Paul Otellini isn't enough -- fire Intel's board of directors, too

Two days ago, Paul Otellini resigned his position as CEO of Intel. Analysts and pundits weigh-in on the matter, generally attributing Otellini’s failure to Intel’s late and flawed effort to gain traction in the mobile processor space. While I tend to agree with this assessment, it doesn’t go far enough to explain Otellini’s fall, which is not only his fault but also the fault of Intel’s board of directors. Yes, Otellini was forced out by the board, but the better action would have been for the board to have fired itself, too.

If there was a single event that triggered this end to Otellini’s tenure at Intel I’m guessing it is Apple’s decision to abandon Intel chips for its desktop computers. There has been no such announcement but Apple has sent signals to the market and the company doesn’t send signals for fun. The question isn’t if Apple will drop Intel but when and the way product design changes are made the when is not this Christmas but next.

I’m sure that Intel just lost its second or third-largest customer, a company important not just for its size but for its position as a design leader in the desktop space. This alone would have doomed Otellini.

Bitter Departure

But here’s the thing to notice: Otellini resigned this week not just from his position as CEO but also from the Intel board. This is no retirement and it is more than just a firing, too -- this is something ugly. Normally Otellini would have remained on the board for a year or two and that he isn’t suggests that his relationship with the board is totally poisoned.

Whose fault is that? It is the fault of both sides.

The simplistic view most people have of boards of directors are that the CEO runs the company and the board hires and fires the CEO, simple as that. If that was the heart of it, though, there would be no need for committees and sub-committees and board meetings could be done on the phone with an up or down vote four times per year.  Modern boards share power to some extent with the CEO, they help set company policies, and they are responsible for setting off alarms from time to time.

In the case of Intel, the alarms have been at best muted and it is pretty easy to argue that the board simply didn’t do its job any better than did Otellini.

Intel under Otellini has been a model of Bush era corporate responsibility, which is to say manically cutting costs while doubling down on its desktop processor business and giving little to no thought to market shifts like the current one to mobile that could screw the whole business. Intel spent a decade fixated solely on fighting AMD, a battle it won a long time ago yet still keeps fighting. That was Otellini’s fault but it was also the Intel board’s fault.

Wrong Fight

The company was too busy fighting AMD to notice the rise of mobile. And while the pundits are correctly saying ARM-this and ARM-that in their analysis of the Intel mobile debacle, the source of the successor technology is less important than the fact that the two largest high-end mobile manufacturers of all -- Apple and Samsung -- are making their own processors. They will never be Intel customers again.

It’s like Mitt Romney talking about the 47 percent: no matter what Intel does -- no matter what -- the company will be a minority player at best in the mobile space. This explains, too, the $50 billion in market cap that has been effectively transferred from Intel to Qualcomm over the last five years.

Intel had a chance to buy Qualcomm twice, by the way. Discussions happened. But twice Intel walked away and one of those times the guy leading the departure was Paul Otellini. Intel could have owned Broadcom, too, with the same story, but they (board and all) were too busy being fat, dumb, and happy fixating on AMD.

Here’s what should happen at Intel now. Company vision has failed from top to bottom. It’s time for new leadership including a new board, because the existing board hasn’t shown itself competent to replace Otellini -- who by the way should be replaced, since he‘s as clueless as the board that’s firing him.

Intel needs new leadership and a bet-the-company move toward dominating some new technology, I’m not sure which one, but there are several from which to choose.

Given that the Intel board isn’t firing itself, I expect they’ll hire another bad executive to replace Otellini and Intel’s fall will continue. It’s still a rich and profitable company and can go a decade or more with a cargo cult corporate culture based on hope that desktops will return.

Reprinted with permission

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