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Protocol | Enterprise

For VMware, replacing CEO Pat Gelsinger will be hard. Navigating the relationship with Dell will be harder.

Two early contenders for the role of CEO are operating chiefs Sanjay Poonen and Raghu Raghuram.

Incoming Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger

Pat Gelsinger is leaving VMware after eight years.

Photo: VMware

VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger's jump to Intel comes at a particularly precarious time for the company as it navigates a potential spinoff of the business from majority owner Dell.

Chief Financial Officer Zane Rowe is taking over the reins of the virtualization software provider temporarily as the board looks for a permanent replacement, according to a company statement on Wednesday. Two early contenders for the role are operating chiefs Sanjay Poonen and Raghu Raghuram, according to Morningstar analyst Mark Cash.

Whoever becomes the replacement faces a difficult undertaking. VMware is a complex organization, a challenge that Gelsinger navigated well in his more than eight years with the company, but still poses a potential hurdle for an outside replacement. Most urgently, however, will be the Dell problem. The company has an 80% stake in VMware, but is looking to spin off the business as it struggles to bolster its own balance sheet, a move that could force VMware to pursue cost-cutting initiatives and find new areas of growth.

"We view the management transition as an additional but manageable hurdle," RBC Capital Markets analysts wrote in a note to investors. VMware "will need a sizable debt raise and special dividend in order for Dell to complete a successful spin, and a new CEO will be an important part of such a move."

Any change in the ownership structure of VMware is unlikely to happen until September 2021 at the earliest, but it will still be imperative for a CEO to be named quickly to help with any transition. VMware has a special committee tasked specifically with negotiating with Dell.

"There's a lot of opportunity for someone to stamp their name on the company," Cash told Protocol.

The news comes after former Chief Operating Officer Rajiv Ramaswami left in December to lead rival Nutanix, a departure that clearly irked VMware. The company is suing Ramaswami for allegedly holding "secret meetings" with Nutanix while serving at VMware, a move that indicates just how fiercely the two firms compete.

Outside of Gelsinger and Ramaswami's departures, there were a few other high-level defections over the past year: Chief Customer Officer Scott Bajtos jumped to FinancialForce, general manager Ajay Singh left to be the chief product officer at Pure Storage, cloud services general manager Milin Desai departed to be CEO at Sentry, SVP Jim Delia left for ServiceNow, and senior director of global partner operations Jeanine Bierlein went to Zoom, among others.

"Leadership change is a natural part of every company's evolution," VMware said in a statement. "We have [a] strong executive bench across the company and are investing heavily in preparing our leaders to take on larger, higher impact roles as new opportunities arise. Interest from executive candidates in our company remains strong."

But Gelsinger leaving is, of course, the most significant, given the major impact he had on the company, taking it from a $4.6 billion midsize provider in 2012 to a $10 billion burgeoning power-player in the hybrid cloud industry. In that time, the stock price rose nearly 44%.

Gelsinger "profoundly pivoted the company over the last few years, turning VMware into a key component of cloud infrastructure while expanding into high-growth vectors and away from core virtualization solutions," Cash wrote in a note to investors.

Gelsinger also struck an important partnership with AWS in 2016 to allow VMware customers to run core products on its cloud. That, along with agreements with Microsoft and Google, will be paramount for any successor to continue. Gelsinger was also instrumental in pivoting the company's focus to Tanzu, a tool that effectively helps clients manage their applications across different cloud providers.

Gelsinger will remain on the board, but given the monumental task facing him at Intel, some industry insiders questioned his capacity to also help out his former employer. Investor hesitancy over any incoming new CEO was apparent, with the stock dropping as much as 7% in the hours following the news.

"It's a loss. No other way to say it. Pat is a key technical leader in the organization," IDC President Crawford Del Prete said. Still, the company "is in a strong position and is a key part of many customer's enterprise strategy."

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