Opinion: No quick fix for re-engineering Intel

January 14, 2021 // By Peter Clarke
Gelsinger must take the long view to re-engineer Intel
Activist investors have pushed a change at the top of Intel with the appointment of Pat Gelsinger as CEO after a series of mis-steps but there is no quick fix

Retrurnig chief technology officer Pat Gelsinger is an industry veteran with 30 years experience at Intel, but must change the high roller culture the company cannot afford.

Some will observe that with the re-employment of Gelsinger Intel is swapping a finance executive to one with a technology background. Others may observe that Intel has reacted to the complaints of an activist investor with alarming haste. But as is often the case in semiconductors, the situation is more complex than it first appears.

The roll call of CEOs reads:

Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, Andy Grove; these were effectively the three technologist founders of Intel in 1968 and were CEOs in turn. Seen with the benefit of hindsight it may seem like they did no wrong. They, of course, helped drive the creation of the semiconductor industry with Intel as its leading company but there were some strange and unsuccessful diversions into ventures such as LED wristwatches.

Then in 1998 another engineer, Craig Barrett, took the helm. Barrett had been responsible for the copy-exact strategy that had let Intel increase manufacturing capacity to meet rapidly increasing demand for microprocessors for personal computers.

Paul Otellini took the top job from 2005 to 2013. He had started with Intel in 1974 in sales and finance and, for some, the consumerization of semiconductors made Otellini the right choice. Others said it was a turning away from Intel's necessary deep connection with semiconductor manufacturing.

This may be seen as the reasoning behind the appointment of an insider and a manufacturing guy, Brian Krzanich in 2013. But in 2018 it did not end well, and it was on Krzanich's watch that Intel's manufacturing stall accelerated. The company had numerous delays in standing up its 10nm manufacturing process and fell behind TSMC and Samsung.

In 2018 Bob Swan, CFO, was appointed interim CEO. Some have complained that it took Intel 50 years to fall from being a creative company led by technologists to a moribund entity led by a finance guy. In Swan's defence he has played the cards he has been dealt as well anyone could. It is not clear his successor Gelsinger will be able to do any better in the short- or medium-term. But Intel's problems are long-term.

One could argue that Intel's problems with manufacturing started under Otellini and were not obviously addressed under Krzanich.

Next: Not years but decades to fix Intel


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