Electronic Design
Jack Gifford: Baseball’s Loss Was The World’s Gain

Jack Gifford: Baseball’s Loss Was The World’s Gain

Gifford (2009)

Sometimes the world benefits when we can’t do what we think we’d like to do. Such is the case with Jack Gifford, who created a business foundation and environment that fostered major technological advances, particularly in analog and power electronics. His many achievements have even led him to be known as one of the “founding fathers” of the analog industry.

Born in 1941, Gifford grew up in Torrance, Calif. He learned about baseball from his father, who was a supervisor at an oil refinery. Quickly, he became passionate about baseball and dreamed of becoming a professional ballplayer. Gifford played competitively throughout his school years, which later earned him a full scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Yet Gifford realized being an athlete might not be the best career choice for a family-focused man, nor a source for a stable income. That’s why he became passionate about designing ICs. Gifford graduated from UCLA with a BSEE in 1963.

Gifford started his career at Electronic Specialties as a design engineer. At the age of 24, Fairchild Semiconductor recruited him, but insisted on starting him out as a salesman. He was promoted to product manager one year later, thanks to one of Fairchild’s renegade junior engineers, Bob Widlar.

Widlar had secretly designed an amplifier on his own. But once Fairchild managers learned of its popularity among their clients, they harassed Widlar into letting them manufacture it. Widlar agreed only if he could select the product manager. More than 10 product managers were interviewed for the job, but Widlar wanted Gifford because of his knowledge of amplifiers. When Widlar left to found National Semiconductor, Gifford took over, running the analog research and development department.

Gifford next sought funding for a startup company, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), but was repeatedly turned down until he realized financial backers wanted someone with a little more experience. He decided Jerry Sanders was the guy. Together they finally obtained funding in 1969. Sanders, it turned out, was not popular with the engineers, and Gifford had to tell Sanders to change his tyrannical ways. Shortly after, Sanders spoke to the board and threatened that any staff members supporting Gifford would be let go. Gifford was asked to leave. It was 1971.

Not long afterward, Jean Hoerni, head of Intersil, asked Gifford to take over the analog side of his company. In exchange, he would help Gifford raise money to start his own business. Gifford agreed and subsequently built Intersil up to a $130 million company. It caught the eye of Jack Welch at GE.

After a lengthy and wine-filled meal, Gifford agreed to Intersil’s purchase by GE but only if he was given stock options and if Intersil could be an independent GE subsidiary. Welch agreed and proudly told others of this new acquisition. But the honeymoon didn’t last. In 1983, Welch was forced to let Gifford go.

On April 14, 1983, Gifford founded Maxim, as much to provide a career for his former employees as to produce analog and mixed-signal ICs. Today it is a multi-billion dollar company and a worldwide leader in the design, development, and manufacture of analog, mixed-signal, high-frequency, and digital circuits. It has developed more than 6100 products serving the industrial, communications, consumer, and computing markets.

Gifford built Maxim on a set of guiding principles that he wrote. For example, don’t accept the status quo. Question everything and everybody. Stand up for what you believe to be right. Try as hard as you can. Don’t give up until you’ve won. And, be proud of your results. Gifford once referred to these principles as just plain old common sense.

Since Gifford believed in R&D and in hiring premier technical talent, Maxim consistently spent more than 20% of its net revenue on R&D. Gifford understood that consistently designing and introducing innovative products was essential to the company and did not constrain R&D spending even during industry economic down cycles. He once remarked, too, that talent was the best investment Maxim could make. He felt that continued success depended on the company’s ability to continually innovate.

A little over two years after retiring as chairman and CEO at Maxim, Gifford passed away at his family vacation home in Hawaii on Jan. 11, 2009, his 68th birthday. He left behind his wife of 49 years, three daughters, and 11 grandchildren. Gifford’s passing was a shock to his family, friends, business partners, and the entire engineering community.

Within hours of hearing the news, it quickly became evident that his employees at Maxim needed an outlet to express their feelings and share memories of their former leader. This led to a poignant internal tribute Web site, which was soon made public so others could contribute. (See the tribute page at www.maxim-ic.com/company/jack-gifford.cfm.)

“I worked with Jack for 26 years. He was a mentor and a second father to me. I have never met a more thoughtful, confident, caring, intense, competitive, savvy, insightful, and driven man. Jack possessed a force and a will that were very rare and remain to this day very compelling,” wrote Rob Georges, vice president of test engineering at Maxim.

Scott Colgrove, a senior member of the technical staff, described how his daughter with Down’s syndrome was on track to possibly attend college in large part thanks to Gifford. Colgrove said he and his wife, upon first learning of their daughter’s condition, decided the best action for them was to quit their jobs to focus on their daughter and move to a rural area with services geared to inclusion of such students. But Gifford and Georges created a position so Colgrove could work for Maxim and live in a community that offered his daughter the best opportunities.

Although Gifford never played professional baseball, he was the owner and founder of a team called the Maxim Yankees. This team fielded mostly college players on break for the summer. In the early years, Gifford often played first base on the team. However, even during the 2008 season, he would sometimes play as a pinch or designated hitter.

“He helped many universities in this community, and did so many things for the student-athletes,” said Sam Piraro, head baseball coach for San Jose State University. “Jack Gifford was a tremendous man and a great humanitarian. He was always willing to help people in need, always willing to help people in general, and always there for you as a friend.”

See associated figure

Some information for this article was obtained from silicongenesis.stanford.edu/transcripts/gifford.htm.

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