He was an intimidating presence. Jerry Fishman, CEO of Analog Devices Inc., was not an easy interview. But Electronic Business Magazine had chosen him as its CEO of the Year in 2004, and as national editor it was my job to profile him and his company.
I was surprised that Fishman agreed to do the interview. Fishman and ADI had maintained a very low profile for years. ADI was a typical engineers’ company, happier sticking to its knitting (designing and selling chips) than touting its achievements. Frankly, I expected it to be a boring assignment.
But it turned out that ADI, and Fishman, had quite a story to tell. What I found was a company quietly chugging along based on an amazingly successful business model, guided by a brash New Yorker who had somehow figured out how to manage a bunch of retiring electronics engineers.
Fishman, who died last week at age 67, left a legacy of stable, conservative management while quietly building the chip company into a multibillion-dollar semiconductor powerhouse.
What's for lunch?
Fishman brought a competitive edge, forged from his upbringing in Queens in New York City, to the company.
“Every day you’ve got to wake up knowing there’s somebody after your lunch,” he told me.
At the time we talked in 2004, Fishman had been CEO for seven years and overseen a doubling of the company’s revenue, to $2 billion, while also salting away $2.7 billion in cash. He saw how critical analog-to-digital conversion and other key ADI technologies (such as MEMS) were becoming in electronics, and he helped the company make the transition from its traditional scientific, industrial, and military customers to the consumer market. The company could rely on its historic base of analog business, which had high margins and long product lives, while branching out into the faster-paced consumer markets.
The strategy served the company well. Although the company took a hit like everyone else during the Great Recession, it seems to have largely recovered. As of 2012, the company’s annual revenue was a healthy $2.7 billion. To this day, the company has an incredibly diverse customer base, numbering in the tens of thousands, in industrial, automotive, consumer, and communications markets. According to its latest annual report, no individual customer accounts for more than 10 percent of sales, and its single largest customer makes up only 3 percent of its revenue.
This diversity has helped the company to remain profitable through the economic ups and downs of the last few years. Indeed, analysts have consistently recognized Fishman’s steady and conservative management style. While applying his considerable business acumen, Fishman was careful to preserve a reverence for engineering on which the company was originally founded in 1965.
In his in 2012 letter to shareholders, Fishman wrote:
- Most importantly, we have created an environment at ADI where the most talented engineers can explore new ideas and train under the most knowledgeable and respected mentors, many of whom enjoy international recognition.
This combination earned the company and Fishman wide respect.
“Analog Devices enjoys tremendous goodwill in the electronics market,” wrote Bolaji Ojo in a blog post here in 2010. “It’s hard to get a negative comment about the company from anyone — rivals included — aside from mild complaints by journalists grousing that the company is not ‘press-savvy.’ ”
Fishman’s blend of business and technology savvy made him an excellent leader for ADI. He saw his job as one of keeping a steady hand on the tiller no matter what kind of tech or economic disruptions ADI found itself riding. After guiding the company for 17 years, it seems harshly unfair that he didn’t get to stick around to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary in 2015. The company’s next leader will have considerable shoes to fill.
Said Fishman in 2004:
In technology companies, it’s all about transitions. Transitions in leadership, transitions in technology, transitions in markets. It’s how you manage across those transitions, I think, that more than anything separates the companies that are going to last from those that don’t.