Former CEO of TSMC Rick Tsai will have the opportunity of a lifetime when he takes over at the helm of MediaTek in July this year.
At the age of 66, semiconductor industry veteran Rick Tsai will have the opportunity of a lifetime when he takes over at the helm of MediaTek in July this year.
Most would have thought his career had reached its peak when he stepped down as CEO of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) in 2009. From that time until 2014, he continued to work for TSMC in diminished roles as chairman and CEO of TSMC Solar Ltd. and TSMC Solid State Lighting Ltd., both of which are now defunct.
Once groomed to take over the place of TSMC Chairman Morris Chang, Tsai rather curiously fell from grace and has been replaced by new heirs apparent at the world’s biggest foundry. Fortunately, life is full of second chances.
Ten years ago, I knew Rick fairly well. We were on a first-name basis. We sometimes would have email chats. And then we lost touch.
From 2014 to 2016, Tsai went to Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s largest telecommunications service provider as company chairman. At the same time, he continued to maintain a presence in the semiconductor business as a board member with NXP Semiconductors -- which is about to be acquired by Qualcomm pending regulatory approval later this year -- and chip equipment maker Lam Research.
When Tsai assumes the CEO position at MediaTek, the world’s third-largest chip designer, it very likely will be one of the biggest challenges in his career and perhaps his final chance to demonstrate his prowess as a top executive, sales maestro and engineering impresario.
MediaTek has been one of the world’s fastest-growing chip companies, but it may now be reaching some new limits to growth. Tsai will face a number of challenges when he comes on board.
The company has been losing market share after nearly four years of strong gains in the 4G smartphone segment. MediaTek has slowed the tempo in product upgrades for its flagship Helio product line, offering nothing better than a Category 6 modem, while rival Qualcomm early this year raised the bar with the world’s first 10nm processor, the 835 Snapdragon, including a Category 16 modem.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Tsai will be bringing together the various companies – Ralink, MStar Semiconductor and Richtek -- that MediaTek has acquired in recent years and making them into one cohesive unit. The acquisitions provide diverse technology in WiFi, digital television and power management that could give the company a key entrée into the internet of things (IoT) business.
Tsai will need to “create synergy among group companies to provide growth drivers and profit enhancement,” MediaTek Senior Vice President David Ku said earlier this month.
The company may also be looking for a chief executive with international experience who can take MediaTek beyond its dependence on China for business growth. Tsai has some of those credentials. Prior to being appointed CEO at TSMC, Tsai served various roles, including vice president of worldwide marketing and sales. Before joining TSMC, Tsai worked for Hewlett-Packard in the U.S.
“Tsai will be … elevating the firm’s global management capabilities so it becomes a world-class company,” MediaTek Chairman M.K. Tsai said in a statement earlier this year to announce Rick Tsai’s appointment.
And Rick will have still more expectations to meet.
As a newcomer to MediaTek, he very likely will need time to convince Chairman M.K. Tsai to hand over the reins.
“We believe he will be assigned to cut unnecessary and unplanned R&D projects at MediaTek,” veteran analyst Andrew Lu said in a research report for Smartkarma. Such an assignment could undermine his support within the company even before he has a foothold, however.
“Will Rick fit into a design-house culture full of free-thinking R&D spirits?” Lu wonders.
Tsai will bring some valuable assets to MediaTek, but bringing them to bear will be no simple matter.
Tsai understands TSMC and its foundry competitors very well, Lu says. Tsai will maximize MediaTek’s value to squeeze every penny from foundry suppliers such as TSMC, United Microelectronics Corp. and very likely Samsung in the future.
Rick should be responsible for taking MediaTek forward to the next big things like IoT, robotic vehicles, networking processors, cloud/datacenter CPUs and artificial intelligence, Lu says.
“He will certainly help make MediaTek more competitive against Qualcomm,” says a former colleague at TSMC. “He is a shrewd businessman and his global experiences at TSMC are nearly unparalleled in Taiwan. His ability to treat customers as number one comes naturally. He is also very strategic in his thinking. Rick Tsai will be a huge gain for Mediatek.”
Nevertheless, it’s a job that would be tough for a person half Rick’s age. I hope Rick succeeds if only to prove that those of us who are more than 60 years old still have what it takes. Good luck, old friend.
—Alan Patterson covers the semiconductor industry for EE Times. He is based in Taiwan.