John W. Thompson Biography

Chief Executive Officer of Symantec

Born John Wendell Thompson, April 24, 1949, in Fort Dix, NJ; married (divorced); married Sandi Thompson (an attorney), 1998; children: a son and a daughter (from first marriage). Education: Florida A&M University, B. A., 1971; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, M.S., 1983.

Addresses: Office —World Headquarters, Symantec Corporation, 20330 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino, CA 95014.


Salesman for IBM, 1971; general manager for development and marketing OS/2, Intel-based server products, and communication product distribution; general manager IBM Americas, 1993-1999; president, CEO, chair, Symantec, 1999-2002; CEO and chair, 2002—.

Awards: Digital 50, Time, 1999; 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology,, 2001; top manager, BusinessWeek, 2002.


After 28 years with IBM, one of the world's leading companies, John W. Thompson chose to take a daring risk. Instead of waiting for retirement, which was only a couple years away, he accepted an offer to become head of Symantec—a leading software company located in California's Silicon Valley. It was the kind of challenge that he was ready to tackle. While his first years had their ups and downs, through his vision and determination the company renewed its focus and goals.

Thompson was born April 24, 1949, in Fort Dix, New Jersey, and raised in West Palm Beach, Florida. His father was a postal worker and his mother was a teacher. Thompson claims to have had an early education in business when he accompanied his father as he collected rent on some apartments the family owned. His parents inspired a strong work ethic in Thompson. He described his family when he talked to Anne Saita of Information Security, "My mom and dad believed very much in the concepts of working hard for what you want and making sure you're properly prepared for what your pursuits are. We were a loving bunch, but a very competitive bunch."

Thompson went to college on a music scholarship at Florida A&M University, where he studied business administration. Although he played clarinet and saxophone, he did not want to become a musician. His goal was to become a businessman, he just did not know what kind of business he wanted to pursue. Toward the end of his college career, during which he had married and had a child, Thompson was encouraged by one of his professors to apply to IBM.

He started out in 1971 as a salesman for the company. In the beginning, he was determined to be his own person. He eschewed the traditional look of corporate culture and sported a mustache, a large afro hairstyle, and wore leisure suits. The plan that Thompson had laid out for himself was to work for IBM for two years and then apply to law school. As it happened, he and his wife at the time had a second child and he was promoted several times. His winning and charismatic style helped him work his way up the corporate ladder.

He worked as general manager to develop and market IBM's operating system OS/2. He also helped market the company's server products and communication product distribution. Midway through his career, Thompson took a leave-of-absence to earn a master's degree in management science from the Sloan School of Management at MIT. By 1993, he was general manager of IBM Americas, a division of IBM worth $37 billion with 30,000 employees.

In 1999, R.S. Miller, CEO of Bethlehem Steel and a board member for Symantec came calling at Thompson's door. Founder Gordon Eubanks was stepping down as head of the company and a search was on for a new leader, one who had to be from outside the company. At the time, Symantec was strong but lacked focus and did not seem to know what direction in which to head. Thompson seemed like the best candidate and he was up for the task.

Thompson and his second wife, Sandi, relocated from Connecticut to California and began another phase in their lives. Sandi, who had worked for IBM as well, returned to school and earned a law degree. Thompson took on the mantle of chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Symantec. He wasted no time implementing changes at the floundering company. One of his first moves was to replace two-thirds of the senior executives. He also increased the number of employees by 40 percent. As part of a new focus on corporate customers, Thompson sold off several divisions including Internet Tools and its Visual Cafe as well as ACT contact manager software.

Besides the challenges he faced within the company, Thompson was faced with other challenges. In 1999, Reverend Jesse Jackson came to Silicon Valley with his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition to address the issue of diversity in the high-tech industry. The coincidental event ended up creating a great deal of speculation on whether or not Thompson had been hired because he was African American. Thompson was upset by the conjecture. He explained to Karl Schoenberger of the New York Times, "I'm not here to create an image of myself as some black messiah in Silicon Valley. But I've learned some things I'm willing to share, as long as I don't miss a beat in my No. 1 priority of running a company . They will never say I failed because I was distracted. And they'll never be able to say I succeeded because I was black." Thompson worked with Jackson to change the name of the conference from "Digital Divide" to "Digital Connections," with the hope of switching its focus to inclusiveness.

Many of the changes that took place when Thompson took over Symantec made his investors nervous. In his first couple years, he faced criticism and concern over his decisions. In order to shore up Symantec's resources for corporate customers, the company bought many smaller companies during a time when most other software companies had withdrawn from such acquisitions. But by 2001, Symantec had hit a revenue goal of having 60 percent of its sales coming from corporate accounts, a switch from its previous focus on individual users. Symantec's health was given a boost by Thompson's extensive list of contacts from his former IBM associates, who had always considered him trustworthy.

In his personal life, Thompson enjoys both the finer things in life as well as simple pleasures. His father taught him to shoot a gun when he was a child. On one hand Thompson is an avid hunter who owns three hunting dogs. He primarily hunts duck, which he then takes home and prepares in gourmet fashion. Speaking to George V. Hulme of Information Week, Thompson had this to say about his hobbies, "I enjoy hunting, and what I catch gives us something to cook. Hunting ties together my two hobbies." On the other hand, he owns a BMW and a Porsche and has his suits tailor-made by designer Ermenegildo Zegna.

Thompson took a bold step in 1999, leaving the comfort and security of IBM, to take the helm of Symantec. His efforts have helped the company achieve sales in 2003 that reached $1.4 billion. He credits his success to his determination and focus as well as mentoring. He explained to Information Security 's Saita, "It's a combination of hard work and good support structure that helps to get you going, but it's determination along the way that keeps you moving along. I had enough of all of those to get me where I am today."



BusinessWeek, January 13, 2003, p. 65.

Information Security, February 2003, p. 64.

InformationWeek, December 22, 2003, p. 38.

New York Times, November 19, 2000, p. 4.

San Francisco Chronicle, January 4, 2004, p. 11.


"Digital 50—John W. Thompson," (August 12, 2004).

"Newsmaker Profile" San Franciso Chronicle, (August 14, 2004).

—Eve M. B. Hermann

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