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K.C. Shih: Straight-shooting Leadership Philosophy

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Under K.C. Shih’s leadership, IC design foundry Global Unichip has always been a step ahead of the industry. Now, with the partnership of powerhouse TSMC, his prowess is coming to the fore.

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K.C. Shih: Straight-shooting Leadership Philosophy

By Jimmy Hsiung
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 386 )

Over the past three years Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world's largest wafer foundry, has diversified its investments, increasing its stakes in system-on-chip design foundry Global Unichip Corp., image sensor foundry VisEra Technologies Co. Ltd., and specialty chip packaging company Xintec Inc.

TSMC has all along been cautious about investing in other companies, yet it eventually decided to make that move in order to deepen its ties with its customers. But what has happened after TSMC took controlling stakes in the three companies? Who are the executives that lead these new players in the TSMC Group?

Global Unichip Corp. vice chairman and CEO K.C. Shih and his wife Rosemary W. Ho, founder and CEO of WiMAX operator Global Mobile Corp. form one of the Taiwanese high-tech sector's most prominent husband-and-wife duos.

Full of wisdom and vitality, Ho has long been the preferred facilitator and spokeswoman for foreign companies in Taiwan. A mere mention of the name "Rosemary" invariably draws a thumbs-up from many local high-tech moguls, in recognition of how effective she is.

Indeed, Shih's name recognition in the industry has been obscured by his wife's radiance, but it has never bothered him that Rosemary Ho is more prominent than he.

"She is really talented. I've always supported her to make the most of her skills," says the urbane Shih with a look of pride and admiration for this executive whom many people consider a "superwoman."

Ho once prepared a calligraphy scroll reading "Beware of Wife" that was hung on Shih's office wall for a time, but it would be wrong to think of her as being so intimidating. When Shih and Ho appear at public functions, they arrive holding hands, with Ho's demeanor simply that of a pretty wife.

One of the three co-founders of Global Unichip, Etron Technology president and CEO Dr. Nicky Lu, stressed that Ho in fact was a pillar of strength for Shih when he started up his company.

"Rosemary has always given K.C. her unequivocal support in his work," Lu says.

Shih will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Global Unichip next year. His perseverance and vigor in leading his company over the past 10 years has truly earned the admiration and esteem of his wife, one of the power brokers in Taiwan's high-tech sector.

Four Years for the First Order

In 1997, Shih left design house Faraday Technology Corporation, a company he founded, and formed Global Unichip with Nicky Lu and Youn-Long Lin.

"Shih always wanted to set up a company that specialized in SoC (system-on-chip) services for IC design houses," Lu says.

When Shih returned from the United States to take the helm of the Taiwan branch of Cadence Design Systems, he was on a mission to bring the SoC concept with him to Taiwan.

"Because the management team was sent in from the outside, I was worried it would be unable to lead," Lai recalls. But, speaking with admiration in his voice, Lai says the first thing Shih did was to tell everybody in a direct manner that there would be no so-called "TSMC faction" at Global Unichip.

"This sense of mission led K.C. to establish Faraday, and also caused him to leave Faraday," Lu believes. Soon after Faraday was established, it performed very well in the ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) segment of the IC design services market. Major shareholders like Robert Tsao (the former chairman of United Microelectronics Corporation, Taiwan's second largest made-to-order chipmaker) and current Faraday chairman John Hsuan advised Shih not to rush into a field as advanced as SoC.

In hindsight, it was not unreasonable for somebody with the strategic mind of Tsao to slam the brakes on Shih's desire to open new frontiers, especially since by the time Global Unichip received its first real order, it had already been in business for four years.

But because its shareholders had complete confidence in Shih and the future potential of the SoC concept, "Global Unichip was actually fortunate compared to other start-ups," says fellow founder Youn-Long Lin, now the dean of Research & Development at National Tsing Hua University. As a result, Lin recalls, even when business was bad in the company's early days, Global Unichip never suffered capital shortages, and it began making money after four years, which is relatively fast for a new firm.

The soul of Global Unichip's success of course has been Shih. The company has been well served, Lin says, by "K.C.'s four maxims," which are to take the initiative, cooperate as a team, have a sense of hunger, and do the right things the right way.

"Don't just work hard," is one of Shih's favorite lines, Lin says. Putting it into practice has resulted in Global Unichip's employees delivering excellent results while avoiding the frequent late-night work sessions so commonly seen in the Hsinchu Science Park.

"K.C. has his own way of thinking. He doesn't want employees to spend all day at the office just for him to see that they're there," says Global Unichip President and COO Jim Lai. Lai joined the company four years ago, after Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) bought its stake in Global Unichip and sent a team of 15 executives to its new affiliate.

"Because the management team was sent in from the outside, I was worried it would be unable to lead," Lai recalls. But, speaking with admiration in his voice, Lai says the first thing Shih did was to tell everybody in a direct manner that there would be no so-called "TSMC faction" at Global Unichip. Not wanting his employees to sit in the office all day, Shih has helped Global Unichip workers avoid the common practice in the Hsinchu Science Park of working into the middle of the night.

Shih is a northerner who says what he thinks, Lai says, and so he doesn't beat around the bush. That trait put Lai at ease because he knew he would be dealing with a true gentleman and a boss with consistent goals, where communications would be unencumbered.

Global Unichip's success, of course, cannot only be credited to Shih's leadership. The roles played by founders Lin and Lu also proved to be invaluable.

The Critical Contributions of Lin and Lu

Although he was never too deeply involved in Global Unichip's operations, Lu once chaired the company in its early days, and he has always been a key player in raising capital and finding customers around the world.

Lu is extremely well known throughout the global semiconductor industry. In 1999, he became the youngest person ever to be elected as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, an indication of his status in the industry. Because of his prestige, he played an important role in Global Unichip's early development.

While Lu helped with the financial and sales side, Lin was responsible for bringing in the technology that sets the company apart. In looking back at Global Unichip's growth, Lin is most proud of its continuing ability to develop cutting-edge products and technologies. But Lin says while this gives him a strong feeling of accomplishment, there were times when the market shunned the company because it was too far ahead of the mainstream.

An example of this was in 2001, Lin notes, when Global Unichip developed the first application module for digital photo frames anywhere in the world.

"Can you believe it?" Lin says with regret. "This product that is now selling like crazy around the world was impossible to sell at the time. It was a technology that nobody wanted."

But Lin also stresses that it was because Global Unichip was always a step ahead of the industry that TSMC became interested in opening the door to outside investments that it had long kept shut, and bought a stake in the company.

TSMC announced it would buy a share of Global Unichip in 2003. Shih says TSMC made the move because it wanted to enhance customer service at a time when the IC manufacturing process was growing increasingly precise and complex. By investing in Global Unichip, TSMC gained a partner that strengthened its IC design service capabilities.

TSMC's investment marked a turning point for Global Unichip. Having this "Wealthy Father," long Taiwan's most profitable company, in its corner provided an immeasurable boost in many areas, including technology, sales, and even its share price.

Global Unichip's ultimate success demonstrates Shih's remarkable abilities. Growing more dashing and debonair with age, Shih's achievements have clearly put him on course to finally steal some of the limelight once monopolized by his "superwoman" wife.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier


Chinese Version: 石克強的「直腸子」領導哲學

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