Nortel's turnaround chief takes aim

The speech was truly unique in that the "spin" was the apparent absence of "spin." Clent Richardson, the executive in charge of rebuilding Nortel's once powerful brand, last month stood in front of roughly 200 sales channel partners and openly acknowledged the sins of the past. Not a quick, "mistakes were made" statement followed by 30 PowerPoint slides on a new strategy, but a lengthy, deep and even heartfelt discussion about past leadership, integrity, transparency and a lost focus on the customer.

The partners, who earlier had listened passively, occasionally playing with their PDAs, now sat bolt upright in rapt attention. This was much closer to the core than anyone had expected. By the end of the speech, the room had a sense of common cause usually found at 12-step programs.

"I thought we were going to hear a lot more excuses," said one value-added reseller. "But that speech got my attention. Maybe they're really serious this time."

If you've never heard of Clent Richardson before - and yes, I spelled his name correctly - you'll hear a lot more about him soon. Billed as a turnaround expert previously at Apple and T-Mobile, Richardson was named Nortel's chief marketing officer last September, inheriting the uphill task of rebuilding the beleaguered company's brand strength. In his speech, Richardson addressed Nortel's woes head-on and with occasional wit.

"By being candid, you let people know that you acknowledge the problems, know what you've got to do and intend to go do it," Richardson explained in a later interview. "It wasn't risky at all. I think it's just hot air when people try to explain away what they did."

Much of the actual turnaround strategy is about reaching out to end users and building demand for the company's voice and data products. With additional customers in the fold, more channel partners would help meet the demand and make a few dollars along the way. But Nortel has a lot of ground to cover - and a lot of decisions to make - before any such success can be measured.

One key component to any effective turnaround strategy is to make tough decisions and "not get overwhelmed with consensus," Richardson explained. "We need to live by the sword and die by the sword, and I'm OK with that. I can't allow it to stop me from making decisions. We've seen a lot of that problem in corporate America. How many leaders really make a decision, as opposed to collecting consensus and looking for agreement?"

An expanded management team is now in place to help with those decisions. Nortel recently named Gary Daichendt, a former Cisco executive, as president and COO, reporting to CEO Bill Owens. The new management team plans to build a more marketing-driven company.

Whether Nortel will be able to return to its previous market stature remains to be seen. But either way, look for bold moves reflecting the intent to live or die by the sword.

Presti is research director of IDC's Network Channels and Alliances service. He can be reached at kpresti@idc.com.

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