By Joel Shore
Diehard fans and sportswriters are boycotting the move, but Eric Benhamou swears network resellers were on his mind when Candlestick Park was rechristened 3Com Park earlier this year in honor of the network hardware vendor.
“Networking is about to reach into the home,” says the soft-spoken, fast-moving chairman, chief executive and president of 3Com Corp. “Resellers will be needed to install and maintain those networks, and renaming the stadium is part of our plan to increase awareness of the 3Com name.”
Long committed to the channel, 3Com would not have succeeded without it, says Benhamou. “Resellers are the lifeblood of our products. As long as I am here, 3Com will remain committed to the channel, and we will continue to strengthen our reseller programs,” he says.
But Benhamou, driven by vision and a penchant for acquisitions, has done much more for resellers and VARs than simply rename a cold, drafty sports venue.
His latest deal at 3Com, the acquisition of hub maker Chipcom Corp., closed just last month. The move positions 3Com, now a solid No. 2 in the data-networking market, as the primary challenger to leader Cisco Systems Inc. With acquisitions of BICC Data Networks, Star-Tek Inc., Synernetics Inc., Pacific Monolithics, NiceCom Ltd., Centrum Communications Inc., Sonix Communications Inc. and Primary Access Corp. behind him, Benhamou now presides over an empire that dwarfs competitors Bay Networks Inc. and Cabletron Systems Inc.
In 1990, having been handed control of 3Com’s then-failing 3+Open network operating system business—based on a product jointly developed by 3Com and Microsoft Corp. and wanted by hardly anyone—Benhamou, along with 3Com colleagues Les Denand and Bob Finocchio (widely referred to as the Three Amigos), extricated the Santa Clara, Calif., company from the near-suicidal Microsoft relationship.
Assuming 3Com’s presidency, Benhamou set out to reinvent the company, moving the vendor out of its server and operating-system software businesses, delving instead into switching hubs, routers, adapters and other networking hardware.
Notes Finocchio, now a 3Com executive vice president: “The list of companies making money doing business with Microsoft is pretty short. This was just not a good thing for 3Com. Fortunately, Eric was thinking 10 moves ahead.”
Thanks to his ability to think ahead like the chess player he is, Benhamou today is in firm control.
The Amigo Plan is working: Fiscal 1991’s per-share low of $1.38 has given way to a recent trading price north of $51 a share, close to its 52-week high.
3Com’s profit margin soared from 1.5 percent in 1991 to 9.7 percent for fiscal 1994, which ended on May 31. Revenue rose to $1.3 billion, compared with $423-million in fiscal 1993.
It all seems a long way from France, where a young Benhamou emigrated as a refugee from Algeria, only to earn money for college by playing guitar in the bowels of the Paris Metro. He came to the United States to attend graduate school at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Adapting to the California lifestyle did not come easily.
“Eric’s English was good but it was clear that he was not an American,” reminisces Howard Edelstein of his early 1970s graduate school days with Benhamou.
“Eric was driving a huge American car and didn’t know that the flashing lights on a police car meant you needed to pull over,” he says.
Characterized as a renaissance man by all who know him, Benhamou, and 3Com, are driven by sports. Every year, Benhamou takes senior management on an outing that fuses business with physical activity, described by some as, well, downright life-threatening. It makes Outward Bound look like kids’ stuff.
This year it was climbing Masada in Israel; last year it was skiing in Yosemite National Park on trails that were later identified as “double-black-diamond”—off-limits to all but the most expert skiers. Other years saw 3Com managers bicycling across the Arizona desert and hiking through the Sierras.
“It helps us develop a sense of trust and camaraderie,” explains Finocchio. “The skiing was pretty tough,” adds Doug Spreng, who heads 3Com’s Personal Connectivity Operations group.
“You get to know each other,” adds Vice President of Marketing Janice Roberts, who joined 3Com when Benhamou acquired BICC Communications, where she was president.
Apparently, Benhamou is more comfortable scaling mountains than descending them.
“Roller blading was the biggest scare of the last few years,” he says with pained reluctance. “Did you ever have the feeling that something bad was about to happen and that you were powerless to stop it?”
His first time out, Benhamou headed down his long, inclined driveway, only to discover he hadn’t yet learned to stop. “I tried to jump over my Lexus but I landed on the hood,” he says, corroborating reports related with a titter by his closely knit management team. “Today when I wash my car there is an arabesque created by the left blade. I didn’t repaint it; it’s a badge of courage.” To Benhamou, a student of French Impressionist art, it is an arabesque. Others see nothing but a dent.
With all Benhamou’s success, Roberts speculates there is one thing about Benhamou that will never change: “He still drives fast; he still gets speeding tickets.”
But Benhamou, who admits he is “way beyond” hope of being rehabilitated in traffic school, has learned his lesson. While 3Com, under his stewardship, is jetting ahead at full speed, he now pulls over when he sees flashing lights.
© 1995 CMP Media Inc.