Clairvoyant Cisco

In the teeter-totter world of business, it's nice to see the occasional company that performs equally well across its many product lines, global geographies, and customer segments. Today, that company is Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) .

The networking giant turned in a very impressive second quarter, when sales jumped 27% year over year, earnings grew 41%, and operating cash flow got a 42.5% raise. Yes, part of the impressive growth came from the Scientific-Atlanta acquisition, but the organic growth wasn't too shabby, either, with an 18% revenue boost.

CEO John Chambers described his company's success thusly: "This illustrates our key competitive advantage of being able to develop a long-term vision, execute on our strategy and deliver consistent results." It's the long-term vision that drives everything else, and Cisco is uniquely positioned to have a clearer view of the future than nearly every other company out there. Here's how:

Cisco's switches, routers, and other networking infrastructure paraphernalia have long been the de facto standard across the world, and across any industry you'd care to think about. What's more, it doesn't just want to sell you a switch, collect the cash, and go home to swim in it. Chambers understands that if you earn customers' trust, then their appreciation, and finally get them addicted to what you sell, you'll fill their entire data center. That'll also get you some nice word-of-mouth marketing for free, as that CIO goes golfing with his cross-town buddies, or fills his duties as an outside director at another company and follows that up with a high-powered dinner. The offline version of social networking can be a mighty powerful sales tool.

So Cisco likes to make some friends, make sure they have all the support they need, and keep in touch far beyond the sale. Not only does that generate a few dollars of service revenues, but it also keeps the company's finger on the pulse of the IT industry. If current customers Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S  ) or AT&T (NYSE: T  ) figure out that they need a better digital video infrastructure, they'll ask Cisco for the features they want. If EMC (NYSE: EMC  ) or EDS (NYSE: EDS  ) see a better way to put together storage networks, Cisco will help them build the equipment.

In short, Cisco will know what the downstream product and service providers are doing way ahead of us mortals. I can think of maybe two other companies with a similar reach into management brains everywhere, and even those would-be prophets have to peer through some fog.

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) arguably has a wider reach even than Cisco, thanks to the ubiquity of its Windows operating system. But a long history of ruthless business practices has made the company perhaps more enemies than friends, although the enemies still seem to buy their stuff -- Windows withdrawal syndrome can be severe.

And Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) can sift through published information on the one hand, and raw search data on the other, to find out details about our habits that may have escaped our own understanding. But it's more of a consumer-oriented brain-scraping process than a business-minded one, and so Google might find end-user trends before Cisco, but the networking giants are closer to the corporate spending flow.

So when Chambers says, "The network becomes the platform," and talks about the "rise of video on the network" (which he did), he can back his words up with solid insider knowledge better than anyone. With that massive competitive advantage, I expect the company to stay both balanced and hungry for a long time to come.

Further Foolishness:

Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation, and AT&T used to be a Stock Advisor pick. Find out what happened with a free 30-day trial, or maybe two.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure is always in the know.


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