YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

At the Core of AMD, a Man Made for a Challenge

Hector Ruiz's nimble firm has seized some of Intel's market share and technical laurels as well.

July 02, 2006|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Texas — By now, after 60 years, Hector Ruiz has grown accustomed to surprising people.

There were the Texas high school teachers watching a Mexican kid who didn't speak English until the 10th grade graduate as valedictorian -- on his way to earn a PhD.

Now, as the electric-guitar-playing chairman and chief executive of Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Ruiz is wowing the technology industry and Wall Street as he guides a perennial also-ran chip company in mounting a serious challenge to global titan Intel Corp.

In the four years since Ruiz took control of AMD, the son of a livestock manager and a secretary has increased the company's global market share in computer microprocessors to 21% -- up from 17% last year -- and eroded Intel's longtime dominance. In product lines such as server processors, experts say AMD leads its archrival in technical performance.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
AMD executive: An article in Sunday's Business section about Hector Ruiz, chief executive of Advanced Micro Devices Inc., said rival Intel Corp. sold chips with features measuring 65-millionths of a meter, compared with AMD's current standard of 90 nanometers. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and the reference to Intel's chips should have read 65-billionths of a meter.

This year, in a sign of AMD's momentum, world PC leader Dell Inc. agreed to use the company's chips in its machines for the first time. AMD's revenue rose to $5.85 billion in 2005 from $2.7 billion in 2002, when Ruiz became chief executive. At the same time, the company's bottom line improved from a loss of $1.3 billion to a profit of $165.5 million. AMD's stock price -- although well off its recent high of $42.70 -- has climbed nearly sevenfold from its 2002 low of $3.51.

Ruiz has "turned out to be a pretty amazing guy," said Dan Hutcheson, chief executive of VLSI Research, a San Jose semiconductor industry tracker.

"When he first became CEO, people were taking bets on how long he would last."

That doesn't surprise Ruiz. People have bet against him for a long time.

He grew up in Piedras Negras, Mexico, just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. Like many boys there he shined shoes in the city's public square. He had four younger sisters and was his grandparents' only grandson. He admits to being spoiled but got along well with his sisters, all of whom became teachers.

"All I can remember from my childhood is that it was a great childhood," he recalled.

He got to know Olive Givin, an American Methodist missionary who lived nearby and gave the teenager a job running errands. Givin tutored the youth in English and suggested he attend high school in the United States.

So with the local Rotary Club paying his fees and tuition, Ruiz walked across the border each day to attend Eagle Pass High School. He struggled with English and spent many after-school hours with chemistry, geometry and physics teachers to master the subjects.

Ruiz graduated as class valedictorian and went on to the University of Texas. Givin funded his first year there.

An interest in auto mechanics led him to mechanical engineering, where he discovered a passion for electronics. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering and later obtained a doctorate in electronics from Rice University.

After college, Ruiz joined Texas Instruments Inc. in 1972 and was part of the team that worked on the first single-chip calculator. He moved to Motorola Corp. in 1977, eventually becoming head of the semiconductor product group.

"Hector is generally a soft-spoken, people-oriented person," said Gary Tooker, who was chief executive and chairman of Motorola during six of Ruiz's last seven years there. "This is not to say he wasn't forceful and didn't have opinions, but his management style was flexible enough to fit the occasion."

As a young engineer, Ruiz picked up an interest in biking and playing the electric guitar, on which he's been known to riff at corporate meetings. AMD also sponsors concerts, and Ruiz has an assortment of guitars in his office today, including one autographed by Dweezil Zappa.

Motorola and AMD had a joint development program, which brought Ruiz to the attention of AMD founder Jerry Sanders, who recruited Ruiz in 2000 to be president and chief operating officer. When Sanders retired as chief executive in 2002, Ruiz took the top job. He became chairman in 2004.

Ruiz's hiring surprised some analysts, who doubted that he could make an effective transition from Motorola's confrontational culture to AMD's more collaborative approach.

Sanders founded AMD in 1969 as a second-source provider of circuit board components. In the 1970s, it produced Inteldesigned processors, obtaining patent licenses to produce clones of Intel chips. After a dispute over technology sharing, AMD struck out on its own, carving out a solid niche as a less expensive alternative to Intel.

"Nobody believed that someone from Motorola could make it at AMD," Hutcheson said. "People didn't think it would work, but it turned out to be very beneficial because he fixed many things without making it a slower company."

Los Angeles Times Articles