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EE of Chinese descent brings fresh perspective to CEO job

Posted: 12 Sep 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:alex hui? pericon semiconductor corp? r&d? ic research? silicon?

Alex Hui: HP Labs' multicultural setting was ideal to start a career.
Meeting Alex Hui, president and CEO of Pericom Semiconductor Corp., may bring a little surprise to those seeking a high-tech power elite archetypical to Silicon Valley's flashy corporate culture. He naturally comes along as gentle, down-to-earth and approachable, yet driven by the vision he requires to lead a company in the rapidly changing chip industry.

Hui partly credits this - and much of his professional upbringing - to his first employer: Hewlett Packard, the company that developed a code of values, called the "HP Way," which emphasized a commitment to innovation and customer focus while at the same time fostering well-being in its employees and the community at large.

Hui's first job was at HP's corporate IC research lab, which had excellent technology and research facilities with top caliber people. He considered himself lucky to have started at HP Labs, which provided young Hui a multicultural setting with smart and friendly colleagues. "That was really an ideal place for a young R&D engineer to start a career," says Hui.

Being in California helped as well since this is a place where different cultures meet; people are more used to foreigners at the workplace. "I did need to adjust in taking a more proactive role in the meetings (asking questions, providing inputs) and be more assertive."

Hui represents a generation of young Chinese students who rushed to the top American universities during the 1970s, and eventually made the United States their home.

He came to the United States in 1975 to attend school at MIT as an undergraduate student and proceeded to obtain his graduate degree at UCLA

Upon graduation, staying in the United States seemed a logical decision for Hui since it was the place where most of action in the semiconductor arena was happening. Being trained as a device physicist in school, he had also acquired a keen interest in engineering sciences.

Hui's next job was at LSI Logic Corp., which, being a startup in the early 1980s, provided a more intensive environment for Hui. "There were the usual conflicts between R&D and manufacturing, but over time, we gained each others' respect through delivering results and taking a positive attitude of working together to solve problems," he recalls. "I was also fortunate to have had a good boss, the vice president of R&D, who gave me the opportunity to take on new challenges and backed me up on key issues.

Hui vividly remembers seeing the first wafer coming out of the LSI Logic fab before the Thanksgiving holiday of 1983. "Looking back, I feel amazed that I was given the opportunity to build a brand-new fab despite being a young engineer just a few years out of school."

Making of the Pericom

Hui enjoyed being an R&D engineer and didn't think much about starting a company. In early 1989, LSI Logic formed a new business unit to enter the memory market for complementing its effort in microprocessors. Hui volunteered to handle the product development for the new business unit, which LSI Logic subsequently abandoned due to the difficult environment in the semiconductor industry.

But that sparked Hui's entrepreneurial instincts. "I started to work on a business plan for a new company with my brother and another friend," he said. "Our previous success in developing technology led us to be very optimistic about the future success of the company, though we didn't realize that it would take a lot more than engineering to be successful.

The next year, Hui joined hands with his former HP comrade, John Chi-Hung Hui, to start a new silicon firm. Their perception of an interface chip company would evolve over the years. "Our original business plan was based on doing high-performance BiCMOS SRAM," Hui said. "However, we soon realized that it was not easy to be successful as an SRAM company without having your own fab, so we decided to diversify into high-performance interface logic."

Back then, Silicon Valley VCs preferred to have teams with many years of experience and ideas for killer applications that was true to its win big or lose big mentality. "We were more conservative and our plan called for enhancement of industry's standard products, said Hui. "While we had held senior positions in engineering development, none of us had experience in running a business unit with profit/loss responsibility."

Upstart Pericom had a lot of difficulty getting money from VCs. The firm finally raised the initial round of $2.6 million from private investors in Taiwan and Singapore. "They were very supportive; they also provided the funding for the two subsequent rounds of finance." They were handsomely rewarded after Pericom went public.

Over the years, Pericom became successful in high-performance logic and used the profits to finance the development of mixed-signal, analog interface products that complemented digital offerings. The firm gradually came to realize that the interface IC market was large and growing, yet very fragmented and hard for the major players to dominate. It ended up being a very good market for a new company like Pericom.

With their headquarter in San Jose, California, Pericom provides digital and mixed-signal semiconductors that serve as interface ICs in a range of electronic products. Its journey to become a nimble player in a highly competitive industry reveals a relentless focus that is the hallmark of Silicon Valley upstarts. Pericom's core competencies include a variety of intellectual property (IP) platforms and a fast-turn (4-6 weeks) ASIC design methodology.

Hui still remembers the company meeting with employees after the October 1997 IPO roadmap. "It was a miracle that we were able to take the company public in the midst of the Asian economic crisis," he said. "Then there's the 10-year anniversary celebration of Pericom where we had broken the $100 million revenue run-rate for the first time."

"We are here to work together to build a good company, and we take a partnership perspective when we interface with our customers, suppliers and outside parties," says Hui. Even here, his viewpoint is somehow matching to what Pericom does in the semiconductor business: interface.

The Chinese connection

Hui's interface talents, both on the silicon technology front and in marketplace communications, are going to be tested very soon. Mainland China has become a dream market for every chip company and that's where Chinese descent of both Hui's (John Hui is vice president of technology) can be a winning proposition for Pericom - from the standpoint of corporate communications and cultural understandings.

Being able to speak the language and have a good understanding of the culture certainly helps, Hui admits. "I believe this has enabled us to gain an early start in the larger China market," he added. "On the other hand, it does have its sub-culture that is different from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Chinese communities outside the mainland, and here, I find myself learning every year."

Hui and his colleagues are taking the Pericom model to Asia and building a fables IC company, PTI, with major operations in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The company, focusing on telecom and consumer electronics, is expected to go public in a few years.

For Pericom, Hui wants to remain focused on high-performance computer, networking and telecom markets. "While we'd like to have high growth rate, the more important goal is to build a well-managed company that brings value to our customers, employees and shareholders."

Hui is still at the helm of the company he co-founded 12 years ago - though his workplace, Silicon Valley, is rather infamous for its tradition of pushing out founders once startups evolve into bigger companies. Hui tends to be more pragmatic about this, saying that management is in place to serve the company and the shareholders alike. "We should not see the founder status as an entitlement to stay at the company forever," he said. "I strive to do a good job, but if I ever find myself not providing value, I will leave my position."

And he keeps reminding himself of an advice he got from a startup consultant: Don't just drop everything when you begin your startup. Maintain your social relationships and keep a good balance between work and the rest of your life. "That really helps me to run the marathon without getting burned out." Workaholic tech entrepreneurs everywhere should take note.

- Majeed Ahmad

EE Times - Asia

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