world.

"But I would have to move to Singapore to do that because that's where the team is based. There's 50 people up there in the service provider business. My personal life also makes this more do-able now than in the past.

"My 16-year-olds are in boarding school. My 19 and 21-year-old both go to Sydney Uni and have very busy schedules. I'm going to commute back here on weekends. Also I still have ongoing responsibility for telcos and ISPs in Australia.

No one asked me to go to Singapore. It was my decision. My team is in Singapore and that's where I want to be.

"This job requires me to get my teeth into the product set a lot more. It requires me to think a lot more in terms of alliances with the telcos. Then there's all the deregulation that's happening in the region. All this is going to take a lot of work for at least two years.

"My options from this role [in Singapore] would be to move into a wider role in Asia or move to Europe. Cisco is a company that with its growth -- 45 per cent year on year -- there's got to be bucket-loads to do."

No hint of fame at the first encounter

On his first brush with the media, Jackson gave no hint that he would openly encourage the media to contact him.

That first occasion was an unseasonally warm day in May -- Wednesday May 14, 1975, to be precise.

It was in Canberra and the occasion was the official opening of the new manufacturing facility for Information Electronics.

The company struggled to make a mark in the manufacturing of specialised display terminals. Jackson was the company's sales engineer.

Its managing director, Malcolm Macauly, invited the then federal treasurer, Dr Jim Cairns, to do the honours of cutting the ribbon. At the time, Cairns was no stranger to controversy. He had openly admitted his love for his ministerial assistant, Junie Morossi.

This titillating news had sent the general media into a feeding frenzy whenever Cairns appeared in public -- invariably accompanied by Morossi and, usually, another strikingly beautiful woman.

That day in Canberra almost 25 years ago was no exception. Surrounded by a huge media pack armed with TV cameras, still cameras, tape recorders and some with old fashioned notepads and pencils, Cairns and his two assistants -- one of them Morossi -- made their way from their car to the front steps of IE's new factory.

But the questions were all about Junie. Nobody wanted to know about the new factory.

Standing to one side looking amused by the proceedings was Jackson -- looking resplendent in an electric blue three-piece suit.

Jackson laughed when reminded of the event. "Wasn't that unreal," he said. "Just unreal."

Singer's influence

Jackson admits one of the biggest influences on his career was Lionel Singer. Singer rocketed to prominence in the late 1970s when he launched Prime Computer in Australia.

Eventually, he sold the operation back to Prime.

Singer also launched in Australia Sun Microsystems and Pyramid Technology.

"Lionel Singer has been my major mentor in the industry," Jackson said. "I still say publicly that I will take a long walk off a short pier for Lionel.

No one is aware of Lionel's faults more than me -- except Lionel. I worked closely with him twice and would consider doing it again.

"He's an extraordinary risk taker. He puts his money where his mouth is once he trusts you. And he takes a long time to trust you. "And, yeah, he cuts corners. He's a doer. He puts everything on the line to try and make something happen.

"He handled the media very well and I learned a lot from that."

Jackson on Jackson

Hiring the best people, giving them room to move and building a strong team are the cornerstones of Jackson's management philosophy. Plus, of course, his willingness to talk to the news media.

"I'm a two-year change agent," he said. "Look at what I've done. At Prime I spent two years as Victorian branch manager, two years in Canberra and one and a half years as national sales manager. The same at Pyramid -- I ran Australia then ran part of Asia. I believe that every two to three years you should do something different.

"Richard [Freemantle, Cisco's VP Asia] gives me 100 per cent support. His view and my view is that, 'I hire the best people I can around me. We agree on a strategy and agree on which way south is and then I let them operate.' I do not sit over the shoulders of my people. Really capable people hate being micro-managed. They're too smart for that.

"Autonomy, courage and teamwork -- those are the footprints I leave behind at Cisco Australia. It's all about giving your people autonomy and encouraging them. It's all about building a team. That's what leadership is all about.

"Sure, getting the numbers is good but being a great leader is all about making your people want to jump off the parapet for you. "The proudest legacy I'm leaving Cisco Australia is that my successor will be coming from someone in my team. I'm proud of that and proud of my team.

"Basically, I like customer service. What I'd like to do when I'm finished with all this, is to own and run a couple of restaurants -- things that are about customers. I mean -- I want people to walk away saying, 'That was great'."

When Jackson was interviewed by Chambers for the job at Cisco he asked the CEO for his thoughts on Jackson at the end of the interview.

"He said, 'Well, I think you're a bit of a wild duck, but I think every formation of ducks needs a few wild ones. We may have to steer you back into formation every now and then. But we should always have our wild ducks.' That's how he has fostered a style in Cisco that's aggressive but is customer focused and does give people elbow room to go and achieve.

"I always wanted to be a journalist. I was good at English. They used to read out my essays in class when I was a kid. I envy you working with words," he said. "But I was also very good at maths and science so I did electrical engineering. Yes, I wound up as an engineer.

"But I'm still mad about customer service. That's what it's all about -- making the customer feel good."

Jackson probably sees his long-term goal as moving between Sydney and Port Douglas. In the Queensland resort town, he already owns residential property. In Sydney he is in the middle of buying an apartment in the residential redevelopment of the CSR industrial complex in the harbour-side suburb of Pyrmont.

"It's a perfect location," he said. "I'll have the Harbour Bridge on one side and the Anzac Bridge on the other.

"You know what they've named the new development? Jacksons Landing."

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