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Qualcomm’s outgoing CEO is the ultimate tech survivor

January 6, 2021, 2:38 PM UTC

Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf must have been born with a bullseye on his back.

During his seven-year tenure, activist hedge fund JANA Partners demanded that he break up the company; antitrust authorities on three continents investigated and sued the company; leading customer Apple defected to rival chipmaker Intel and also sued Qualcomm; tech acquirer and Broadcom CEO Hock Tan initiated a hostile takeover of the company; the prior CEO tried to take the company private; and China blocked Qualcomm’s bid to buy NXP Semiconductors.

Through it all, Mollenkopf persevered and sought to wall off those “external stimuluses,” as he described them at Brainstorm Tech in 2019, from the bulk of the company’s engineers, scientists, and marketers. “They’re a distraction to me and about 10 other people,” he told me on the conference stage.

So maybe it’s no surprise that having finally conquered all of Qualcomm’s demons and seen the company’s stock reach record heights a few weeks ago, Mollenkopf is calling it quits. As Robert noted in yesterday’s newsletter, Mollenkopf announced on Tuesday that he’ll retire in June and hand the reins to his top lieutenant, company president Cristiano Amon. “The mistake is to go too long,” Mollenkopf told CNBC yesterday, saying the company will be in “very, very capable hands.”

Wall Street has confidence too. Qualcomm’s stock climbed 3% on Tuesday after the CEO transition announcement and is up 75% over the past year.

That’s partly because while Mollenkopf was fighting off the many outside challenges, Amon has been leading the charge inside the company to take the industry lead in 5G, the next generation of wireless technology.

The two men are about the same age (Mollenkopf at 52 is two years senior to Amon), have similar engineering backgrounds, and have both been with the company for decades. Amon was the “natural choice,” Bernstein Research analyst Stacy Rasgon noted yesterday, and is not expected to make major changes at Qualcomm.

Still, taking over at the top comes with its own challenges. Analysts expect Amon to expand Qualcomm’s 5G technology rapidly beyond phones into cars, drones, and all kinds of Internet-connected gear, but U.S. wireless carriers are lagging in deploying 5G. And though Mollenkopf won back Apple’s business, the iPhone maker is developing its own competing technology and could defect again. Looming deep in the background is Nvidia, now the most valuable U.S. chipmaker. Nvidia has been an also-ran in mobile chips but its pending $40 billion acquisition of Arm will transform it into a major player overnight if and when the deal closes.

It should provide plenty of action for Amon and Qualcomm for the next seven years.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

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