Pulled up close to a conference table at Cisco Systems (CSCO) headquarters in San Jose, CEO John T. Chambers talks about what feels to him like a tipping point in the company's history. In recent weeks, Cisco has cut deals with customers looking to use its technology in more expansive ways than ever before—Major League Baseball teams that want fully wired stadiums, the city of Miami as it develops a smart power grid. "It's been like that for the last 120 days," Chambers says. "We're in the right place at the right time."
Chambers is betting big that Cisco can capitalize on such opportunities. While many companies retrench, the tech giant has strong profits and $33 billion in cash in its coffers. More important, in Chambers' eyes, is Cisco's position as the dominant provider of the networking gear that runs the Internet. Just as the tech world revolved around IBM (IBM)'s mainframe computers in the 1970s and Microsoft (MSFT)-powered personal computers in the 1980s and '90s, Chambers believes Cisco has an opportunity now to make its digital networks the platform on which new innovations are built. "There's an inflection point happening," he says. "Cisco and the network are at the center of it."
Investors certainly hope so. Cisco's stock, now $18 a share, is at the same level it hit in 1998. Although Chambers has assured shareholders that Cisco can increase revenues 12% to 17% annually, that looks increasingly difficult now that the company has grown to $39.5 billion in revenues.
To hit that growth target, Chambers is hastening efforts to move beyond the core business of selling switches and routers. This year Cisco hiked the number of new markets it is targeting to 30, so it can offer everything from digital billboards to stereos and video surveillance systems. Chambers also is using the company's cash to buy his way into other markets, as he did in March with the purchase of the Flip video recorder maker Pure Digital. Chambers tells BusinessWeek that Cisco likely will hit a total of 50 fresh markets within a year. "We're moving into new [areas] with a speed nobody has ever attempted," he says.
Such frantic expansion comes with risks, and not just the danger of losing focus. The biggest concern is that Cisco will alienate key partners that as a group deliver more than 80% of the company's sales. IBM, Dell (DELL), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), for example, sell billions in Cisco gear each year as they help companies build tech systems. But Cisco's move this spring to sell its own servers makes it more of a rival to those three, which sell similar products. "They definitely risk relationships [with IBM, HP, and Dell]," says Greg Simpson, chief technology officer for General Electric (GE). HP and Cisco already have begun to spar publicly.BIG BLUE'S TURF
Tensions also appear to be rising with IBM, which resells about $3 billion in Cisco gear to clients, analysts say. The spat started when Cisco swooped in to buy Internet conferencing company Webex Communications in 2007, after IBM had thought it had sealed the deal. But the big blow came when Cisco unveiled its new servers, which are designed for the operators of so-called data centers, a prime piece of Big Blue's business. "[Chambers] is known for trying to find a win-win," says one tech CEO. "This isn't a win-win. It's a declaration of war."