Life in the Channel: Westcon-Comstor’s Paul Cunningham

The value-added ICT distributor’s Chief Marketing Officer, Paul Cunningham, explains the two sides of the Westcon-Comstor business, its recent partnership with RingCentral and discusses its plans for the year ahead and beyond.

Tell us about your career in the industry and your current role.

I came back to Westcon in June 2019. I’ve been involved in IT for all of my career and spent a lot of time in enterprise computing. I worked at Oracle both here and in the US, and after I returned from the US in that role, I started to get progressively more involved with the channel because the IT sector as a whole was starting to see the benefits of channel models.

About 15 years ago I joined the business that was the precursor of Comstor in the UK as marketing director. I was involved in what then became Comstor, and then Weston-Comstor.

After a while I returned to the US to work in Westcon’s headquarters, and before returning to the UK for the second time around 10 years ago, I ran my own consultancy focusing on everything from strategic planning to channel development for a range of clients.

After that, I became the CMO at Unify. They then turned into Atos, and after two years of being the CMO at the Unify division of Atos, I was brought back to Westcon because of the interest the executive team had in a fully rounded strategic marketing role.

It was great to come back to, it was very channel focused and had vision and ambition around what marketing could bring to that business model.

So there are two sides to the distributor, ‘Westcon’ and ‘Comstor’. What does each side do?

We have a very Cisco-focused business in Comstor. On the other side we have the Westcon business which is more around categories of technology that sit outside of that Cisco universe. Westcon has a very successful cybersecurity practice with a very effective global-based channel business model, as well as one for unified communications. We also help partners take advantage of innovations in analytics, AI, cloud, cybersecurity, IoT, and SD-WAN.

What have been some of the company’s recent announcements?

We recently consolidated those two business models in our European business. So we put some additional investment and resources into both cybersecurity and the networking and collaboration side. We appointed new leaders in each for Europe and we’re now looking at the resources processes behind these business models and looking closely at the vendor portfolio.

There’s so much innovation in the security space in particular. As more people operate in a cloud and mobile environment, there are more companies that sell managed services around security, so we need to embrace completely new types of partners.

You recently partnered with RingCentral. Can you tell us a bit about how you work with them?

That’s a great example of what I’m talking about. It’s not so much that the technology is different, it’s that the cloud and hosting model is a different way of delivering that functionality. But it depends on a different sales motion to bring those solutions to the market.

A traditional distribution model would see the physical product passed through the supply chain, margin was given at each point with a transaction at each stage. But we’re working on a kind of referral model and it’s much more about the recurring revenue streams.

So we’re seeing not just changes in technology, but changes in the business model and the whole way all these relationships are managed across the channel.

Those are the kind of changes we’re embracing in our own business and we see that having big implications in the channel as well.

Look ahead to next year and beyond, what does Westcon-Comstor have planned?

There are a couple of things we’re working on as a company that we’ll be able to talk about in much more detail in 2020.

So the first thing we’re looking at is the fact that historically, distribution businesses have amassed huge amounts of operational data. We have many thousands of sales transactions and require to know a lot about the technology, the end-user business, the reseller partner and everything that attaches itself as data to these transactions. As you can imagine, that builds up a lot of data, and that’s valuable, as that data can be analysed to improve performance, but also to predict where opportunities may arise in the future.

We can use this to find characteristics about vertical markets and combine all that data to ask and answer questions about our vendor partners that previously we were not able to do.

So if a vendor partner wanted to understand the characteristics of a market, we can help them do that. If they want to identify where particular install bases of technology are currently residing, or they want to look at technology refresh or service renewal, very often it is not particularly visible to them.

Historically, one of the challenges has been that most marketing activities in channel business models have been pretty speculative. It’s a high and wide advertising email blast. But now, we can very accurately predict and target small numbers of partners and customer organisations that are effectively very closely pre-qualified for the proposition that you want to bring to them.

So, for the same marking dollar you get much more accurate targeted activity, because you’re generating bigger chances of success by allowing the analytics to control that pre-qualification assignment. We’re bringing that application to market in early 2020.

Another area we’re very active in with our vendor partners is what’s known as “circular technology”. This is a solution that looks at how organisations recycle and reclaim value.

The IT industry is a huge contributor to net industrial waste, but there’s so much out there that has intrinsic value. We’re talking about components and base metals. But also, they represent an environmental risk if they are not properly returned into that economy and recycled or reclaimed.

We’ve built out specific expertise and services that help vendors build circular technology programmes, which they can then brand and send out to their channel customers. In return, we have customers helping to operationalise that circular economy.

We think this is entirely appropriate to the marketplace, but it’s also starting to go beyond the technology, as executives are seeing it as part of their social responsibility to have a strategy and some policy around the circular technology economy.

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