Ribbon CEO Bruce McClelland has big aspirations

As the former CEO of Arris, Bruce McClelland knows a thing or two about technology, mergers and acquisitions and transforming a company into a global giant. As the CEO and president of Ribbon, McClelland is determined to make his second act in telecommunications as big as his first.

"When I joined Arris 20 years ago we were this little company competing against all the behemoths in the industry. Over the next 10 to 15 years we became the industry leader," McClelland said. "I've got pretty big ambitions for the company on where we want to go. Five years from now, we want to be one of those names that people recognize."

In November, Ribbon Communications announced it was merging with ECI Telecom Group and the deal closed in February. McClelland came on board as Ribbon's CEO in early March, and he said the integration of ECI has been his baby since day one.

While at Arris, McClelland oversaw Arris’ acquisition of Ruckus Wireless and managed the integration of Brocade’s ICX campus switching business from Broadcom, among numerous other mergers and acquisitions. He also took the reins on the sale of Arris to CommScope in April 2019 and was CommScope's COO for over five months before joining Ribbon.

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Ribbon, which was formed by the 2017 combination of Genband and Sonus, has traditionally been known for its voice-over-LTE products and unified communications solutions. The acquisition of ECI broadened that portfolio to include packet and optical transport systems, software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) technologies. Prior to joining Ribbon, McClelland said he was very familiar with both Genband and Sonus.

Adding to the challenge of integrating ECI, McClelland had to work through the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the company's customers and 4,000 employees.

In order to gauge the pulse of its employees, Ribbon recently conducted an internal survey that found nearly two-thirds of Ribbon employees preferred transitioning to some form of a hybrid work from home/go into the office model, while less than half preferred going to a work-from-home only model. A large number of Ribbon's employees were already working from home prior to the pandemic.

Bruce McClelland

In this Q&A, which was edited for clarity and length, McClelland talked about some of the challenges related to the pandemic.

FierceTelecom: How difficult was it for you personally as the new CEO at the onset of the pandemic?

Bruce McClelland: Fortunately, I was able to get around to almost all of the major locations within the company except for Asia Pacific.  I was able to get over to Israel and I met the new ECI team and then everybody here in North America. So I'm really thankful I was able to do that. You know, it's a lot easier to connect with people when you've meet them face-to-face, had dinner together and things like that.

So from an integration perspective getting the teams together and everything, it hasn't been, believe it or not, that big of an issue. Of course, everybody's gotten really good at video conferencing, the new protocols and how all of it works. Having made the personal connection with everybody at first was really, really important.

FierceTelecom: What were the major impacts from COVID-19?

McClelland: Portions of our business benefit from this whole surge in transition to work-from-home and the adoption of all these unified communications platforms. A portion of our business has been very robust for the year so far, including the capacity that goes in the network for traditional phone calls. The spikes in call traffic and volume has just created more demand for capacity.

On the flip side, there are other pieces of the business, like some of the enterprise products, that have been kind of impacted. Some of the network infrastructure or proof of concept type stuff that we were doing to go win new business has been more impacted. It's been a bit of a tale of two sides of the coin, if you will.

It feels like the momentum has shifted, as everyone's gotten used to how to work remotely. Many of these projects just can't stand still forever. It does feel like the momentum has shifted back in a positive direction. So from a going forward perspective, I'm hopeful that we'll continue to build the business, build on the momentum that we have, but it's a little hard to tell. I worry about things like, all of the unemployment and does that impact consumers' ability to pay for services? And does that impact some of our carrier customers?

FierceTelecom: Having a diverse portfolio was key during the pandemic?

McClelland: It's part of the theme, for sure. At Arris it was a big part of our belief that being global, to have scale, to be diversified, were just fundamentally important to successfully navigating all of the disruptions and technology shifts and everything else that happened over the years.

I've been a big believer in that. There can be pieces of business that are down and other pieces that are up. It just helps you manage through all the ups and downs. Ultimately, you need to be in the sweet spot of where capital spend is going to be. So you've got to constantly be looking for where that's shifting to and how you need to adapt.

FierceTelecom: Do you foresee additional M&A in Ribbon's future?

McClelland: In a broader sense, I've got pretty big ambitions for the company on where we want to go and the type of position we want to have in the industry. Part of successful acquisitions is to be really focused on the blocking and tackling and execution. Getting the integration done and getting the organization set, getting processes aligned. All of those basics that are really hard lifting for getting a merger done successfully. You can't get distracted. So, this year, even more important managing through the COVID situation, we're really heads down executing on that. We'll see how we're able to do that successfully. We'll pay down some debt over time and then see how do we grow more quickly, both organically and inorganically at that point.

FierceTelecom: When it comes to SDN and NFV, what is Ribbon focusing on?

McClelland: SDN is about managing the network very efficiently. Off course, we saw this in the cable network as well as the network elements move to more software, more software definable or software manageable. There's also automation, collecting information off of the network, applying the algorithms and logic to optimize the network that's a big deal. SDN has existed for a long time. It just wasn't called SDN in some ways. We have a whole bunch of initiatives in the company that I could brand SDN, including some of the analytics work we do.

It's not a business unto itself. You're not generating a lot of revenue off of SDN per se from an equipment manufacturer perspective. But it's a key element in the portfolio and a differentiator.

NFV to me is a different topic. It's really is around how do you take these functions that exist in the network and turn them into software, and kind of make them much more flexible and scalable as you chain different elements together?

We come at that in a couple of different ways. We have a few enterprise products, on premise enterprise platforms, that will run NFV applications on them, like a SBC (session border controller) for example.  

But from a network perspective, we've also evolved many of our appliance products into virtual versions of the products, things like cloud-native, containerized and microservices. To me, that's where the power of NFV comes in as you're moving things into software and just making deployment velocity a lot more rapid.

We've seen that through the COVID crisis. Several of our customers that kind of a loved appliances, the hardcore high-performance appliances, needed to move more quickly and add capacity. It was a lot easier to spin up an instance in AWS. That's where the power of NFV is.