As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Raymond D. “Ray” Zinn.
Ray is an inventor, entrepreneur, investor, angel, bestselling author and the longest serving CEO of a publicly traded company in Silicon Valley. He is also the founder of a nationally launched ZinnStarter program at colleges around the country, providing the financial and mentoring support for students to launch new products and companies. In 2015, Ray published his first book, Tough Things First, with McGraw Hill. The book covers Zinn’s analysis of his nearly 40 years at the helm of Micrel, a Silicon Valley institution along with the critical factors that entrepreneurs and seasoned executives alike need to know, including the intricacies of nurturing corporate culture, how to make every employee (and every human) feel valued, the impact and limitations of policies and procedures, and how to manage growth.
Zinn is also known for conceptualizing and in effect inventing the Wafer Stepper, and for cofounding semiconductor company Micrel (acquired by Microchip in 2015), which provides essential components for smartphones, consumer electronics and enterprise networks. He served as Chief Executive Officer, Chairman of its Board of Directors and President since Company’s inception in 1978.
Zinn led Micrel profitably through eight major downturns in global chip markets, an impressive achievement. Many chip companies weren’t able to make it through one downturn and very few have survived through all the major downturns. Micrel has been profitable from its very first year, aside from one year during the dot-com implosion.
Ray Zinn holds over 20 patents for semiconductor design. He has been mentioned in several books, including Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running and Essentialism by Greg McKeown.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Istarted Micrel Semiconductor some 40 years ago with a loan that I personally guaranteed from a bank something that was and is unheard of in Silicon Valley. My goal was to build a company with an enduring legacy and Micrel lasted 37 years, 36 which were profitable. In addition, while we were in the mist of our IPO, I actually went blind and had to learn to navigate the world as a man without his sight while convincing a skeptical Board of Directors that I could still run Micrel. Finally, during Micrel’s 37 years, we weathered no less than eight major downturns and emerged stronger for it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I started Micrel in 1978, I thought the bank would easily loan me money because of my good personal credit. I was shocked when they told me to go fly a kite, “we are not interested”. The lesson I learned is while good personal credit is good, it is not enough to start a company. The bank finally loaned me the money, but only after I was willing to personally guarantee the loan. This was a hard pill to swallow, because I was putting all my personal assets on the line. The bank wanted me to be all in.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
While working on my Masters degree in Business I studied “Management by Objectives” by Peter Drucker. This helped me greatly understand business philosophy and definitely helped me when I started my own company.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I strove to build a company with an enduring legacy, a place where people become better people and were not just chasing a buck. We were family in the truest sense of the word as I built a company based on a foundation of respect for all individuals regardless of title or position. We ended up with one of the highest retention rates in the industry as well as one of the highest return rates for employees.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Always focus on profitability and make cash king no matter if times are tough or flush. Don’t be in a hurry to expand even during better financial times. Run a lean organization that focuses on frugality and making do.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The Covid-19 pandemic has had two major attributes: political and medical. From a medical perspective, dealing with the pandemic was no real concern, but it has been very inconvenient. From a political perspective, the issue is by far more complex and depending upon your political point of view, the reality is different. I have written extensively during the pandemic on how people should deal with the Covid-19 issue. When Covid-19 first became an issue back in early March, I did a statistical study on how the pandemic would play-out. Based on the mathematical model I used, I forecasted the Covid-19 pandemic would all but play itself out by the end of April and by the end of May, it would be just a bad memory. This is where the political attribute came into play. The politics of the pandemic has extended the pandemic further than my model had computed.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I am retired from running a company full time and therefore the pandemic has not impacted me as those who are still working. Having said that, as I mentioned, I have written extensively on how and can deal with the pandemic.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
When the pandemic first hit, I began writing about how to cope with the pandemic. My first advice is a common one in that you can only worry about things you can change. I believed from the very beginning that the pandemic would be short lived, i.e., two to three months. This gave my family courage that it did have an end. I remained very optimistic and offered encouragement during the crisis. I continue to use optimism as a weapon to fight the fear of the pandemic.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
From the very beginning, I believed the pandemic would be short lived — two to three months and have a V-shaped recovery. I took a considerable amount of my money and invested it in the market as the bottom dropped out toward the end of March. It has been my experience that these down-turns only last a year to a year and a half. I believe that the economy will be pretty much back to normal by Q2 of 2021.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
We humans tend to have very short memories, therefore, I don’t see much changing in the way we live once this is behind us.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
I am not running a company full time any longer so I do not have a business to rebuild, but I did take advantage of the crisis to invest back in the market when it crashed. It has been my experience that the old adage, “that which does not kill you, will make you stronger” holds true. I believe that our country, and hopefully other countries, will become stronger because of this crisis.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
In the story of Little Orphan Annie, Annie sings a song that there is always tomorrow. Like Annie, we have to have a brighter hope for tomorrow and use optimism as a weapon.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Always do the tough things first. This helps build both discipline and a love for things you used to hate doing. This singular habit has helped me successfully run a company for 37 years and was the foundation of my best-selling book Tough Things First published by McGraw Hill.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Check out my website at www.toughthingsfirst.com and listen in to the tough things first blog at: http://toughthingsfirst.com/tough-things-first-podcast/. You can also follow me on social media at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rayzinn/