John W. Thompson, CEO of No. 1 antivirus software company Symantec Corp. (SYMC), carries a heavy burden. Powerful new viruses and wily hackers are a growing danger to the security of the Internet these days, threatening to scare consumers away and slow electronic commerce to a crawl. More than anyone, Thompson is on the spot to come up with a parry for each new thrust. His answer: Give consumers and corporations a whole array of defenses in one integrated package. Since Thompson left behind a 25-year career at IBM and moved into the corner office of the Cupertino (Calif.) company three years ago, Symantec has spent more than $1.4 billion acquiring 12 companies that do things like intrusion detection, personal firewalls, and spam filters. Packaged together, the features are easier for people to use. "We're trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys and two steps ahead of our customers' needs," says Thompson, 54.
There's plenty of demand for his wares. While sales of nearly every other type of software shrank last year, antivirus sales grew 31%, to $2.19 billion. That helped Symantec boost its revenues by 24%, to $391.1 million, in its most recent quarter, while profits jumped 19.3%, to $68 million. With new bugs popping up every day, the demand for Thompson's products will spread like a virus.