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Back in 2006, Cisco Systems (CSCO) CEO John Chambers asked Marthin De Beer to give up a successful 1,500-person business making office phones and start a two-person Emerging Technologies Group. The South African native at first felt deflated. He shouldn't have. Though Cisco was buying startups left and right, it hadn't developed a sizeable new business on its own since its original Internet router business in the 1980s and 1990s. Chambers wanted De Beer to rekindle the company's ability to create innovations from scratch.
De Beer's first in-house technology initiative, Cisco's videoconferencing business, is on pace to bring in $175 million in sales a year. That revenue came from high-end "telepresence" systems that make you feel as if you're in the room with people wherever they may be—a far cry from the low-res, hard-to-use videoconferencing gear that had given the industry a bad name for decades. "Cisco has elevated the world's awareness of videoconferencing," says Wainhouse Research analyst Andrew Davis.
Soon after he agreed to take the job, De Beer recruited a team of video experts and told them to spare no expense to create a high-def, low-pain experience. To maintain a startup-like zeal, he kept the project sequestered from Cisco's engineering and sales bureaucracies, but took advantage of the company's promotional muscle. Telepresence showed up as a product placement in TV shows such as 24.
Building on De Beer's work, Cisco spent $3.2 billion to acquire Norwegian videoconferencing market leader Tandberg, which had $900 million in revenue last year. Now, De Beer dreams of making videoconferencing as widely available as e-mail. By Christmas, he vows, Cisco will be selling gear that lets anyone with an HDTV set join a telepresence session from their living room.
De Beer says he has five other projects under way that could one day bring in more than $1 billion a year, such as digital billboards and facial-recognition security systems. "Telepresence is the first proof point that we can take an idea and turn it into a very big, very profitable business," says De Beer. None of his other initiatives are anywhere near 10 digits in sales. If De Beer repeats the success he had with videoconferencing, investors may even begin to think of Cisco as a growth company again.
Telepresence unit went from zero to $175 million in sales in four years
Grew up in South Africa. Studied at University of Pretoria
"Never be too proud to backtrack"