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TSMC's Morris Chang:

I'm Willing to Start from Scratch


Morris Chang has returned to the helm of TSMC. In this exclusive interview, he ponders the questions on everyone's mind: How will this veteran executive stabilize the company and help it surmount barriers to continued growth?



I'm Willing to Start from Scratch

By Yin-chuen Wu, Jimmy Hsiung
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 424 )

On the first day he returned to work at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.'s fab 12 in the Hsinchu Science Park, Morris Chang perused a copy of the New York Times and was pleased to read about his company.

"Their foundation that has been so successful over the last couple of decades is starting to slow," one analyst was quoted as saying.

Noting that TSMC intends to focus on developing new business, including the manufacture of solar cells and LED lights, the article surmised, "The company's entry into these nascent industries will catch the attention of existing makers... Taiwan Semiconductor could drive down prices, as it did for computer chips."

But investors were less enthusiastic about the move, sending TSMC shares plunging 3.95 percent a day after the reshuffle at the top was announced on June 11. Many have wondered why Chang pushed the company's "best qualified manager" onto a new stage, and if TSMC can repeat its semiconductor miracle and become a global leader in the green energy field.

On the first Monday following TSMC's major reshuffle at the top of the company, CommonWealth Magazine interviewed Chang, TSMC's chairman and returning CEO, and Rick Tsai, who stepped down as CEO to serve as president of TSMC's New Business Development Organization. Joined by the company's general counsel Richard Thurston, the two executives discussed where TSMC expected to achieve its next growth curve.

CommonWealth: You say TSMC wants to go into LEDs and solar cells. What core competencies does TSMC have in these areas?

Morris Chang: I won't tell you outright that we have this capability. But LEDs and solar cells are semiconductors.

When I was working on my PhD, my doctoral thesis was related to III-V compounds, and LEDs were considered part of my field. The physics of LEDs are the same as they are for semiconductors.

CommonWealth: Is it true that TSMC has the second most patents related to solar cells of any company in the world?

Rick Tsai: Actually, I'm not very clear on this. I saw it in a press summary.

Chang: I also saw it in a press summary, so I asked Richard Thurston, our general counsel, about it. The answer he gave me is that our patents were not developed with solar cells in mind, but we do have some inventions that are related to solar cells, so at the time, we added this function into our patents. Especially in the area of production processes, we have a lot of patents.

CommonWealth: But with so many new competitors entering this field recently, what does TSMC have going for it?

Ready for the LED Fray

Chang: In terms of LEDs, even if several companies enter the sector, are we likely to have less hope than they do? Of course we have hope.

Richard Thurston: As you know, the key element of the patent is the patent claim and the scope of the claim. What our practice is protecting is our inventions as we try to get as broad a scope as possible to our various patent claims. In doing so, we have a scope that includes the solar area and also other green areas, not just very narrowly limited to semiconductors.

The Semiconductor Insights survey is correct – we have over 11,000 patents around the world. The initiative we have been doing over the last five or six years is to expand the scope of the claims to get maximum value. I think Samsung is the number one under that particular study.

Another key aspect is that much of our work on solar cells has much to do about process. One of our great strengths is process technology.

CommonWealth: Does TSMC expect to continue with the contracting model in the areas of LEDs and solar cells or will it try to build its own brand?

Chang: In semiconductors, we worked as a wafer fab because I felt that was the only way for Taiwan to be successful at the time, and in fact, time has proven my judgment to be correct. Today, whether in LEDs or solar cells, I think everybody still has an equal opportunity, so TSMC's entry into the sector will absolutely not be limited to subcontracting. Also, the companies we see as our main competitors are the same international vendors identified by CommonWealth Magazine, such as Philips and Osram.

CommonWealth: The pursuit of new product development is almost an admission that the semiconductor sector has hit a bottleneck. How do you see the future of Taiwan's semiconductor industry?

Chang: The global semiconductor industry will have to wait until 2012 to return to the US$250 billion scale it attained in 2008. This year, the market will decline quite a bit, by about 20 percent to US$200 billion. The next five years to 2013 will average 5 percent growth, so I don't think we have to be too worried.

CommonWealth: So we can say the semiconductor industry is on the wane?

Chang: I don't like to use descriptive terms. I give you figures, and how you describe them is your business. What I just said was for the global semiconductor industry, but TSMC will perform better than the average, first because the demand for subcontracting will increase with time, and second because TSMC's contracting capabilities are a little better than those of the average fab.

CommonWealth: How will you cope with an increasing number of competitors?

Chang: We're not afraid to join the fray. Competition to us is nothing new. In 1987 when we were founded, we were the only player. Then, more and more companies entered the field. We came up with the best possible strategy and best possible execution.

CommonWealth: You have returned to the role of CEO. What kind of new dynamic will you create? What will be the new revenue model?

Chang: I don't know. I think the reaction of analysts was very traditional. When a company changes CEOs, it's usually a negative, especially when it's not anticipated. Of course, there are exceptions – former HP CEO Carly Fiorina for instance. She was fired and the share price rose a little the day after. A month before she was fired, Fortune magazine ran a big story calling for Fiorina's ouster. She herself saw the article and felt the end was at hand.

In fact, Fiorina should have defended herself from a positive perspective, because HP actually generated certain improved results following decisions she made. Fiorina left the company in February and her eventual replacement, Mark Hurd, started three months later, in May. But HP's results improved in the first quarter that year, and there was no way that was because of Hurd.

TSMC's results should improve in the second and third quarters, and that, of course, will be because of Rick Tsai's efforts. He has already put everything in place; all I have to do is execute. I just hope there won't be any surprises (laughs).

Putting the Top Manager in Charge of New Business

CommonWealth: Fiorina was clearly replaced because she did not perform well. Because TSMC changed its CEO at a time when there were no glaring problems on its financial statements, outside observers felt there was something strange going on.

Chang: I believe that random speculation is pointless. The main reason for the personnel shift is that developing new business is extremely important, and we looked to the company's most qualified manager. One reporter asked if Tsai could take on new business development on a part-time basis. Part-time? In that case, how much time could he actually spend on it? Right now, he is devoting all of his effort to new business development.

CommonWealth: President Tsai, are you ready for your new role pursuing new business development?

Tsai: We have a small team that has already been working together for three months. We also have a contract with McKinsey & Company and want to invest in other companies. We've asked McKinsey to look at many venture capital companies, and among these there are a number of good opportunities.

Although our TSMC team is not that big and only composed of five or six people, they have a high level of understanding of the two industries (LEDs and solar cells). I am developing an understanding at the moment and planning out the next five to ten years: How much should we invest? How much should we earn? Where is the market? Where do we want to go?

Tsai Focused on Doing His Job

CommonWealth: President Tsai, is your view of new business development the same as the chairman's?

Tsai: The energy market is huge, although its growth isn't that strong – about 3 percent a year, the same as global GDP. If over the next 10 years solar cells can generate 1 percent of the world's electricity, that will be pretty good. There is a lot of room for growth. LEDs are different. The sector is quite different from the semiconductor model, even though many of the fundamentals are the same. 

CommonWealth: Recently, there's been a lot of speculation among outside observers over your situation. What is your frame of mind right now?

Tsai: I think it's like the chairman said. It's time to get to work.

Chang Willing to Start Over

Chang: If it were me, and I were still in my 40s or 50s, I would prefer to start from scratch rather than get involved in a mature industry, even though both options require hard work. Unfortunately, I'm not young anymore.

Tsai: I'm 58, so I'm not that young either. But getting into new businesses is very interesting, although I haven't yet gained a clear understanding of them. Right now, doing US$2 billion in revenues looks like it shouldn't be a problem, but if we don't do US$2 billion, then... Of course, we can't say it will be easy, but if we don't achieve it, then... it's really...

Chang: We both have enough professional and general experience so we don't like to boast. Developing new businesses is not easy, but they definitely are possible and doable.

Also, in discussing TSMC's competitiveness, don't forget, TSMC has a strong financial capability. As long as there's a good idea, Rick Tsai won't worry about not having capital at his disposal. TSMC now has NT$200 billion in cash, a position many wish they were in but can't hope to attain.

Not the Right Time for New Blood

CommonWealth: Eight years ago, you said in Beijing you had two peaks in your career. One was Texas Instruments and the other was TSMC. At the time, you said you could have a third spring. How do you view your third spring?

Chang: That was my thinking in 2001. Eight years later, age has caught up with me, but you can say TSMC's growth reached a new peak. The new businesses will mostly rely on Rick Tsai, and I will concentrate mainly on TSMC's core growth. I remember that at that time, I was still the chairman and I never got a good night's sleep so that the shareholders could sleep easily every night.

CommonWealth: TSMC has been very prepared in terms of cultivating successors. You have decided to return at this time instead of directly appointing a younger successor. Why?

Chang: If we had appointed somebody new, I believe there would have been at least six months to a year of instability, which TSMC could not afford.

(Compiled by Hsiao-Wen Wang)

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Chinese Version: 張忠謀:我願從零開始