From The Border To The Fortune 500

Hector Ruiz is one of the few Latinos who have led Fortune 500 companies. He grew up poor in a small coal-mining town in Mexico. He shined shoes to help his family get by, and walked across the U.S.-Mexico border each day to go to high school in Texas. Host Michel Martin talks with him about his new memoir, Slingshot.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we speak with people who've made a difference in their fields.

Today, we hear from one of the most influential tech executives you probably have never heard of unless you're in that field. Not only that, his personal story is just as - if not more - interesting than those of the superstar CEOs you may have heard about in high tech.

His name is Hector Ruiz. He was born in Mexico. Neither of his parents made it to college and many in his town never made it to high school, but he did, walking across the border each day to go to high school in Texas.

His dream was to become a mechanic and he didn't manage that, but he did become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And, as the head of advanced micro devices, or AMD, Ruiz launched an initiative to get half the world online by the year 2015; and he led a David and Goliath battle to fight what he saw as the abusive business practices by industry giant Intel.

He tells those stories in his new business memoir, "Slingshot," and he's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

HECTOR RUIZ: Thank you, Michel. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Why did you want to write this memoir and why now? I mean, I'm thinking that somebody who went through the kind of bruising battle that you went through might just want to kind of walk away and, you know, drink tea on your porch and play golf or something. Why did you want to put this story down?

RUIZ: Well, you know, I think there were some interesting aspects of the story that I think the public would enjoy reading and the drama behind the scenes of competing with such a phenomenally strong competitor by the people that had faith in the company and wanted to find ways in which they could compete. And that human drama behind the scenes, I thought, was very interesting and, of course, you know, when you hear the legal battles and all that, that doesn't come out. So I thought it was worth telling the story.

And I thought it was important for the Latino community, in particular, to see what could be possible for somebody that aspires to a career in industry or something like that, that - you know, despite all the setbacks one goes through in life, it is possible to get there, and that, hopefully, by embedding part of my story in the book, that it could inspire some Latino kid somewhere to say, gee, if this guy can do it, I should be able to do it myself.

MARTIN: Does it hurt your feelings, though, when I said in my introduction that you're probably not as well known among the tech giants in this country, particularly given the fact that you have such an interesting story? Does that hurt your feelings?

RUIZ: No. It just reminds me of how tough it is, you know, but it didn't hurt my feelings.

MARTIN: Well, it is kind of interesting. I mean, just to put this in context, I mean, in 2006, Fortune magazine named you one of the top 25 business leaders in the country. Not top 25 Latino business leaders - one of the top 25 business leaders. You also served on President George W. Bush's council of advisors on science and technology. I think anybody who's in the tech world would certainly know of your work, but I am wondering why it is that you feel that your name and your story is not better known. I wonder if it is, in part, because of the whole Intel battle and the fact that your company was, as you recount in the book, kind of, battling just for survival, for recognition, for the ability to compete all those years. Do you think that might be part of it?

RUIZ: That's part of it, but also, I think that, in our industry in particular - I don't know of history in others, but in our industry, the people that tell the news, the technical analysts and the financial analysts, you know, tend to overlook a lot of the human aspect of what goes on in industry. And they look at the fact that Intel is a very large competitor, well-prepared, well-funded, you know, has a lot of strength and they tended to look at us at AMD as more of a company that maybe wasn't strong enough to compete, maybe wasn't good enough. And they never looked beyond that alone, and therefore, as a result of that, I think both the company and my own story perhaps were not as well-known as they could have been.

MARTIN: So let's talk about you. Let's talk about your story. I mentioned a little bit at the beginning that neither of your parents went to college, grew up in a coal mining town across the border in Mexico. You mentioned that you shined shoes as a kid to help your parents help make ends meet, that they had a real love of learning, though, even though they weren't that well educated themselves. And can you just talk a little bit about how they inspired that in you? What vision did they have for you?

RUIZ: You know, sometimes, people ask me. They say, Hector, what do you remember about your childhood? And, although we were poor, that is not what I remember. What I remember is being happy. And my parents really took a lot of pain in trying to ensure that we were, you know, taken care of. And one of the things they felt very strongly about is that we should be aware of what's going on in the world and we should know enough about the world in general to at least develop some sense of what we wanted to do or participate in this world. And as a result of that, they made us read a lot. They made us listen to music. I remember as a six-year-old, I probably was the only six-year-old in school that knew "Carmen," the music that my father loved, because he played it all the time. And so through all of that I think I had the fortune and the blessing of being exposed to all that and he made me curious. If I had to pick the one thing that he did, he made me very curious about the world.

MARTIN: Do I have it right, that when you were growing up, you actually wanted to be an auto mechanic?

RUIZ: Oh, I desperately wanted to be an auto mechanic.

(LAUGHTER)

RUIZ: I loved...

MARTIN: Sorry that didn't work out for you.

RUIZ: No it didn't.

(LAUGHTER)

RUIZ: But I was fascinated by how things worked and I thought being an auto mechanic would help me understand that better.

MARTIN: How did you become fascinated by tech? I mean I do want to mention again that you went on to - I'm sorry the auto mechanic thing didn't work out, but you did go on to get, in addition to your Bachelors, a Masters degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, and then you went and got a doctorate at Rice. So you did find a way to, you know, get into the inner workings of things. So how did you get bitten by the tech bug?

RUIZ: In my hometown, in Piedras Negras in Mexico, I ran into a Methodist missionary who said that if I really wanted to be a good auto mechanic I would have to learn English. So she agreed to teach me English if I would help her with chores. And so I began to learn a little bit of English and then one thing led to another and then she said, you know, if you really want to be a good auto mechanic you ought to go study in the U.S. And then she was able to help me attend high school by crossing the border. And then when I finished high school, she continued that and she said, you know what, you really should try this one-year university then you'll know for sure if you want to be an auto mechanic. And I look back and I realize now that she was really a very smart woman, she really knew what she was doing and how these things would end up.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Hector Ruiz. He's the former CEO of Advanced Micro Devices, or AMD. And now I want to talk about the story - which is one of the other stories at the center of your memoir. It's called "Slingshot." This is this giant antitrust lawsuit between AMD and Intel. People thought that when you pushed to file this case within the company and outside of the company, that you were crazy. Not to put too fine a point on it, that they thought you had lost your mind. Why were you so convinced that this was the right course of action?

RUIZ: We had come up with a way to make the existing computer significantly more powerful, better performance, lower cost, and all those things. And when I saw the potential of that technology was significantly better than what our competitor had or anyone had, and we were still unable to get the share of business, it became clear to me that we had to do something besides just creating a great product. And that something had to do to find a way to stop what I believe was abusive business practices on the part of our competitor. And after researching this in many different ways that we thought we should go about doing that, the last thing we really wanted to do is file a suit. But after we exhausted every possible way to accomplish it, we ended up concluding that we had to do that or we would never be able to get out of the pressure and the unreasonable practices that were keeping AMD from being more successful.

MARTIN: It was a very long road. I mean I think that anybody would agree. But you eventually - the company eventually did prevail. There was a settlement. There was a settlement of more than $1 billion, right? There was not an admission of wrongdoing - if I'm right about that - but there was a settlement of more than $1 billion paid from Intel to AMD. And also, subsequently, federal regulators at the FTC did set certain conditions on Intel's conduct, saying that they could not engage in these practices again. Do you feel vindicated?

RUIZ: On one hand I do. I think that, you know, when you look at what happened around the world when Japan, South Korea, the European Union, eventually the FTC, and also the attorney general in New York, they all felt that their business practices were not appropriate - I felt definitely vindicated. What I didn't feel right about is the fact that because when you settle like that and you don't admit wrongdoing - and to be fair to Intel, they felt like they didn't have to worry about not doing the things they were asked not to do because in their minds they never did them, it just left a little bit of an empty feeling.

MARTIN: There are a lot of people who feel in a number of ways in this country - and this has become a much more intense discussion in recent years - that there is just a lot of ways in which the playing field is not level. And I'm wondering if in some ways, even though you've been a businessman your entire career, whether you feel some sympathy now with the Occupy Wall Street folks.

RUIZ: Well, in a way I do. But I think it's also important that, you know, one of the messages I hoped to convey in the book is the biggest source of transformational innovation, the things that really change the world and make things better, is fair competition. That if you take fair competition out, you're stifling that innovation that eventually hurts consumers, hurts businesses, and frankly at the end of the day it ends up hurting the company or business that was abusing the practices.

MARTIN: Are there any other lessons you think people who are not in business can draw from your experience that you'd want to share?

RUIZ: I think one of them that I think is something that all of us in this country should hopefully strive to do, and that is let's work together with government, industry at all levels to make sure that fair competition really is an endearing quality of how we run our businesses. And that has to do not only with the regulations and laws in place, that's a part of it, but it has to do with the culture in the businesses and the companies. If you look at the news today, not a week goes by when there's not some legal battle going on because one company stole another company's secrets or the level of unfairness which I think is damaging and not healthy. I really think that it's incredibly important that if you are at the top of a company and somebody comes to you with an idea on how to squash a competitor that's not fair, that you as a CEO ought to be able to say that's not how we're going to win. We're going to win by creating great products that people want, not by doing something that's not appropriate. That I think would generate a culture of fairness, which is badly needed today.

MARTIN: We are speaking at a time when the whole question of immigration is again before us as a country and before our policymakers. And when I hear your story I find myself wondering whether another kid could walk across the border today and do what you did.

RUIZ: One of the things that's unfortunate about this is when that happened when I was a young kid, there was this environment in the border that actually people in Eagle Pass, Texas felt proud of being able to allow some kids from Mexico to cross the border and go to school. Unfortunately, I don't think that exists today. There's a lot more animosity and distrust that has been created, so I think we need to change that again, one more time. Because I really believe that being able to invest like they did with me, where they actually provided me with an education, helped me attend some wonderful colleges and universities, and then I'm giving back by doing whatever I can to make the United States a better country, that's a tremendous investment we can make in the immigrants that come to this country or want to come, so that they can accomplish things like that and be able to make the country better.

MARTIN: We just want to mention that I think we could find one town where the program that you talked about, that kind of system, still is in place; there's a town in New Mexico where kids still cross the border to go to school, but that's the only one we could find. I'm just saying that by way of clarification. What else do you think people should draw from your own personal story, if your mind goes there?

RUIZ: One of the reasons I wrote the book is that we have 50 million Latinos in this country and unfortunately as a group they tend to be underrepresented in colleges and universities. They tend to be underrepresented in business, in leadership decisions and all that. And I think it's important to recognize that when such a large portion of the population is not prepared to become the good citizens that they could be and make this country better, that we have to put an effort and it and help them become citizens, do - try to understand the issues that are affecting them, because why are they being able to participate more in the American dream? And by doing so, we're not just helping the Latino community get better, where helping the country become a better country.

MARTIN: You know, the president has talked a lot about the need to be sure that this country remains competitive in the STEM fields, the so-called STEM fields - science, technology engineering and mathematics. And particularly the need to make sure that minorities, so-called ethnic minorities, because groups like, you know, very shortly not be the minority, in a short number of years in this country, but for now, because of that the need to be sure that minorities remain competitive in these fields. I wonder if you have some insights to share about how this can be accomplished.

RUIZ: Part of the challenge that I think we have to learn, I think is important, is to see that, you know, if you make the assumption that everybody's born equal and that we're all created equal, that something is happening to these kids early in life that puts them on a track that diverges from the rest of the population. And I think it has to do with early education. I think the president is absolutely right in trying to encourage the pre-elementary school exposure to education. We have to look at the fact that, you know, and I'll use the statistics from Central Texas, which are quite damning. When you look at Central Texas data, it says that half of the children that are under five years of age are in poverty and 85 percent of those are Latino kids. Well, all of those things contribute significantly to this divergence in what people can accomplish. We just need to recognize that, be aware of it and also accept the fact that we must solve it for our country to continue to be a leader in productivity and all of the things that we think are important for our future.

MARTIN: So what are you working on now? Is it secret?

RUIZ: No, it's not secret. With two other partners I'm starting a new company that we call Advanced Nanotechnologies Solutions. It's registered in Delaware. We're in the process of finalizing some of the funding. This company, we're hoping it's going to make dramatic changes on how we do technology in the future.

MARTIN: But what are you trying to do? I mean explain it so I can understand.

RUIZ: The two-dimensional approach to building circuits has run out of steam, and it's very difficult now to get better performance, better circuits, better productivity. And so we have to go now in three-dimension. So the expression I use is: Don't spread them out, stacked 'em up. You know, rather go three dimensions, and if you do that you can get a tenth of the cost, a tenth of the space, a tenth of the power dissipated, and ten times the performance. And those things are so significant that it would make a huge impact on the technology for the next 20 years.

MARTIN: Yeah, but are you going to be able to get me a babysitter for Saturday? That's what I want to know.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I want you to make my life better.

RUIZ: Well, that's a different story.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Well, do keep us posted, if you will.

RUIZ: Be happy to.

MARTIN: Hector Ruiz is the former CEO of Advanced Micro Devices - AMD. He's currently founder and chair of Advanced Nanotechnology Solutions. He is the author of a new memoir. It's called "Slingshot: AMD's Fight to Free an Industry from the Ruthless Grip of Intel." And he's with us from our bureau in New York.

Mr. Ruiz, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RUIZ: Thank you, Michel.

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