Brian Halla did things his own way—even when the whole world seemed to be moving in a different direction.
The retiring chairman and CEO of National Semiconductor Inc. drove a Hummer when it was cool to do so—remember the one dollar per gallon gasoline days? He also drove the Hummer when others were dumping the gas guzzling General Motors vehicle as crude oil prices shot up to $150 per barrel pushing retail gasoline costs to almost $5 per gallon in California.
Halla bought businesses that others avoided and expanded into electronic areas that didn't particularly fit snuggly into National's portfolio. The company got burned in the process and Halla switched his company back to its analog roots, all without paying attention to the chorus of "I-told-you-so" ringing around him in Silicon Valley.
The industry veteran apologized for few of his choices and expressed even less remorse for actions taken that might have backfired. In the annals of the semiconductor industry, the colorful, somewhat exaggeratedly successful and quite opinionated IC executive has had few equals and it's doubtful anyone could match either his wit or sense of self-importance.
Halla is one of those executives who believe they've earned their positions in history and he might be right.
Even as National's standing within the industry ranking faded and its annual revenue stagnated first around $2 billion before sinking in the fiscal year ended May 31, 2009 to approximately $1.5 billion, Halla remained highly visible, unceremoniously telling other industry executives to quit whimpering following a major recession.
An unforgettable character and a journalist's delight, Halla's sometime bombastic posturing easily separates him from other industry executives. Halla needs only a light prodding before letting loose on events in the industry, his lofty goals for National and the closeness of his executive team, most of who have been with the company for more than a decade.
However, Halla is more than just another IC executive in a sharp suit--and his jackets are indeed dapper and snazzy. He knows the industry and its cyclical swings well, making him one of a small group of executives who can plan for a downturn in the middle of a vigorous market expansion.
That knowledge hasn't always helped him steer National unscathed through any of the market's erratic swings, however, a failure others have pointed out but which Halla sees purely as a fact of life.
Although he has often misread the direction National should go, overall Halla kept the analog IC vendor competitive by daring to try new things and by never hesitating to dump whatever wasn't working. As he passes the leadership role at National to Donald Macleod, president and chief operating officer, it's tempting to imagine Halla kicking back and fading away into early retirement.
Don't bet on it. Halla may be taking a break from National but the industry will still be hearing from him. The man loves the stage and we've all grown used to him. Somehow, the chip market and the man who loves to pontificate about its future will find each other again.