Meet the channel manager: IBM

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This article appeared in the June 2016 issue of CRN magazine.

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Meet the channel manager: IBM
Rhody Burton

With ANZ director of global business partners Rhody Burton

With a career spanning fast-growing startup vendors gunning for growth and incumbent market leaders looking for change, IBM’s channel chief speaks to CRN.

Starting out

I’ve been in channels my entire career. I worked for a company called Crystal Decisions, which was Seagate Software and was acquired by Business Objects. I was in the BI space in channels for about eight and a half years.

When I left Business Objects, I had made the decision to take a bit of time out. My kids were quite young. Then I got tapped on the shoulder by a recruiter who said, “Rhody, you have got to go meet with this company. I have met with the managing director and you are exactly what they are looking for.”

It turns out that was Paul Harapin and it was VMware. I was employee number 40 and I had never heard of VMware.

Lesson from VMware

A really big moment for me was joining VMware. They talk about ‘born in the cloud’ – VMware was born in the channel. VMware rarely go to market without thinking about the channel, or what is the value proposition to the channel.

Another big milestone was going from an organisation like VMware into SAP. When SAP tapped me on the shoulder to join them, my initial reaction was, “I am a channel person.” My perception of SAP was that they were a very successful, established, highly regarded brand in the enterprise, but their route to market in my mind was very much as a direct organisation.

SAP experience

At that time that I had no intention of leaving VMware. But Duncan Bennet, who ran VMware for a very long time and was one of my mentors, said to me, “The people with the broadest experience end up being the most valuable people to me.” I will never  forget that. 

SAP’s value proposition to me was, “We are a very direct organisation, but as the market is shifting, and as we are growing, we need to focus more on the commercial end of town. We have to do that through channel.” 

When I met Kerry Purcell, I  was very interested in meeting the new managing director at IBM but I went into that meeting really clearly - “This is not a job interview. I am only two years into SAP, I have no intention of leaving.”

But for me, meeting Kerry, [it was about] getting to be part of a really exciting time in IBM’s history, getting to work with a change agent who is genuinely wanting to transform the business. In my mind, I hadn’t quite finished the journey [at SAP] but sometimes I think it is about who you work for, as a person, rather than just the organisation.

Four types of IBM partners

We have segmented all of the current channel into four quadrants and that’s the way we are going to market this year. Regardless of whether you have been in a particular business unit, or whether you are a partner that is spanning multiple business units, we are looking at partners in these segmentations. 

Our “strategic partners” are those organisation where we have got strategic business plans. They are organisations that are truly bringing together various technologies across IBM’s portfolio. 

We have also got what we are calling our “Blue Core” partners – they are the traditional established business partners that are mostly in one particular business unit, but the revenue they are doing with us is incredibly significant and very important. 

We have got “opportunistic partners” as well. They don’t necessarily want to have a business plan with us, they don’t necessarily want to have goals, but they have gone to the trouble of having certification and want to engage with us as they find opportunities. Typically, our value-added distributors manage those partners. 

Then we have got what we call our “growth partners”. Our growth partners are typically organisations where we jointly see growth potential. They are quite often new types of partners. One of the things that we are really focus on is, “What are the new channels to market?” 

As an example, I am working with an infrastructure organization – not IT infrastructure, they literally will work with local government to build roads, or tunnels or buildings. The reason we are partnering with them is they are saying to us, “In order to differentiate ourselves against our competition, we would love to add a technology layer into the proposals that we are taking to market.”

We are talking to them about, “How do you build sensors into your proposal? How do we then use that data to provide an as-a-service offering back to the customers so that you can create some annuity revenue for your business?” 

Cognitive computing is a big focus for IBM. Which business partners are leveraging Watson today?

I met with Servian a couple of weeks ago. They are helping us look at industries, at midmarket customers, and how we can build cognitive solutions for them. One of the exciting things about Servian is that they have built, almost like a sales process in a box for customers using things like Agile and design thinking. Servian’s Intelligent Profiler tool uses Watson’s deep learning and cognitive algorithms to produce insights into its clients’ people and culture. 

Lessons learned

One of the number one mistakes vendors can make is thinking that it is all about them when in fact, it is not about them at all. 

I have seen feedback from partners that they see partner planning as a tick-a-box exercise. I think one of the lessons learned is that the more strategic planning that you have with a partner – where you truly understand their business and their key drivers and where they want to go – you then have permission to suggest ways that you can help them grow their business. 

For me, that has got to be one of the top things that vendors should focus on: truly understanding their partners.


Sept 2015 - now
Director - global business partners, IBM ANZ

Sales director, channels, SAP

Various roles, incl manager, cloud & channels ANZ, VMware

ANZ channel manager, Business Objects

Various channel roles, Crystal Decisions and Seagate Software

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