Hector Ruiz traveled a long, hard road on the way to becoming CEO of AMD, a company that last year generated more than $6 billion in revenue and has over 16,000 employees worldwide.
He was born in a small town in Mexico called Piedras Negras (Spanish for “black rocks”) on Christmas Day. The eldest child in a family with four younger sisters, Ruiz attended high school across the U.S. border in Eagle Pass, Texas, and moved to the U.S. when he was 18 years old. Undeterred by his then-faulty English, he ended up valedictorian of his class and later earned a Ph.D. from Rice University in electrical engineering in 1973.
Fast-forward to 2000 and the start of Ruiz’s tenure at AMD (NYSE: AMD), where he’s shown the same steady resolve to succeed. Based on coverage of his public appearances and interviews with colleagues and associates, the AMD CEO comes across as a soft-spoken but determined leader who expects the goals he sets to be met.
“I never met an individual like Hector who is so kind and also so demanding,” said Randy Allen, an AMD veteran of 24 years and currently vice president of server chips. “He can be tough and even brutal in driving the management team, but you look at 50×15, that’s a passion of his that’s all about social responsibility. Yes it’s good for our business, but it also shows he understands where he came from. Hector has that relentless, take-no-prisoners drive, but he also has a soft heart.”
The 50×15 initiative is an AMD program aimed at helping get 50 percent of the world’s population connected to the Internet by 2015. So far, the program has met with mixed results but has helped AMD get a foothold in certain emerging markets that have the potential to be major contributors to its bottom line down the road.
AMD chips also power the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) notebook that was the brainchild of MIT Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte. The high-profile nonprofit behind the low-cost notebook PC has had a contentious relationship with Intel — first accusing the chip giant of undermining its efforts to bring a $100 notebook to the masses, then bringing Intel on as a partner only to break up again, leaving AMD back in the driver’s seat.
But this was hardly the first time AMD, and Ruiz specifically, has bumped heads with archrival Intel (NASDAQ: INTC). The company has an ongoing suit that charges Intel with acting as an illegal monopoly, but Ruiz is only the latest AMD executive to tangle with Intel.
AMD was already losing badly to the chip giant when Ruiz joined the company in 2000 from Motorola (NYSE: MOT) as president and chief operating officer. He came onboard under then-CEO Jerry Sanders, known for his far more brash and flamboyant personality.
“Sanders wanted to be the center of attraction, and the people who worked for Jerry didn’t get a lot of external notability,” Nathan Brookwood, a research fellow with Insight64, told InternetNews.com. “Hector is a lot more willing to share the limelight and even pushing others into it, which I think helps the organization’s morale whether its winning or losing in the market.”
Bringing in a new personality and style
Fred Weber, founder of MetaRAM and a former
chief technology officer at AMD under both Sanders and Ruiz, agreed that the previous and current CEOs had a distinct difference in personality and management style.
“I think what Jerry saw in Hector was a smart business guy who could really capitalize on the engineering accomplishments AMD was making,” Weber told InternetNews.com.
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Weber credits Sanders with giving the engineers enough leeway to think big and embark on the “x86 everywhere” strategy that led to development of the Opteron when Intel was trying to lead the industry in another direction with its Itanium processor.
“But Hector was the right guy to leverage all that and manage the operation,” Weber said. “He took on a very hard job in a large company with the founder still there, and he did a great job in making it happen.”
The Opteron proved to be a fabulous success, getting AMD back in the game to carve out a roughly 20 percent share of the lucrative server market. But AMD’s resurgence did not go unnoticed by Intel, which cranked up its considerable R&D and marketing resources to grab back some of that share in 2007 and keep a lid on AMD’s growth.
AMD was hurt further by delays in its most recent quad-core Opteron processor, code-named Barcelona, which shipped at least six months later than originally planned.
But the Barcelona
launch also represented a turning point for AMD that showed how far the company had come under Ruiz from the first Opteron’s debut. Back then “our customers were hiding behind the curtain,” at the launch, afraid of ticking off Intel, Ruiz told a small group of reporters ahead of a Barcelona marketing event. “There’s no such thing today.”
Now it’s about execution and competing against the very energized and formidable Intel. Ruiz’s very capable No. 2 is Dirk Meyer, AMD’s president and chief operating officer.
Meyer is considered the likely eventual successor to Ruiz, which were he to gain the post would bring a very different style of leadership to the chip company.
“Dirk is more of an extrovert and a detail guy,” Allen said. “There’s nothing in the x86 world he hasn’t seen. Hector sees more of the big picture.”
Former CTO Weber thinks Ruiz’s tendency to keep a relatively low profile “can be a little bit problematic. I think you do need a strong presence to guide some of the efforts they’re involved in. But Hector and Dirk are a good combination. Dirk is hugely respected in the engineering community.”
One of those efforts is AMD’s controversial $5 billion purchase of graphics chipmaker ATI. The jury is still out on whether the 2006 purchase was a smart move, but it shows Ruiz has an ambitious agenda.
“We had to do it because so many executives were asking us to offer a platform solution and chipsets,” Allen said.
AMD had never done a deal anywhere near the magnitude of buying ATI, but Allen said any skeptics within the company probably didn’t argue against it because it was outside the status quo. “Suggesting something can’t be done because there’s no precedent for it is a mistake,” Allen said. “It’s like serving up your head on a platter to Ruiz.”
Margaret Lewis, AMD’s director of commercial solutions, said Ruiz sets a tone at the company that goes beyond the latest chip advance or how to beat Intel. “With Hector it’s not about technology for technology’s sake,” she said.
“He has a bigger vision that is more about pioneering new things than us versus them.”