SonicWall names new CEO as it becomes formally independent of Dell

Bill Conner, best known as the CEO of identity-based security product vendor Entrust, takes over as SonicWall’s CEO, and talks with ChannelBuzz about the company’s plans going forward.


SonicWall’s new CEO, Bill Conner

Anyone attending the SonicWALL PEAK event in late August could have been forgiven if they thought SonicWALL had become independent at that point. SonicWALL branding was ubiquitous, while the Dell brand was hard to find, even though Dell at that point was still paying the staff salaries. Today, however, SonicWall truly does become independent of Dell – with a new spelling. The new company also had something of a surprise announcement – a new CEO. Curtis Hutcheson, who ran SonicWALL under Dell, has left the company. In his place is Bill Conner, best known in the industry for his long stint as CEO of Entrust, which makes identity-based security products.

Entrust was originally a Nortel Networks spinoff, and Conner was a senior exec at Nortel from 1992 to 2001, when it was riding high. He was Nortel’s President of Enterprise Data Networks when it acquired Bay Networks in a $USD 9.1 billion deal. He ran Entrust between 2001 and December 2013, when it was purchased by Datacard Group. He resurfaced soon after as CEO of encryption startup Silent Circle.

“I am honored to come and lead SonicWall for the next era of its journey,” Conner told ChannelBuzz. “It’s a world class company serving SMB, mid-tier and distributed networks. We will keep that focus – where we are not serving the Global 500, but we are serving everyone else.”

Conner emphasized that he was not brought in to take a broom to the place and make major changes.

“Any CEO coming into any new situation, whether it’s the best company or the worst, will always see things to improve,” he said. “Those things here were things that had already started. They include rebuilding the master brand and relaunching it, strengthening the channel, and overhauling product. There’s always an issue about turning up the pace of change and embracing it, but the team was already on it. There was no need for a fight over it, because they were already heading there. It is just a matter of prioritizing.”

Strengthening the channel is something that has been emphasized since Dell sold the company. Dell’s hybrid channel model may have been good for Dell SonicWALL’s overall business, but it was hated – the verb there may not be strong enough – by most traditional SonicWall partners.

“You will see us exclusively focus on channels, and go back to that model we had before we were originally acquired by Dell,” Conner said. “We will keep the direct touch model for government and specific cases where needed, but we will fulfill with the channel. We will have a new and improved channel program. We will still deal with Dell as an OEM, but now we are just focused on ourselves.”

Conner also said that being out of Dell, and being able to focus solely on its own wares, will make SonicWall more nimble than it had been under Dell.

“It will allow us to reignite the speed and innovation of our development and technology team, and will bring agility back to that team and the markets that we serve,” he stated. “This will drive new culture on the product side. SonicWall was and is a leader because of technology, through things like the features and functions of our next-gen firewalls, and Capture [SonicWall’s Advanced Persistent Threat Protection Service]. We will be able to move faster.”

A further element of the new SonicWall’s culture will be a strong focus on customer service as well as channel support.

“The service piece will be enhanced because before, we were just a part of a bigger answer,” Conner indicated. “Now we can just focus on our own stuff.”

Conner emphasized however, that the strategy going forward will be very different from the independent SonicWALL before Dell acquired it, when the focus was solely on building great products.

“The core of the business will be a joint hardware-software platform that focuses on threats coming in,” Conner said. “Think of SonicWall not as a series of products, but as a core capability across hardware and software. It is a platform for business as it goes into distributed networks, or mobile. We can also expand that out further, as Internet of Things devices get connected to your network. There will also be an emphasis on the cloud.”

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Patrick Sweeney, VP product marketing and product management, SonicWall

“The distributed market has been one of our core success markets since we built out our global management system over a decade ago,” said Patrick Sweeney, VP product marketing and product management, SonicWall. “Over 110,000 of our TZs are under global management. We were very heavy in retail and POS, but in the last four years though, under Dell, we haven’t had an emphasis on it. We aren’t going to just what we did in the past. We will also look at highly lucrative markets where we can do well.”

One of those is the Internet of Things.

“There are billions of IoT devices and they become vectors for botnets,” Sweeney said. “Beyond preventing attacks to prevent devices from becoming part of global botnet, we do daily gathering of data within the firewall, so we can help customers with those specific applications.”

Conner said SonicWall will also have a greater emphasis on partnering with other vendors than it did under Dell.

“No one company can solve it all, and we will be more aggressive in partnering with other vendors than we were under Dell, where the focus was always on partnering with Dell,” he said. “For example, we’ve always had great analytics. How can we fit in best with others with complementary tools.”

Underpinning all of this is re-establishing the strength of the SonicWALL brand.

“We saw the actual staying power and loyalty of the SonicWALL brand with client and the channel, even when it all but disappeared under Dell master brand,” Conner said. “It has had great staying brand power. Very few organizations could go through what this one did the last four years and have its brand survive.”

Conner said the enduring strength of the brand had been a factor in Francisco Partners deciding to buy the company from Dell.

“A lot of analytics went into the due diligence on brand reputation, and Francisco took the deal on the strength of how it persevered,” he said. “Patrick [Sweeney] has also done an amazing job with the new brand. We will have a lot of focus and air cover we didn’t have under Dell, where the master brand was key. Having our brand front and centre in the market will be critical.”

“The ability to do SonicWall-only branding that we couldn’t do under Dell, will also have a positive impact on partners, who will see more lead flow as a result,” said Steve Pataky, VP worldwide security sales, SonicWall.

Pataky began designing the company’s new partner program well before the separation took place. Many of the details now were discussed two months ago at the SonicWALL PEAK event.

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Steve Pataky, VP worldwide security sales, SonicWall

“The separation meant we would need to step up our own partner program,” he said. “We had a unique opportunity to take a worldwide channel program and make it 100 per cent security. Day One is not only the separation from Dell, also the start of the SonicWall Secure First Partner Program.” The program name is new, having been rebranded from the working title of SonicWall Reward for Value Partner Program that was used at PEAK.

“On Day One, we are encouraging partners to start the migration to Secure First,” Pataky said. “Channel managers will be talking to them about it. We want them to come in and enroll, and they will have about 15 months to fully qualify for the new program. Partners will migrate at the same level they are at the current program.

Pataky described the new three-tiered program as a combination of the old SonicWALL medallion program, the Dell PartnerDirect program, and some unique new SonicWall touches.

“We took a lot of the best elements from the old Medallion program, and the strong elements of the Dell program like their back-end rebate structure,” Pataky said. The result is a heavy emphasis on stackable discounts and providing reward for value like through up-front discounts for proof of concept work.

Pataky said that going forward, SonicWall needs to strike a balance between remaining loyal to partners who have been loyal to them, while recruiting partners who are strong in emerging markets.

“We fundamentally respect and value the channel that we have,” he said. “Partners tell me that they don’t get invited to other events but they get invited here and they always come. They don’t just resell us. They build us into the fabric of their offerings. We aren’t going to disrupt that base. In designing the program, we weren’t going to touch these foundational partners. But we do want to add alternative routes to market – as we move to the cloud, and virtualize more and more. We will explore these routes to market.”