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Obituaries

A. F. Shugart, 76, co-founded key disk-drive company

December 14, 2006|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

Alan F. Shugart, a pioneer of the hard disk-drive industry and co-founder of Seagate Technology, has died. He was 76.

Shugart died Tuesday of complications from heart bypass surgery at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, where he was admitted last week, according to his daughter Teri Shugart. On the way to the hospital, Shugart continued to work, making calls to companies he was advising.

"He loved what he was doing," said Teri Shugart. "He had this philosophy that if you didn't like your job, you had better get another one. So we all had fun working with him."

Sometimes referred to as the Disk King, Shugart began Seagate in 1979 and built it into the world's largest disk-drive company.

"Al was the father of storage," said Bill Watkins, chief executive of Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Seagate. "He pretty much led storage. When he started, his first disk drive had five megabytes. He couldn't get any money then, because nobody thought the world would ever need five megabytes of storage. Here's a guy who thought you not only needed five megs, but you would ultimately need a whole lot more. And he was right."

Today, nearly all devices, from cellphones and digital cameras to servers and laptop computers, require vast amounts of memory to store all manner of data.

"In building Seagate, he married innovation with mass-scale production and vertical manufacturing," said Larry Sonsini, an attorney for Seagate and chairman of the law firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto. "It was ahead of its time. There were numerous occasions when people thought the capacity of disk drives had reached a limit. But Al continued to demonstrate that it [had] not. He was an entrepreneur."

In 1998, Shugart refused a request from Seagate's board of directors to come up with a succession plan and was fired.

Shugart then founded a venture and consulting firm, Al Shugart International, which invested in more than a dozen technology companies. A former commercial fisherman and one-time bar owner, Shugart liked to invest in unconventional entrepreneurs, said Teri Shugart. "He liked people who had spark, who were passionate about what they wanted to do. He did that at Seagate. A lot of people at Seagate started on the assembly line and became managers and directors of the company."

Those who worked closely with Shugart recalled a pragmatic businessman who preferred straight talk and common sense over jargon and fancy concepts.

"He used to have a sign on his desk that said, 'Keep it simple,' " said Sonsini. "He liked to cut through nonsense."

But his public persona was far more flamboyant. In 1996, Shugart unsuccessfully tried to run his Bernese mountain dog for Congress. Shugart wrote about the experience in a book, "Ernest Goes to Washington (Well, Not Exactly)." In 2000, he backed a failed ballot initiative to give California voters the option of choosing "none of the above" on the ballot as a way of voicing their dissatisfaction with the candidates.

"It was all about trying to get people out to vote and be involved in the system," said Teri Shugart. "It ended up being a real frustration for him, and he became apolitical in the last years of his life."

Shugart was born in Los Angeles and earned a degree in engineering physics at the University of Redlands. While working for IBM, he was part of the original group that built the first computer disk drive.

In addition to his daughter, Shugart is survived by his wife, Rita; a son, Chris; and four grandchildren.

alex.pham@latimes.com

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