Former Intel CEO Paul Otellini has passed away at the age of 66.
Otellini was a lifelong Intel employee who had silicon in his blood. He was named CEO of the world’s biggest chip maker in May 2005, and he stayed in that post until he retired in 2013. In its 49-year history, Intel has only had six chief executives, and Otellini was the fifth. He was a 40-plus-year employee, and he was the first non-engineer to run the company.
Otellini announced his retirement at age 62, a few years shy of the Intel mandatory retirement age of 65. His departure came amid Intel’s struggles in mobile chips, when it lost billions trying to compete with archrival Qualcomm. Otellini was succeeded by Brian Krzanich, who is still Intel’s top executive today. While Intel powers most of the world’s personal computers, it missed the boat on mobile. The world’s smartphones — from Samsung’s Galaxy Note S8 to the iPhone X — do not run on Intel chips.
“We are deeply saddened by Paul’s passing,” said Krzanich, in a statement. “He was the relentless voice of the customer in a sea of engineers, and he taught us that we only win when we put the customer first.”
During Otellini’s tenure, Intel’s revenue rose from $38.8 billion to $54 billion. In a profile story I wrote for the San Jose Mercury News, Otellini tried to bond with the engineers. One former Intel executive, Mike Fister, recalled Otellini rampaging through the cubicles in a paint-ball match.
In 2005, at the age of 55, Otellini moved from Intel’s top sales job to become CEO. He succeeded Craig Barrett, who had spent $30 billion on communications acquisitions only to see much of the business tank after the dotcom crash. People who knew Otellini said he was quiet and modest, compared with the blunt Andrew Grove and the sarcastic Barrett. I recall that Otellini had a good sense of humor.
“Paul was less confrontational, ” said Bill Davidow, a former Intel marketing executive who worked with Otellini in the 1970s. “He was very smart, energetic, and unflappable. I saw Andy Grove as a great manager, but I see Paul as a leader, someone more like David Packard.”
But Otellini was clearly tough. I remember during one Comdex trade show, I saw Otellini talking with then-Microsoft president Steve Ballmer. They got into a heated discussion and were almost shouting at each other. Ballmer clearly could be an intimidating figure, but in the argument that I saw, Otellini didn’t appear to back down.
His task was to help Intel move from its tech-driven identity to become a market-driven company. He reorganized Intel around platforms, rather than just chips. He packaged chips and other components together in platforms that customers could buy en masse, like the Centrino technology that helped Wi-Fi networking take off in laptops. That move secured Intel’s position in laptop chips for many years to come.
On a personal note, Otellini grew up in San Francisco in a religious family. He was an altar boy as a youth. He sold hot dogs at Candlestick Park and got an economics degree from the University of San Francisco in 1968 — the year Intel was founded by Grove, Gordon Moore, and Bob Noyce. Otellini go an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1972 and worked in the purchasing department of a slaughterhouse.
Otellini took a job at Intel in the finance department in 1974. He moved to the young microprocessor group in the late 1970s at the start of the PC era. In 1989, Otellini served as the technical assistant for Grove, which meant he had to make sure Grove’s speeches went off without a hitch. He also had to teach Grove how to use a PC. Otellini went on to run the microprocessor products division, and he helped launch the Pentium processor in 1993. That chip had a math flaw in it, but it helped cement Intel’s control of the PC industry as it left the company’s rivals far behind.
Otellini met his second wife, Sandra, at Intel. She worked as a lawyer in legal and management, and retired in 1995. Otellini is survived by his wife; his son, Patrick; and his daughter, Alexis. Since he retired in 2013, Otellini dedicated time to mentoring young people and being involved with several philanthropic and charitable organizations, including the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco General Hospital Foundation.
“Paul’s business acumen, optimism and dedication fueled our growth throughout his tenure as CEO,” said Intel Chairman Andy Bryant, in a statement. “His tireless drive, discipline and humility were cornerstones of his leadership and live on in our company values to this day.”
May he rest in peace.
Update 10/3/17 8:37 am: Corrected age to 66.