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Donn Atkins, IBM’s channel chief, announced his retirement on Oct. 5 after two years in the post and nearly 30 years with Big Blue.

Atkins was succeeded as general manager for IBM Global Business Partners by Ravindra “Ravi” Marwaha, who is returning to IBM from Lenovo Group, where he had been senior vice president of Lenovo Group and president of the PC maker’s Asia-Pacific region since April 2005.

The group continues to report to Doug Elix, senior vice president and group executive of IBM Global Sales and Distribution.

IBM officials said the company’s more than 7,000 partners should not expect to feel any change in their dealings with the organization. Atkins will stay on in an advisory role for “several months” to provide an easy transition, IBM said.

IBM said the transfer comes at an opportune time, as partner organization increased as a percentage of IBM’s revenue from 30 percent in 2004 to 35 percent in 2005, according to an IBM representative.

Marwaha had been vice president of worldwide sales for IBM’s Personal Systems Group from 2003 until he left for Lenovo and general manager for the Personal Computing Division’s Asia Pacific region general manager of IBM India before that.

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Among Marwaha’s earliest goals will be the continuation of “Express Track,” IBM’s march to re-engage small and midsize business partners, which would play well to his Personal Systems and Lenovo experience, one IBM spokeswoman said.

Atkins kicked off the SMB push in March when he announced that IBM had identified and intended to recruit 5,000 new SMB partners—1,500 in the Americas, 1,500 in Europe and 2,000 in Asia—many from Lenovo’s complimentary SMB channel, to “touch a new set of customers,” in the midsize space, Atkins said.

IBM is also targeting partners selling competitive products in the SMB space, where many potential partners have simply been ignored to date, Atkins said.

“They want the same solutions as the enterprise,” he said in March. “They are worried about integrating hardware and software, storage and nets. They have the same need to store and protect data. All the while, we see them overwhelmed by technical complexity.”

In support of the initiative, IBM introduced Express Advantage, six new services, three Tivoli solutions and four work station and server solutions, all designed and priced for the SMB and bolstered by Express Seller, special configurations of System x and BladeCenter servers, storage and components.

In August, Atkins unveiled Express Track, which included $100 million in support including 300 dedicated staff worldwide to assist SMB partners.

In the second quarter of 2006, since Atkins announcement, global sales driven by IBM Business Partners through Express Seller increased over 50 percent year-to-year.

But IBM and Marwaha will face a branding problem in the SMB, where VARs see them as world-class solutions, but for big business.