Janet Schijns, Unleashed

Why now is the time for the former Verizon and Office Depot executive to save the telco channel.

Kris Blackmon, Head of Channel Communities

March 12, 2019

11 Min Read
Janet Schijns Digital Issue Cover
Photo: Michael Wright

On a whiteboard in her office, Janet Schijns has written herself a reminder: If it’s to be, it’s up to me.

“I have to find a way to make sure that the channel thrives, because right now I think it’s on a survival path, and that is not the channel,” Schijns tells me. “The channel has always been a thriving part of the tech industry. They’ve always been the tip of the spear to get people to adopt technology. They’ve always been who local customers called for help. We can’t afford to have … a reduction in the relevance.”

If it’s to be, it’s up to me.

No pressure, right?

‘Tech Business’ at the Turn of the Millennium

Janet Schijns

For more than 20 years, Schijns has been one of the channel’s leading champions. (Photo: Michael Wright)

Enterprise tech innovations were coming fast and furious at the end of the 20th century. In 1997, executives were tethered to their PalmPilots, knowledge workers were blown away by the arrival of Windows 95 and somewhere in a Stanford dorm room, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were preparing to spring Google on the world. Like most members of corporate America, Schijns was excited by the leaps forward in business evolution that technology promised. But unlike the rest, she was dumbfounded by these brilliant developers’ seeming inability to speak what she calls “tech business” and actually bring their revolutionary products to market.

Congratulations to Janet Schijns, our 2019 Channel Influencer of the Year! Download the Channel Partners spring digital issue to read about nine more channel innovators, 25 organizations to watch and 50 shades of gray (market) mayhem.

Schijns took a leap and decided to hang out her own shingle. Together with her husband Roy, she founded JS Group to help technologists get their innovations into the hands of customers. Over the next decade, her list of clients grew to include names such as IBM, Intel, Cisco, Nvidia, Microsoft and a line of others. One client was the beleaguered mobile data capture and delivery manufacturer Symbol Technologies, whose market dominance was decimated by accounting scandals in the early 2000s. Symbol eventually sold to Motorola for $3.9 billion in 2007. The move brought Motorola the technology that would come to make up most of its Enterprise Mobility division — and brought Schijns into the fold to lead the division’s go-to-market efforts as vice president of global channels.

It was 2008, and the pace of change in technology was approaching warp speeds. The channel was entering a tectonic shift as cloud and mobility changed the fundamentals of the game, with vendors and partners alike leveraging every resource available to stay relevant as proven business models eroded beneath them. Mobility was more than a technology advancement. It changed the way that people consumed communications, and the telco channel was forced down a path of reinvention.

“The whole industry shifted,” she remembers. “Sell a phone, get $150, and that’s it. That’s the end of it. There’s nothing else after that.”

Righting the Titanic of Telco

Schijns wanted to be able to influence how the industry reacted to that change. In 2010, she accepted the position of vice president of Verizon Wireless’ Business Solutions Group, and for the next seven years, she poured her heart and soul into its channel program.

At the time Schijns came on board, Verizon’s channel had a terrible reputation with many partners, in part stemming from …

… its 2006 acquisition of MCI. Patrick Oborn, co-founder and vice president of partner experience at master agency Telarus, recalls that after the acquisition, Verizon representatives made the rounds of both Verizon and MCI partners to decide who they wanted to “invite” into the combined program. Despite what Oborn thought was a very positive meeting, Telarus didn’t make the cut.

“It was so bad that that letter that Verizon sent us saying, ‘You’re no longer in the program, best of luck’—I framed that letter and put it on my office wall for a year. I was so angry,” he remembers. “We sold everything but Verizon for many years … until Janet showed up.”

Schijns reached out to Telarus in 2017 in the wake of another Verizon acquisition, that of XO Communications.

“I don’t know what the past administration did to hurt your feelings,” Oborn remembers Schijns telling him, “But we want to make amends.”

Suddenly, the Verizon channel had a very different feel. Schijns gave a human face to Verizon’s very corporate channel, and it paid off in spades. During her tenure as channel chief, the telco giant’s indirect sales channel went from forgettable to “one of the fastest-growing sales engines inside Verizon Enterprise Solutions,” according to a company spokesperson speaking on the record in 2016.

“Under her direction at Verizon, they made great strides in showing their commitment to the channel through better contracts, marketing and support,” says Karin Fields, CEO of master agency MicroCorp. “Whether talking one-on-one or in meetings, she was always engaged, supportive and looking to do things better and different. She just brings a positive energy to the conversation.”

Schijns helped to rebuild Verizon’s channel strategy and completely overhaul its relationship with partners. Prior to her tenure, the provider’s channel program had lacked direction and personality. Worst of all, it had fallen out of touch with its agents. But Verizon Business Markets CMO Jake Heinz told Channel Partners in 2017 that Schijns’s work with Verizon’s partner program had set the company up for future success. “I can’t say enough positive things about what she has done with the program,” said Heinz.

Partners felt Schijns fundamentally understood their challenges. Cheaper VoIP licenses and UCaaS had given rise to more robust telecom solutions but shrinking revenue margins and residuals for agents. While SMB customers were clamoring for “one provider to rule them all,” many agents were struggling to expand beyond telecommunication solutions and include IT services in their offerings because these customers already had an MSP. Partners didn’t have the reach to grow beyond their local markets or the resources to handle larger managed IT projects. The industry was evolving fast — so fast that even a pure-play telecom behemoth like Verizon couldn’t give agents all the resources they needed to survive and grow in a cloud-enabled channel.

A Most Surprising Move

In 2017, Schijns surprised and confused the channel when she left Verizon to help build a go-to-market strategy for, of all organizations, Office Depot. Business hadn’t been good to Office Depot in the years leading up to Schijns joining the company. With the rise of online commerce, brick-and-mortar retailers for electronics and office supplies struggled to retain their competitive foothold. In 2017, CEO Gerry Smith told investors that the company was done trying to descale, saying his focus was to …

… “grow a dependable sticky revenue services-based model over a period of time that sells both services and products.”

Three months after Schijns joined the team­, Office Depot bought IT services provider CompuCom for $1 billion, clearly broadcasting its intention to develop a managed services play. It quickly launched a managed IT-as-a-service program for small and medium-size businesses (SMBs), a small business services platform called BizBox and a “genius bar”-type IT repair service called TechZone that sat within many of its retail locations. Schijns’s hire suddenly made a ton of sense, as did her meteoric rise up the Office Depot food chain.

Schijns initially joined as senior vice president to lead Office Depot’s sizeable copy and print division and tech division. Within about six months, the board and Smith promoted her to executive vice president with the initial mandate to “clean up” merchandising functions and develop product and service synergies around those divisions. Not long after, her role expanded to include all services and solutions, including integrating the newly acquired CompuCom teams and the development of sales channels for the company’s managed tech services. Less than two years after her hire, Schijns had risen to executive vice president in charge of services and solutions.

What Schijns brought to the table was an intimate knowledge of a segment of business owners perfectly positioned to help Office Depot roll out those managed services in a hurry: telco agents and masters. For years, agents had watched their dwindling margins with horror as the golden age of one-time sales and upfront commissions quickly faded into history. They needed a managed services move, but the IT channel wasn’t eager to play with agents. Oborn says Telarus had courted managed service providers (MSPs) for years because it was the only inroad to the IT buyer, but it was like pulling teeth to get them to see the benefit to partnering with a telco agent.

Whether or not CompuCom is good for managed service providers is up for debate, but it’s been indisputably great for Office Depot. The company’s retail sales haven’t stopped their decline, but its business solutions division more than makes up for it. Services revenue made up roughly 15 percent of Office Depot’s total 2018 revenue, and with a services gross margin that hovers around 10 percent higher than that of its product sales, business solutions are clearly where the company’s future fortunes lie.

But in its 2018 third-quarter call with investors, CFO and executive vice-president Joseph Lower revealed that CompuCom sales had dropped by four percent, blaming the decline in part on administrative inefficiencies and an unfavorable product mix. On the heels of that call, Office Depot was hit disproportionately hard by the broad market sell-off in December 2018; its stock price plummeted by 34 percent in the first three weeks of the month.

Just days into the new year, the channel learned that Schijns and Office Depot had abruptly parted ways. Both Schijns and Office Depot remain tight-lipped about her departure, so the channel is left to speculate about the abrupt and unexpected move. Details about the split are scant, but it isn’t overreaching to wonder if her list of responsibilities had grown so long it had set her up for failure within a giant public company undergoing a fundamental …

… restructuring and beholden on a quarterly basis to stockholders, who had just suffered a considerable blow in December and were looking for a reckoning. While Schijns may not have owned CompuCom directly, both products and services fell under her massive purview, and her hire was undeniably part of Office Depot’s transition to a services-based business — of which CompuCom was a key part.

‘I Will Not Allow the Channel to Go Away’

But Schijns is on a roll. Mere days after leaving Office Depot, she’d reopened her consultancy, JS Group, and reached out to the network she’d spent the last two decades building.

“I’ve built a lot of the channel programs that are out there, and I’ve worked with many of the top channel partners that are out there,” Schijns tells me when I ask her what’s next. “I look around many of the channel programs and see top partners who can directly point to me and say I helped them grow either through being the channel chief or being their consultant. I take great pride in that and hope I can do that for many years to come.”

When Schijns moved to Office Depot, she did so with a clear understanding of where telco partners needed help, and she was given the latitude to create a go-to-market strategy that spoke directly to those needs. She’s approaching her consulting work, which she says is a healthy mix of vendors, agents and new market entrants, with the same sense of empowerment and responsibility.

“I’ve seen and heard too much now the last few years about the channel not surviving, about 50 percent of [partners] going out of business or retiring. I’ve seen too much consolidation. I’ve seen too much of all of it,” she says with determination. “I will not allow the channel to go away. It’s just not going to happen”

Schijns says there’s a tough conversation waiting to be had between partners and vendors, where all of the shady deal structuring, the battles for leads and the hidden lists of protected accounts are going to have to come out into the open. The days of “mystery breeding margin” in the channel are past. Today’s lack of transparency means everyone is bidding against one another, like a big game of AdWords, and throwing profit away in the process. She thinks she’s the right person to get top partners and vendors talking, and many in the channel agree.

“What I think she’s really good at is bringing the right people to the table and actually listening,” says Corey Cohen, vice president of marketing at telecom brokerage TBI. “She not only values the opinions of partners, but she also listens to them. … She gets down to the nitty-gritty to understand the inner workings of things — to identify what’s working and what’s not — and then actively brings other people to the table to make sure.”

Consolidation. Convergence. Automation. New buyers. These are big shifts, but Schijns has been through big shifts before. She’s walked partners out of the phone closet and into UCC, helped vendors adapt landline go-to-market strategies for mobility solutions and overseen the entry of non-tech legacy corporations into the IT services market.

“What I can do for one company is interesting,” she says. “But what I can do for the whole industry is transformational.

“If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”

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About the Author(s)

Kris Blackmon

Head of Channel Communities, Zift Solutions

Kris Blackmon is head of channel communities at Zift Solutions. She previously worked as chief channel officer at JS Group, and as senior content director at Informa Tech and project director of the MSP 501er Community. Blackmon is chair of CompTIA's Channel Development Advisory Council and operates KB Consulting. You may follow her on LinkedIn and @zift on X.

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