Good morning and welcome to the March run of The Trust Factor, where we’ll be looking at the challenges incoming CEOs face in earning trust from shareholders and employees.
For decades, Intel was the vanguard of semiconductor manufacturing, designing, and producing the world’s most cutting-edge chips to power the most advanced front of tech. But Intel, much like the rest of U.S. semiconductor manufacturing, has lost its edge.
In 2020, the California company lost a major contract with Apple, suffered the abrupt departure of a chief technologist, and had to delay the release of its latest core chipset due to a flaw in its own manufacturing process. Intel’s share price plummeted 28% that year.
In January 2021, Intel’s board fired CEO Bob Swan after three years on the job and brought in Intel alum Pat Gelsinger to turn the company around. It was a daunting challenge and, although shareholders were sold on Gelsinger’s vision to begin with, investors haven’t rewarded him for how much the turnaround is costing.
“No enthusiastic new CEO can come in, and in a hundred days, fix 10 years of mistakes,” Gelsinger told Fast Company’s Harry McCracken in June that year. “We are going to have some blood, toil, sweat, and tears until we get everything running like it needs to be again.”
Gelsinger took charge at Intel with a plan to completely revamp the company’s business model, expanding into a service the chip maker had previously sidelined: Manufacturing chips to customer designs rather than its own. Gelsinger also sold Intel’s board and its shareholders on an ambitious $43.5 billion investment plan to grow the company’s manufacturing footprint in the U.S.
For a moment, Intel’s shareholders were elated. Investors pumped the chip maker’s stock to a two-decade high of $68.26 per share by April, up 45% from December’s lows. But, as the realities of Gelsinger’s plan took hold, shareholders began to pull back from the company’s trajectory of heavy spending.
“Clearly, we have laid out a plan that is not driven by a quarterly perspective of Wall Street. I’m not expecting the praise of Wall Street,” Gelsinger told McCracken in 2021. But as Intel’s share price continues to slide, down 63% from its April 2021 high, Gelsinger has admitted it “sometimes pisses me off” that the stock is down.
On a more personal level, it must also piss Gelsinger off that so many of Intel’s shareholders have voted against his executive pay, a sizable chunk of which is contingent on Intel’s share price tripling within five years of Gelsinger’s tenure. Last May, over half of voting shareholders cast ballots against Gelsinger’s $178.59 million compensation package, despite Intel beating quarterly estimates.
It’s difficult to peel apart whether shareholders are weighing down Intel’s share price because they no longer trust Gelsinger’s long-term vision or because they have little faith in the short-term rewards. In respect of the latter, Gelsinger has not always been forthcoming with investors about their potential returns.
In late January, Gelsinger assured investors that Intel was “committed” to paying out its “competitive” dividend. Last week, Intel slashed its dividend by nearly 66%. Perhaps in capitulation to shareholders, Intel also cut Gelsinger’s base pay by 25%, down to a $750,000 salary. Both moves are prudent. With revenue projected to fall another $3 billion this quarter, Intel needs to save money to fuel Gelsinger’s turnaround plan.
It’s tricky to pick apart, on the basis of quarterly movements, whether investors truly don’t trust Gelsinger’s IDM 2.0 strategy will work or whether they’re just avoiding swallowing the short-term costs. Gelsigner, at least, has said he thinks there’s a hypocrisy to stakeholder attitudes.
“The investors are negative and everybody is cheering us on,” Gelsinger told analyst Ben Thompson last year. “Put your freaking money where your mouth is if you’re going to say it.”
Sometimes faith and financing just don’t go hand in hand.
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