In the dealmaking marathon that is Cisco Systems Inc., Michelangelo Volpi has found his metier. The 30-year-old vice-president of business development is Cisco's point man for its aggressive program of acquisitions, equity investments, and partnerships -- all aimed at keeping Cisco at the top of the heap in computer networking equipment. Since joining Cisco three years ago, Volpi has led or helped steer 23 such deals, including the purchase of 10 companies at a cost of more than $5 billion.
At first glance, you might not peg Volpi as such a wheeler-dealer. Tall and slender, with dark hair and penetrating brown eyes, he comes across as easygoing and thoughtful -- not to mention remarkably young for a job of such stature. Spend a few minutes talking to him, and other qualities emerge as well. Like ambition. And self assurance. Asked why he chose Cisco over other job offers when he graduated from Stanford Business School, he replies without hesitation: "I wanted to grow fast."
Volpi's background might have disposed him more to diplomacy than dealmaking. He was born in Italy and spent his early childhood in Milan. When he was five, his family moved to Tokyo, and he lived in Japan until coming to the U.S. for college at 17. At Stanford, he caught a case of Silicon Valley fever -- and never looked back.
With bachelors and masters degrees in mechanical engineering, Volpi went to work for Hewlett-Packard's optoelectronics division. He stayed three years, moving from engineering into marketing and acquiring a taste for business. That prompted his return trip to Stanford for an MBA. Two years later, he didn't consider going back to HP. "HP is very methodical, very consensus-driven," he says. "I wanted to get going."
That made him a perfect fit for Cisco, as it turned out. Hired to assist with
investments and acquisitions, Volpi was thrown into the swim: In his first week on the job, Cisco bought Newport Systems Solutions Inc., a maker of gear for connecting far-flung users to corporate networks. Two months later came the acquisition of Ethernet switch-maker Kalpana Inc .-- and the pace hasn't let up since. In April, 1996, Volpi became the director of Cisco's M&A group; a year later, he was awarded his current position as vice-president, succeeding his former boss, who became the manager of Cisco's business partnerships.
Volpi's mix of business and technical expertise has proved to be a powerful asset. "Our deals are not financially complex," he says. "But they're strategically sophisticated." Translation: Volpi spends about 25% of his time on the road scoping out potential investments that would fill gaps in Cisco's portfolio or give it a technology edge over competitors.
For Cisco, which has made 34 equity investments or outright acquisitions in the last four years, absorbing products and technologies developed outside the company has become a vital strategy -- and a process refined nearly to a science. At many companies, Volpi argues, business development isn't where the action is. But at Cisco, "it's tied into the core of our business." As long as Cisco keeps operating that way, it may afford enough opportunity to keep Mike Volpi happy.