Cisco's life after Chambers is still about sales

Chuck Robbins
Cisco Systems Inc., Paul Sakuma | AP
Chuck Robbins

Cisco's CEO of 20 years is retiring, but his successor is cut from a similar cloth.

Unlike Microsoft, which turned to a computer whiz in replacing longtime CEO Steve Ballmer, Cisco is sticking with a sales guy to follow the legendary John Chambers.

Chuck Robbins, Cisco's senior vice president of global field operations and a 17-year company veteran, was named Monday as the next CEO when Chambers becomes executive chairman on July 26.

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Robbins, a trained mathematician, leads a sales force of 20,000 people in 87 countries, and in August pulled many of them to Las Vegas for a four-day event called Global Sales Experience.

"Chuck is going to be very aligned with John Chambers' strategy, and it is a sales-focused strategy," MKM Partners analyst Michael Genovese said on CNBC's "Power Lunch." Genovese has a "hold" rating on the stock.

There's no questioning Robbins' bullishness for Cisco, despite four years of slumping sales growth, including a drop in revenue the latest fiscal year.

In December, Robbins told CNBC.com that the telecommunications equipment giant could eventually return to double-digit growth, a level not seen in four years. He said the business was reaching an "inflection point," a theme he reiterated on a call with reporters on Monday.

Robbins said on the call that all the data coming off of sensors and connected devices need an infrastructure layer, and Cisco is perfectly positioned to provide that technology. His first 90 days will be spent on a listening tour, hearing from employees, customers, peers and partners about where Cisco needs to prioritize. Then he'll start executing.

"The market is moving too rapidly for any one individual to think they have all the answers," Robbins said on the call. "When Cisco gets into execution mode, we tend to be unbeatable."

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The promotion comes less than three years after Chambers announced plans to retire within two to four years. Robbins was one of three potential successors Chambers identified in 2012, though he said at the time that there were as many as 10 candidates. The other executives he named were Robert Lloyd, president of development and sales, and Edzard Overbeek, senior vice president of Cisco services.

On the conference call with Robbins, Chambers declined to comment on whether the other candidates planned to stay at the company, citing confidentiality. He said that Robbins spent 10 months talking to the board and that the decision was "unanimous."

"During that time, Chuck pulled away from all his peers, internal and external," Chambers said. "Chuck is an execution machine."

Cisco Systems Inc. Chairman and CEO John Chambers
Getty Images
Cisco Systems Inc. Chairman and CEO John Chambers

Robbins' challenges are many. Cisco's core business is selling high-priced routers and switches at a time when the world is moving to software, mobile and cloud computing. While its customer base is so big and global that no single competitor poses a real direct threat, the growth opportunities are elsewhere.

Investors are starting to bet on a Cisco revival. The stock is up 27 percent in the past year, more than double the gains in the S&P 500, and closed on Monday at $29.17. (Tweet This)

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"Many large businesses are in transition, and this is the next step for Cisco," said Timothy Zimmerman, an analyst at Gartner. Robbins will need to "focus internally to review product opportunities and business strategies that help clients migrate from existing Cisco solutions to new innovations. "