Report: Symantec CEO being considered for commerce secretary

Jan. 19, 2009
Cisco CTO could also be tapped to fill Obama cabinet post

John W. Thompson, chairman and chief executive of Cupertino-based Symantec, is being seriously considered for the job of commerce secretary in the Obama administration, two members of the valley's congressional delegation said Friday.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo said they believe Thompson, 59, would be a great choice for the job.

"I believe he is a candidate," said Lofgren, D-San Jose. She said she suggested Thompson for the Commerce Department job when Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico withdrew. "I recommended him highly," she added.

Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, said she told Obama team members that "he would be a great source of pride not only to the president but to the American people. I think he's being seriously considered."

A technology industry source in Washington confirmed that Thompson "is in play for that, and I hear he's one of the finalists. It's between him and someone else who is not a technology person," this source said.

Thompson could not be reached for comment.

The possibility was greeted with unbridled enthusiasm by Silicon Valley political and tech-industry leaders, who described him as ideally suited to the job. He would be the only Cabinet appointment from the valley. Previous top Washington appointees from the valley include Hewlett-Packard founder David Packard, deputy secretary of defense in the Nixon administration, and venture capitalist and ESL co-founder Bill Perry, who was secretary of defense in the Clinton administration.

Phillip J. Bond, president and chief executive of the Technology Association of America, described Thompson as "a fantastic fit" for the Commerce Department job. "I just think it would be an inspired choice," he said. "The Cabinet can benefit from having a globally experienced executive," Bond added.

Thompson, a Democrat and one of the nation's highest-ranking African-American business executives, nurtured Symantec from a much smaller software company to a powerhouse in computer security, storage and systems management. He has been active in Silicon Valley trade groups, and he and his wife, Sandra, were "dynamos" for Obama's California presidential campaign, said Steve Westly, co-chairman of Obama's California campaign.

In November, Thompson announced plans to retire in April, while continuing as a nonexecutive board member.

Another Washington tech source said Padmasree Warrior of Cisco Systems was a candidate for the administration's newly created post of chief technology officer. Also in the running, said this source, are two technologists already holding government jobs, Vivek Kundra of Washington, D.C., and Aneesh Chopra of Virginia.

Warrior was appointed Cisco CTO in December 2007, leaving a similar post at Motorola. Cisco CEO John Chambers described Warrior at the time as "a technology visionary, an excellent leader with a strong industry voice and business acumen."

The appointments are in no way a done deal, but the incoming administration is taking a serious look at both of them, Washington observers said. Thompson has been expected to play some role in the new administration.

Thompson, 59, is known as a decisive leader and technology visionary, and a lover of fine wines, fast cars and horses. A 2005 profile described his penchant for throwing barbecues at his Woodside estate, pairing expensive French wines with ribs and beans. Thompson got his start as an IBM executive and made the switch to the faster-paced leaner Silicon Valley years ago.

An avid basketball fan like the incoming president, Thompson and his wife have hosted Obama at fundraisers. Carl Guardino, chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said he met Obama in Thompson's living room a couple years ago, when Obama was a relatively unknown senator.

Guardino said Thompson "would be a phenomenal choice both for Silicon Valley and our country. John is a brilliant businessman as well as a compassionate community leader, and he would bring those values to Washington, D.C."

Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, said he doesn't know Thompson personally "but I think really highly of him. What I'm more excited about, is he's from Silicon Valley. If this is true, it's a sign that the Obama administration understands the importance of Silicon Valley to the nation's economy. We've been clamoring for them to tap somebody from our region."

Mercury News Staff Writer Scott Duke Harris contributed to this report.