Sean Maloney was on his way to being the chipmaker’s next CEO when a stroke crippled his body — and took away his ability to talk. This is the story of how he returned to work (he’s now head of Intel China) — and found his voice again.
FORTUNE — Sean Maloney grew up in gritty South East London, last in a line of six kids, and got kicked out of school at age 15. Not that Sean was a bad kid. As a young member of the Socialist Labor League, a left-wing group pitched against a rising neo-Nazi movement, Sean organized antigovernment demonstrations and, with his charisma and passion, recruited followers. Perhaps the only person not charmed by the young man was Sean’s father, Eddie, who had become estranged from his rebellious son. Then, just before Eddie Maloney died of poisoning in the chemical dye factory where he worked his whole life, he stopped by a rally and watched his son speak publicly for the first time. “That boy has a skill,” Eddie told Sean’s mother afterward. “He’ll do something great with it or something terrible. Either way, he’ll inspire people.”
“You show them you have in you something that is really profitable, and then there will be no limits to the recognition of your ability.” — Kurtz to Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Two years ago life could not have looked brighter for Sean Maloney. At 54, he was a Silicon Valley-based executive vice president at Intel INTC and widely believed to be No. 1 in line to succeed CEO Paul Otellini. Having joined Intel after dropping out of Thames Polytechnic University and working briefly at Barclays, Maloney caught the eye of former Intel CEO Andy Grove, who made the young man his technical assistant — sort of a chief of staff cum researcher. Grove remembers that in 1994, when the company was managing a crisis over millions of flawed Pentium chips, Maloney “was a dynamo.” An indefatigable problem-solver, Maloney once addressed a group of employees dressed as explorer Ernest Shackleton — parka, goggles, and all. The crowd went wild. “One of the world’s best communicators,” Otellini recalls.
Maloney, who had five children, also was a workaholic who embraced the punishing travel schedule and long hours, all the while taking on heady physical challenges — tearing down ski runs, racing his scull at 6 a.m. every day with a much younger rowing buddy. This extreme behavior often taxed his co-workers and family, but they would prove to be the keys to the remarkable physical and mental recovery he was about to embark on — a journey Maloney and his family have not discussed publicly until now.
In October 2009 during a routine visit to her doctor, Maloney’s wife, Margaret, who was expecting twins, learned that one of the fetuses had lost a heartbeat. The best way to keep the other baby alive, her doctor advised, would be to carry both to term. On Jan. 4, 2010, she delivered five weeks early. Sean, who was off skiing during an annual winter vacation with his oldest children, raced back. The surviving twin, Catherine, at 4 pounds 11 ounces, seemed healthy. But six weeks later she stopped breathing and had to be rushed to Stanford Hospital.
Maloney hurried home again that fateful Thursday, this time from a business trip, to be at Catherine’s side, and on Friday, after visiting the baby at the hospital’s neonatal intensive-care unit, he felt sure that something was wrong with him too. “I started to think, ‘I’m losing words,’ ” he recalls. He tried to write “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” but he couldn’t get the words and letters to go in the right order. He showed his jumbled writing to his son George, then 21, and daughter Brigid, 20, making them promise not to tell Margaret, who had a sick baby plus 5-year-old twin girls in her charge. Getting on his computer, Sean Googled “speech,” “mixed-up words,” “headache” — anything he could think of to describe his symptoms. It took him no more than a few minutes to reach a conclusion: ” ‘That’s it,’ I said to myself, ‘I’m having a stroke.'”
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or severely reduced, depriving brain tissue of oxygen and nutrients. Within minutes brain cells begin to die. In fact, Maloney was not having a stroke at the time but transient ischemic attacks. Commonly known as TIAs, or mini-strokes, they are temporary interruptions of blood flow that don’t destroy brain cells or cause permanent disability. But each TIA increases the risk of stroke and warns that one could occur if nothing is done to prevent it.
Maloney and George drove to a local urgent-care center. “Look, I’m having a stroke,” Maloney told the doctor authoritatively. “You’re not having a stroke,” he recalls the doctor replying. The doctor attributed his symptoms to stress and diagnosed a migraine headache.
As the weekend progressed, Maloney felt helpless. He couldn’t convince the doctor. He couldn’t tell Margaret, for fear that another medical emergency would send her over the edge. Sunday afternoon he felt normal enough to run the Stanford Dish, a hilly loop near the university. He kept up with his son that day, but the 40-minute jog did him in.
Around 4 o’clock, Sean was home with an awful headache and feeling “really weird,” he told George. “I went up and sat on my bed,” he recalls, “and the stroke happened.” He fell back. He saw George walk into the bedroom, and then Brigid, crying. He saw the ceiling, white and full of stars. “George laid me down on the floor,” he recalls. “Then there was the ambulance. Then I don’t know.”
Maloney’s stroke resulted from a clot in his left carotid artery, the main supplier of blood to the brain’s left hemisphere. The left hemisphere controls movement in the right side of the body and, for most people, speech as well. So Maloney couldn’t talk. By midnight he recognized Margaret. But his prognosis was uncertain. The doctors didn’t know whether Maloney would ever walk or talk again.
Meanwhile, there was business to take care of. On Monday, Margaret spoke to Otellini, who said he would ask his general counsel whether Intel had to disclose the news immediately; in any case, he said, the company would work with her on the announcement.
The art of the press release became a family affair. Oldest daughter Rachel flew in from England. She and George and Brigid didn’t want Intel to disclose that their dad had had a stroke. “Your dad is not a child,” Margaret chided, adding, “The odds have always been against him, and he has never sugarcoated anything.” Grove, who survived the Holocaust and detailed his own cancer battle in Fortune in 1996, told the kids that being “upfront” is the responsible way to go. The family decided to let the man who could not speak decide what language to use in the release. Holding a draft in front of him, Margaret asked Sean to choose “stroke” or “minor stroke” or leave out the detail. With his left index finger, Sean pointed to “stroke.”
During his first week in Stanford Hospital, Maloney’s kids wanted to keep visitors at bay. But he had a different opinion. “I wanted Paul to see in my eyes that I would be back,” he says of Otellini. When the Intel chief and Grove came in looking “appropriately white,” Maloney recalls, “I was thinking, ‘It’s okay! It’s me!’ ” He adds, “I have no problem thinking, but I can’t speak. Do you know what that’s like? That’s terrible.”
Maloney devised various ways to entertain and express himself. By Tuesday, 48 hours after the stroke, he was reading a book about Chinese history. When Margaret brought in a pile of books, he picked out Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad classic. Maloney would point his finger at passages for her to read — passages that reflected his emotions at the moment.
You can imagine what those emotions were: frustration, anger, impatience. “By Wednesday or Thursday, I was thinking, ‘How can I come back?’ ” he recalls, adding, “I had to get back.” A few days after the stroke, the right side of his body came back to life. One of the first words he was able to croak out was “now,” which the hospital staff started to hear — a lot. One time the hospital issued an APB to locate Maloney. He had made his way all the way to another wing to visit baby Catherine. When he moved to a rehab facility in San Francisco, he was supposed to stay a month. Ten days later he was heading home to Palo Alto.
On that momentous day there was a stop on the way. Margaret remembers driving toward Silicon Valley as Sean, in the passenger seat beside her, excitedly pointed and grunted directions: “Uhhh … Uhhh … Uhhh!” When she realized where her husband was taking her, she could hardly believe it.
An hour earlier the doctor who had released Sean told him, “I’m not sure you’ll be able to row” — implying ever. When he and Margaret pulled into the parking lot at the Bair Island rowing club in San Francisco Bay, Sean could hardly wait to get out. “His right arm was practically useless,” Margaret recalls. “With his left arm, he lifted the boat. He uncovered it, washed it off, and put the cover back on.”
The next morning Margaret was relaxing, happy to have Sean back home. Suddenly he appeared, dressed in his rowing clothes and pointing toward the car. Margaret called Jean-Pierre van Tiel, an Intel marketing executive who was Sean’s rowing buddy. Meet us at the bay as soon as you can, she told J.P. When they got there, Sean and J.P. took out a double scull. Every five strokes J.P. straightened the boat. In the weeks that followed, Maloney took to rowing alone, at first in circles (“I nearly cried,” he says) but straighter and straighter each time.
Learning to speak has been Maloney’s toughest challenge. The stroke zapped a walnut-size section of his brain that produces language, so he has had to learn to speak from the right side of his brain. Speech pathologist Lisa Levine Sporer started off having Sean do word drills and read children’s books aloud — so he could get back to reading to Catherine and his twins, Anna and Alexandra. To help him relearn the “flow and melody of speech,” Sporer says, they read poetry — Keats, Byron, and Tennyson, his mother’s favorite — standing up, because talking to 1,000 people is, for Maloney, the natural way of speaking. He rarely got down on himself, but on a day that he did, Sporer wrote on an index card, “You have Great Potential.” Maloney pinned the card to a bulletin board in his office.
Maloney got encouragement from neighbors as well. Once a month or so the doorbell would ring, and he or Margaret would open the door. There on the doorstep would be Steve Jobs asking whether Sean could come out and, well, play. “Like this nice, giant adult kid,” Margaret recalls. The Apple AAPL founder, whose battle against pancreatic cancer began in 2004, occasionally walked and biked around the neighborhood with Maloney.
On Jan. 3, 10 months after suffering his stroke, Maloney returned to Intel. It’s required some adjustment on both sides. Citing Intel’s aggressive culture, chief marketing officer Deborah Conrad says, “Sean would be the guy setting the pace.” That’s changed. Maloney now prefers one-on-one meetings. And in the obligatory large meetings where everyone talks over each other, it helps when friends like Conrad pipe up and say, “Hold on, Sean has an opinion,” giving him air. Three weeks after he returned, he made his first major public appearance at Intel’s international sales and marketing conference and told 3,700 colleagues, “I’ve trained the right side of my brain to take over speech, normally a function of the left side. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done.”
His speech is slow and robotic, as if he is searching for every word. In fact, he is. “I just have to make the words better,” he says when we meet in July at Intel’s Santa Clara headquarters. During a 90-minute interview (we did two, on consecutive days), he demonstrates that his body is back — he can hardly sit still, pacing frequently. When I ask how far his speech has returned, he dashes around the conference table to a big whiteboard on the wall. “I was here,” he says, using a red marker to draw a horizontal line indicating his skill level when he had his stroke. He draws a 45-degree angle and points to a spot about 15% shy of the top. “I’m now here,” he says. “And I need to get here,” he explains, moving the marker to the pinnacle.
His goal is full recovery, and he appears well on his way. Early this year Intel’s top brass started talking about upgrading leadership in China. Intel is doing fine in China, but the three parts of the business — R&D, manufacturing, and sales and marketing — never got properly aligned. The stakes are higher than ever because next year China is expected to become the world’s largest computer market.
Maloney saw a professional opportunity. He had spent the late ’90s in Hong Kong running Intel’s sales and marketing across Asia, and he is very well connected there. “In many ways Sean is more recognized in Asia than he is in the U.S.,” says Otellini. Maloney asked Margaret what she thought of relocating. Margaret, who is his third wife (they married in 2004) and half-Chinese, had taken a leave of absence from her job as a vice president of public relations at solar startup Tigo Energy, and she was game.
With Margaret’s thumbs-up, Maloney e-mailed Otellini a concocted dialogue between the two men:
“I know, I’ll go to China …”
“You can’t be serious …”
“Yes, I am …”
Maloney’s e-mail went on like a teasing haiku, from a man who says that “never bothering to give up, discipline, and fun” are the traits that make him successful. Fun? “Yeah, fun. Even when the world looks totally down, you’ve got to look up.”
In May, Otellini named Maloney chairman of Intel China. “It’s good for Sean and great for the company,” says the CEO, adding that he imposed one requirement: that Maloney spend his first seven weeks in intensive language training in Mandarin. “I thought it was good to give Sean a gigantic challenge,” Otellini explains in all seriousness.
Fair enough, but the big question looms: Is Maloney the once and future Intel CEO-elect? “I think he’s still in there,” replies Otellini, who turns 61 in October and must retire at 65. “He has to get back to about where he was,” Otellini adds. Asked whether Maloney must be the communicator he once was, Otellini says, “I think that’s unfair. If he got back to the level that you and I communicate at, it would be enough.” He adds, “It’s also about stamina. But I don’t count him out.”
With their three youngest children — the twin girls and baby Catherine — the Maloneys moved to Beijing in July. Most mornings Sean gets up early and rows at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park — in a straight line and at a competitive clip. A fellow rower might notice that his right palm is more calloused than the left. That is because his right side is still slightly numb, causing him to grip the oar a little tighter with his right hand. He’s working eight to nine hours a day, and building his stamina, because he has to. The job in Beijing has him overseeing 8,600 employees in 20 offices in 17 cities. Intel China’s revenue last year was over $7 billion, about 16% of Intel’s total worldwide.
When I ask Maloney whether the past 18 months have changed him, he simply replies, “I am incredibly grateful for my life.” While he appreciates his family more than ever, he is the same workaholic with the same drive that got him this far. “Never give up,” he says. “No matter what anyone says, you can attain your goals if you never give up.”
In his spare moments, Maloney sometimes watches a video on his computer. The video shows him in an interview — the last time he spoke before he had his stroke. “I need to be like that,” he told Otellini when he played this video for his boss. And so Sean Maloney will watch it again and again and again until he is.
This article is from the September 26, 2011 issue of Fortune.