* Ned Hooper gains prominence for deal making
* Rob Lloyd, Tony Bates also contenders for CEO role
* Cisco seeks growth through M&A, entry into new markets
SAN JOSE, Dec 9 - When Ned Hooper joined Cisco Systems Inc (CSCO.O) after the company he worked for was bought by the U.S. network equipment giant, he didn't think he would stay beyond an initial two-year commitment.
Not only did Hooper stay for 12 years, he also rose through the ranks to become Cisco's chief strategy officer and a top contender to succeed Chief Executive John Chambers.
Although Chambers says he plans to stay for another few years, 42-year-old Hooper has gained prominence at Cisco.
Analysts say he won the trust of Chambers, as well as Wall Street, by negotiating a series of high-profile acquisitions, including the $3.4 billion deal for Norwegian videoconferencing company Tandberg, whose shareholders initially snubbed Cisco.
Hooper was also in charge of Cisco's deal for the maker of the Flip video camcorder and for wireless equipment maker Starent Networks Corp (STAR.O).
This has been a good year for him, in terms of being very visible. He has had some big deals to announce, said Jefferies & Co analyst Bill Choi.
Hooper's emergence comes after Michelangelo Volpi and Charles Giancarlo, two senior executives, departed two years ago, which had appeared to leave no obvious second-in-command at the world's largest network equipment maker.
At Cisco's financial analyst conference on Tuesday, Hooper took the stage after Chambers to elaborate on the company's long-term plans as it diversifies its product offering.
Video communications will play a key part, he said.
Our focus is to be able to build a video platform that enables people to move seamlessly from personal content to communications to entertainment and to be able to deliver that either through a service provider or directly to consumers, Hooper said.
He told Reuters that all of Cisco's products -- including the Flip camera and TelePresence videoconferencing services -- should be able to work together eventually and that the company would rebrand various consumer assets.
You will see us over time, in the consumer market as well, converge the product line brands of Flip and Linksys and such, under the Cisco brand, Hooper said in an interview.
Analysts say Hooper's expertise in finding new growth markets for Cisco will be important in coming years, as sales of routers and switches have reached a high level of maturity, meaning long-term growth will need more catalysts.
Catharine Trebnick at Avian Securities said he was gifted at spotting early tech trends and plotting deals to take full advantage of them, pointing to Starent as an example.
I would say he just seems to be the guy that takes charge of putting the deal together. And he gets along with everyone, she said.
DEEP BENCH, BIG SHOES
Hooper had also overseen other crucial deals for Cisco, including cable set-top box maker Scientific Atlanta.
I think he's the top leader at Cisco, said Brian White at Ticonderoga Securities.
Analysts, however, note that Hooper is not the only CEO candidate, pointing to Robert Lloyd, in charge of global sales, and Tony Bates, head of enterprise business. Chief Technology Officer Padmasree Warrior, formerly at Motorola Inc (MOT.N), has also been described by Chambers as a technology visionary.
Many analysts said 53-year-old Lloyd, as the head of global sales, had a good grasp of customers and global markets.
As Cisco enters new markets and comes up against new rivals such as IBM Corp (IBM.N), Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) and perhaps Apple Inc (AAPL.O), 53-year-old Lloyd's experience in building partnerships and sales strategies could prove crucial.
He obviously knows customers, knows his products, said Jefferies' Choi.
Wall Street is also keeping an eye on Marthin De Beer, who leads the emerging tech group responsible for turning new projects like TelePresence into more profitable units.
Some noted the CEOs of companies that Cisco recently acquired, such as Tandberg's Fredrik Halvorsen and Starent's Ashraf Dahod, should not be ruled out either.
One thing is for sure: whoever takes the top job will have big shoes to fill. Chambers is one of the longest-serving and most respected executives in Silicon Valley.
Ticonderoga's White said Chambers is a one-of-a-kind leader, the heart and soul of the company.
I think he's a very optimistic person, but he is able to articulate his optimism in a realistic fashion, he said.
At Tuesday's meeting, Chambers addressed analysts in his southern drawl and trademark style of walking about the audience, making eye contact with many members.
At the end of the day, Cisco is still John Chambers, said Jefferies' Choi -- a view echoed by many attending the event.
That may be precisely the reason Cisco needs to prepare a succession plan early. (Reporting by Ritsuko Ando; editing by Tiffany Wu and Andre Grenon)