Cisco vs. HP is NOT John vs. Mark


Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers is in a good mood, and he should be.

Even though the stock is down fractionally today, Chambers was able to reiterate his company's long term growth outlook of 12 to 17 percent, something he said he wouldn't do until there were noticeable and sustainable signs of an economic turnaround.

Hello turnaround!

In an exclusive interview earlier today, Chambers told me he's ready to put his money where his mouth is, embarking on a "major" hiring initiative not just in the US, but globally. That's good news for a company that planned to cut as many as 2,000 of its 66,000 workers this year. Many if not all those cutbacks indeed occurred.

Cisco had already called a bottom, but it is clear that the company doesn't plan to spend much time hovering there. The hiring news is a welcome headline amid so many concerns over the so-called "jobless recovery."

I asked him about competing with rival Hewlett-Packard , where he used to use the word "partner" to describe the relationship but today prefers "competitor" instead. HP's 3Com acquisition was a clear shot across the Cisco bow, but it only answered Cisco's headline grabbing foray into HP's server territory earlier this year. That was seen as a "gloves come off" move by Chambers to take on Mark Hurd and his strategy of turning HP into a one-stop, enterprise to consumer, top to bottom services, hardware and software behemoth.

The two CEOs could not be more different in style and personality even though they're both trying to track their companies toward global technological domination. But while HP has decided to embrace acquisitions as a key path to growth, Cisco's been doing that for the better part of its entire 25 year history (an anniversary it celebrates Thursday, by the way.) Over the past decade, Cisco's acquired more than 80 companies, spending upwards of $30 billion. Chambers says 90 percent of acquisitions fail, but better than 70 percent of those done by his company have been deemed a success.

(As an aside, I asked Chambers about the increasing role the feds are playing in mergers and acquisitions and the higher profile the Department of Justice, SEC, FTC, and FCC seem to be taking in the tech community. "Just doing their jobs," he tells me. He welcomes the scrutiny, knows that competition is alive and kicking in the markets in which Cisco competes, and believes his torrid acquisition strategy -- with $35 billion in cash in the bank -- will not be slowing down in 2010.)

Back to Hurd, who is an operational savant. Chambers is no slouch. In fact, operationally and historically, Chambers is still the veteran and Hurd is still cutting his teeth. Fact is, Hurd did wonders in cutting HP's operating expenses, and in the midst of declining revenue, was still able to translate that into increasing profits. No small feat.

But at some point, he's going to need to enjoy some sustained topline expansion and while he's putting the puzzle pieces together, Chambers has loads of experience in both categories. Top line, bottom line, downturns, upturns. He's in a better position, plain and simple. Chambers tells me he's never gone up against a competitor doing $100 billion a year, but assures me that in every market Cisco has entered, it has taken share, and plans to do the same against HP. He reminds me that even though HP is four times as big, Cisco spends 50 percent more on R&D. Good strategy.

Chambers says now is not the time for executives and companies to be reckless; but that they should be bold enough to embrace optimism and seize on the trends that will carry the globe out of the economic morass we've all suffered.

HP and Cisco are both in fine shape. Exceptional shape, actually, as they work their ways toward recovery. Just seems to me that given a choice, opportunities might be better for Cisco than HP in 2010 based on markets and direction. Chambers has a good story to tell. And he tells it well.

Questions? Comments?