Oct 13, 2014

Ray Zinn and Micrel - Interesting Character

Most analog semiconductor companies can trace their roots to Fairchild, or Bell Labs, or MIT or Stanford or possibly the vacuum tube op amp companies like Philbrick. But even though Micrel’s founder had previously worked at Fairchild Semiconductor, it doesn’t seem appropriate to call Micrel a Fairchild spin-off. Most analog semiconductor companies have some interesting characters. Most fall on the wild side of “interesting” – eccentric, rebellious, arrogant. Micrel’s founder, Ray Zinn, is an interesting character – but at the other end of the spectrum.

Raymond Zinn was born in 1938 (estimate), the eldest of 11 children in a devoutly Mormon family in the farming community of El Centro, California, where his father worked as a cattle rancher. El Centro is a desert community near the Mexican border – between the Salton Sea and Mexicali. It’s 50 feet below sea level and gets about 3 inches of rain per year. It was hard work just to survive there. Ray was an unselfish hard worker from the beginning. When he was 4, his mother sent him to the store to bring home the heavy bottles of milk for the family. He had a driver's license at 14 and transported his siblings in a Ford pickup truck. Like any farm kid, he baled hay and milked cows before and after school. When he wanted toys as a child, he built them - everything from wood planes to gas-powered scooters. He had a knack for technical projects. "He always understood how things worked and shared that information with his siblings," said Marilyn Eckard, one of his sisters.

He attended Brigham Young University but grew impatient and decided to quit and get a job. This was in 1958. He left midway through his junior year at BYU and drove home to tell his father. His father was not happy. "First, my father took my car keys," Ray said. His father told him to take off his shirt and socks. "Then, he marched me into the office restroom and told me to hand my pants through the door." Ray waited, spending six hours in the bathroom, trying to figure out what his father was doing. "He was saying, 'Well, if you're going to quit school, you're going out in the world the way you came in.' He wanted me to think about living with decisions." Ray returned to Brigham Young, earned an B.S. degree in industrial management, and continued his education, receiving a master's degree in business from San Jose State University.

Ray moved to the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s after finishing college to follow a sweetheart. I don’t know whether the SJSU master’s degree followed immediately or if there was a job in between (or in parallel). Regardless, that was an ideal time to be in Silicon Valley. The space program was a driving factor for many companies at the time. Ray wanted to be an astronaut and worked two years for rocket motor maker United Technologies. He spent two years at United Technologies. Then he joined Fairchild as an engineer in 1963 through his father-in-law, who worked there. By that time, Fairchild was already starting to suffer under poor management and people were leaving to start new companies. By some accounts, Ray wasn't good at office politics and was too straightforward for some bosses which caused him to have trouble keeping a job. I can’t say for sure, but I’ve met plenty of people who are apolitical and painfully straightforward but have no trouble keeping a job. I think Ray was just too impatient, possibly somewhat attention-deficit. Either way, the experience of working at Fairchild and seeing the highly successful spin-offs must have convinced him that ultimately he should launch his own company.

After leaving Fairchild, he worked at several semiconductor-related companies, including Electromask TRE (wafer processing), Electronic Arrays Inc. (digital and memory chips), Teledyne Inc. (which at around that time had just acquired Amelco), and Nortek Inc (nebulous reference to “electronic semiconductor components” on the internet and now makes unrelated things including bathroom fans). In 1978, he formed a partnership with Warren Muller to start Micrel. The pair used $300,000 in savings and bank loans to found the company, eschewing the financial support of venture capitalists. "I wanted control of my destiny and to do it my way." He wanted to be independent so badly that, at one point, he was personally guaranteeing $4 million in bank loans to keep Micrel afloat.

Micrel initially operated as a testing facility for other chip manufacturers, offering wafer-test services as a way to fund the development of its own products. In 1981, it acquired a fabrication facility from Siemens AG, and began to offer wafer foundry services. The company then began to manufacture chips designed by the end customer. The slow start was reported in the May 19, 1997 issue of Electronics News as "glacier-like growth and the sex-appeal of a mud hen."

Micrel recorded its first meaningful growth after it began designing its own analog and mixed-signal chips in the early 1990s. In order to grow and diversify, they started on a strategy of acquisitions. In 1998, the company entered the high-bandwidth communications market by acquiring Synergy Semiconductor Corp. In 1999, Micrel purchased Altos Semiconductor, which competed in the thermal management market. They have since acquired Electronic Technologies, Kendin Communications, Bluechip Communications and most recently, Discera who make MEMS-based oscillators and clock generators.

Ray still exhibits the impatience that caused him to bounce around various companies before starting Micrel. Executive Vice President Bob Whelton recalled that Ray called Micrel's top executives into his office, told them the Asian market was going to pot and gave them a week to come up with a plan to cope. "That meeting lasted a half-hour. We came back a week later and had another half-hour meeting to tell Ray what we could do. Two half-hour meetings recast what we did for '98," Whelton said. In one article, it says Ray sometimes watches three TV programs on three televisions at the same time. He makes fast decisions, but he thinks things through first. He also has some interesting views on managing. He's the kind of guy who asks why vanilla ice cream is white. "I believe the only stupid question is the one that wasn't asked," he once said. He prays and attends church regularly. He's not trying to convert anyone, but believes his religious values make Micrel a better place to work. Accordingly, Ray set some rules of behavior for Micrel employees. Swearing or using condescending language at the company is banned. Workers are urged to be honest, show integrity and respect others at the company. "We believe that work should be an extension of the home," he said.

He developed a serious eye problem in 1995. He used to take notes, but then couldn't see well enough to write anymore. That would be severely limiting to most people. But not Ray. "I memorize everything now," he said.

He's apparently uncomfortable talking about himself yet he recognizes that there's value in the stories for others. His stories have evolved through repetition to become a way to pass on his acquired wisdom; they are simultaneously personal and universal. They are stories of stubborn perseverance and inspired creativity, such as how he raised financing when there were no VC firms and banks didn't lend to tech companies; his upbringing on a cattle ranch in a large family of eleven kids; his early days at Fairchild and the "Traitorous Eight;" how he went blind in one eye then years later on the eve of Micrel's IPO he went blind in the other eye. He also has many maxims that he uses to help define his company's culture and his approach to life. His favorite is: "Do the hard things first." He adds, "Why did your mother tell you to get your homework done first before you went out to play?"

In comparison to many famous analog people, that makes him a unique character.

NOTES

Baljko, Jennifer L., "Proactive Strategy Keeps Micrel on Profitable Path," Electronic Buyers' News, September 28, 1998

------, "Raymond D. Zinn--Executive's Pithy Sayings Sum Up Successful Business Principles," Electronic Buyers' News, December 21, 1998

Hardie, Crista, "Micrel: A Growing Sense of Power," Electronic News, May 19, 1997

Tsuruoka, Doug, "Entrepreneur Raymond Zinn: His Hard Work and Independence Built Chip Empire," Investor's Business Daily, August 9, 2000

Covell, Jeffrey L., http://www.answers.com/topic/micrel-incorporated#ixzz3AUdON0Hb Tsuruoka, Doug, “Entrepreneur Raymond Zinn His Hard Work And Independence Built Chip Empire,” Investor's Business Daily 08/09/2000

http://news.investors.com/management-leaders-in-success/080900-351718-entrepreneur-raymond-zinn-his-hard-work-and-independence-built-chip-empire.htm#ixzz3FbApuRAN

Foremski, Tom, “Ray Zinn: 'Do The Hard Things First' - Advice From Silicon Valley's Longest Serving CEO,” Silicon Valley Watcher, July 14, 2014