Two of the three largest semiconductor companies in Europe are ushering new CEOs into their executive suites. Frans van Houten became chief executive officer at Philips Semiconductors late last year, and Carlo Bozotti will succeed the legendary Pasquale Pistorio at STMicroelectronics in May.
We assume that both new chiefs are thrilled about the new technologies their engineers are nurturing. We trust they are energized about new business opportunities.
We certainly hope they care about the state of the industry and about their leadership responsibilities in society.
So, why aren't they allowed to say so? PR got their tongue?
Aside from quarterly reports, the tech media is enjoying scant opportunity to hear about the hopes and dreams of two of three of the most powerful men in high technology in Europe. Another freshly minted CEO Wolfgang Ziebart, who took the helm of Infineon Technologies last fall recently sat down for a one-on-one interview with EE Times (see story, page 6). The other two have not.
True, the new heads of Philips and ST have made several ballyhooed public appearances in recent months. Nonetheless, we're told that corporate policy does not allow them to give interviews until they have settled into their posts, familiarized themselves with the organization and corporate strategy, and learned, above all, to "stay on message."
Somehow, it sounds suspiciously as if the chip chiefs are quietly becoming imperial CEOs.
Having cut my media teeth in Japan, I know from emperors. Having lived in America during the Clinton and part of the Bush II administrations, I'm also familiar with the evolution of the "imperial presidency." The current president, in fact, boasts that he lives enclosed in a "cocoon," making human contact outside of it only at his own behest and according to his rules. Now, it seems, the cocoon has expanded from the Imperial Palace and the White House into corporate Europe.
The ST and Philips CEOs have moved steadily upward within their own corporations. They know their companies inside out, and they know their corporate peers intimately. Both know the products their companies innovate, build and sell. Neither is making a cross-industry leap into technology from, say, the tobacco industry. So why the code of silence?
The recent ouster of Carly Fiorina from Hewlett-Packard raises the question of whether she, too, fell prey to the cocoon mentality. It's one thing to rattle off a keynote speech at a trade show. But was pitching HP's pop consumer products, as Fiorina did in her keynote swan song at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, really all that she wanted to say?
For nonimperial contrast, I had a thoroughly pleasant and candid chat with one European CEO recently. At the mobile-phone industry's trade show in Cannes, France, I sat down with Jon S. von Tetzchner of Opera Software, a small but robust Web browser company based in Oslo, Norway.
Von Tetzchner, accompanied by one lonesome PR guy, eschewed a plodding PowerPoint presentation. Instead, he humbly recounted Opera's heritage and told of its growth into one of the premier Web browser technology companies serving the embedded market, including mobile phones. He enthused about how any embedded product equipped with an adequate display will have the power to create new features through Web browsing. And he was proud of Opera's commitment to helping people with disabilities by offering keyboard shortcuts, zoom capabilities, one-button navigation and even aids to the color-blind.
Of course, it's easier for a founder like von Tetzchner to speak freely. It's easier when the corporation is small and doesn't encompass hundreds of technologies and thousands of product pitches.
But has corporate life gotten so complicated that a CEO can't be trusted to dismiss the security detail and tell his or her own story to the press?
By Junko Yoshida (firstname.lastname@example.org), Paris bureau chief and consumer electronics editor for EE Times.