New Cisco CEO puts stamp on dealmaking machine

Cisco's Chuck Robbins speaks at the Global Sales Experience in Las Vegas, Aug. 25, 2014.

Even for Cisco, it's been an aggressive week.

The world's largest maker of computer networking equipment announced three acquisitions in the past three days. Not since November 2012 had Cisco purchased three companies in the same month.

The latest was Wednesday's agreement to buy 1 Mainstream, an early-stage start-up, whose software helps media companies deliver Web-based video.

The price wasn't disclosed, but a person familiar with the transaction said it's $100 million to $150 million. A Cisco representative declined to comment on the terms.

Cisco Systems Inc. Chairman and CEO John Chambers
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Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, who succeeded the legendary John Chambers three months ago, is putting his stamp on the company, doing his part to revive growth and keep it from sinking into the dreaded legacy-tech abyss.

"Chuck has been very clear that we're going to be more acquisitive as it relates to moving into new markets," said Rob Salvagno, a 15-year Cisco veteran who took over as head of corporate development under Robbins. "Market transitions are happening at a much faster pace. What you see with regards to our acquisition activity this week is really reflective of that dynamic."

Cisco has a mountain to climb. Sales in fiscal 2015 rose 4.3 percent and have increased less than 8 percent for five-straight years. The company's primary challenge has been finding traction in new businesses beyond switches and routers, while also vying with emerging competitors that are pulling businesses away from proprietary systems and into the cloud.

Relative to some other big legacy companies, Cisco is healthy, said Maha Ibrahim, a partner at Silicon Valley venture firm Canaan Partners. Dell went private in 2013 and recently agreed to acquire EMC, Hewlett-Packard and Symantec are splintering apart and IBM has spent the past three years shrinking.

Cisco 2015 deals

1 MainstreamWeb videoOct. 28 (intent)$100-150 mln
LancopesecurityOct. 27 (intent)$452.5 mln
ParStreamanalyticsOct. 26 (intent)undisc
PortcullissecuritySep. 30 (intent)undisc
OpenDNSsecurityAug. 27undisc
Pawaafile-sharingAug. 6 undisc
MaintenanceNetanalyticsAug. 6 $139 mln
Piston Cloud ComputingcloudJune 12undisc
TroposoftwareMay 29undisc
EmbranesoftwareApr. 13undisc

Source: Source: Cisco

"Chuck Robbins and the new team there knows that to innovate and stay relevant they have to acquire," said Ibrahim. "Given their competitors are so busy dealing with their own internal or external issues, Cisco is one of the few companies that's acquiring actively right now. They're in the catbird's seat."

Cisco has always been a big acquirer, buying on average eight companies a year over the past decade. Robbins picked right up where Chambers left off, announcing five deals since he took the helm on July 26.

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The first three days of this week have been a whirlwind.

On Monday, Cisco said it's buying Germany's ParStream for an undisclosed sum. ParStream's technology helps companies track their connected devices to analyze massive amounts of data and make tweaks as necessary.

It was the latest in a long line of foreign acquisitions. Of Cisco's $60.4 billion in cash and equivalents at the end of the latest quarter, only $7 billion was available in the U.S.

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Chambers, who is still executive chairman, was an outspoken critic of the U.S. tax policy, which would require Cisco to pay roughly 35 percent to bring that cash home. Instead, he spent $5 billion on U.K. software company NDS, $3.3 billion on Norway's Tandberg and $475 million on Israeli company Intucell.

The day after the ParStream deal, Cisco said it is spending $452.5 million for Lancope, a provider of network security designed to fend off attacks that come through smartphones and other devices. It's the company's second-priciest deal this year, behind cloud security company OpenDNS, which Cisco acquired for $635 million.

Salvagno said he's in the process of reorganizing the 45-person corporate development team and should have a new plan in place by the end of the year, "making sure we have the majority of our resources applied to areas Cisco considers its top priorities."

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Those include the Internet of Things, network security and big data analytics.

In addition to acquisitions, Salvagno is pouring resources into strategic investments, working alongside venture capitalists and scouring the start-up world to make sure the company isn't missing early signs of technology transformations.

We "invest based on where we see markets going and look to markets outside and perhaps in front of where Cisco's traditional businesses are today," he said.