SAN JOSE, Calif. – The most interesting moment of my hour with LSI Corp. CEO Abhi Talwalkar yesterday came about half way through the wide-ranging interview. I asked him about the open AMD CEO job and he visibly choked.
This is a seasoned semiconductor executive I first met several years back at an Intel networking mixer after he gave a presentation at the Intel Developer Forum. At the time, he co-managed Intel's server group with Pat Gelsinger, the man who led the 386 design team. My first impression was Abhi was an up and comer—smart, hungry and gutsy—the model of a good Intel exec.
A few years later he took the reins at LSI Logic from veteran Wilf Corrigan who no doubt saw what I saw at the Intel mixer. My first thought was, 'Yup, Abhi was hungry alright and not willing to wait in the loooong line for the Intel CEO chair.'
Abhi has done well at LSI. The company was a shell of its former glory as the ASIC king of Silicon Valley when he joined. Today it's a different LSI (no "Logic" in the name), projecting ten percent growth in a market where some companies would be happy to see flat sales and profits.
Under Abhi, the company made some big bets that so far seem to be panning out. He bought Agere Systems to get into the network processor and DSP space, a risky expansion that was by no means a slam dunk success when it was announced. He also took LSI fabless.
Recently he sold off to NetApp a storage system business that was one of the fastest-growing growth segments for LSI. But it also put the chip maker into competition with potential customers like NetApp and EMC. The move was a difficult set of trade offs that so far Wall Street likes.
I typically do an interview with Abhi once a year to stay up to speed on what's going on in LSI's storage and networking markets. I always leave impressed by the depth of command he has on each the company's diverse sectors and his grasp of the 30,000-foot industry trends.
I also often leave without much of a story because Abhi is savvy. He has grown to speak like a CEO, knowing how to spin a credible tale to a reporter or Wall Street analyst to leave a favorable impression about the outlook for his company, its markets and industry. He's smooth.
So when in the midst of talk about flash drives I tossed out a question about the AMD CEO job, it was fascinating to see his reaction. The smoothness briefly fell away and he was back on his heels, like a man fumbling with a hot potato.
He didn't say much, but I thought his expression and body language said a lot. Maybe I am wrong but what I read in watching him was this: He has been approached for the job or would like to be. He has seriously considered it. Negotiations may still be going on.
What he actually said was, "No Comment."
Of course as a reporter I have been taught not to accept that and so probed again.
He said AMD needs someone who has experience as a CEO, knows the dynamics of the Intel market and has had some experience with big turnarounds. I said, 'Geez, sounds like your resume.'
More fumbling. I asked him outright, did AMD approach him? Was he considering it? Again, no comments.
I said, 'Yeah I imagine Wilf would be disappointed,' thinking the old vet made a big bet on the young and hungry exec who might not want to disappoint a mentor. He was quick with a comeback about how Wilf was no longer involved in the company.
So I asked about his interest in the AMD job again. He came back with one of those standard answers we reporters hear so much, something about being focused on LSI and its success. There's no doubt about the truth of that, but it didn't answer my question.
We went on with the interview, talking about all LSI's businesses. As I departed I quipped about letting me know if he hears anything about that AMD job. It hooked him like a marlin off Key West.
He was halfway out the door and came back to tell me the AMD turnaround is a hard job. There aren't many people qualified for it. How long have they been looking? What did I think about it?
The AMD board has a short fuse and may want to see results in 15 months, but this is a three to five year turnaround, he said. I wondered how he knew that about the AMD board.
I said we were speculating whether John Bruggeman left Cadence to take the AMD job. He snapped back that AMD needs someone from a chip, not an EDA company, and someone for whom the post was not their first CEO gig. Like you, Abhi, I thought silently.
If I was an AMD board member I would vote for Abhi Talwalkar as its next CEO. He's still smart and hungry as ever. But if I was an AMD board member I would first have to lecture that group about its stupidity dumping Derek Meyer. But after their loooong and so far fruitless CEO search, I think they might have got the gist of that message already.