2011 IEEE Medal of Honor for outstanding leadership in the semiconductor industry
Current job: Founder, chairman, CEO of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.
Date of birth: 10 July 1931
Birthplace: Ningbo, China
Family: Wife, Sophie; one daughter fromfirst marriage; two stepdaughters
First job: Typing papers in college
Most recent books read: Fall of Giants by Ken Follett; Decision Points by George W. Bush
Favorite music: Classical through Gustav Mahler
Computer used most often: BlackBerry
Favorite restaurant: The Four Seasons, New York City
Favorite movies: The Third Man, Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve
Even in the very anomalous category of tech entrepreneurs who've become pop stars, Morris Chang is an anomaly. He's 79 years old, and unlike Steve Jobs, who makes stylish consumer gear, or Mark Zuckerberg, who runs the world's largest social network and is the subject of a major motion picture, Morris Chang runs a semiconductor foundry. It's a big one, to be sure: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), in Hsinchu, is by far the world's largest foundry company, with annual revenues last year of about US $13.3 billion. And yet, the foundry business isn't what most people would regard as the glamour sector of the semiconductor industry—a foundry is basically a fab-for-hire. Companies create their own designs and pay the foundry to manufacture the chips.
Chang is credited with pioneering the foundry concept, in 1987, when he founded TSMC with backing from the Taiwanese government and Netherlands-based Philips Electronics. For that achievement, Chang will receive the 2011 IEEE Medal of Honor.
Like many radical ideas, the foundry concept did not seem so brilliant at first. But the business took off, with TSMC dominating it in a way that few companies have ever dominated any industry. Today TSMC's revenues account for almost half those of the entire foundry industry. And its operating profits—about $5.3 billion last year—were an astounding 90 percent of the whole global foundry industry's.
As TSMC's revenues soared, so too did Morris Chang's stature in Taiwan, where he is a national hero unlike any other. His smiling face appears on billboards endorsing consumer gadgets, real estate, and other goods. Even in his own company, work stops and people stare when he walks down a hall.
Checking out of my hotel in Hsinchu, I decide to test Chang's fame. "Is this your first visit to Taiwan?" the desk clerk asks politely. She looks to be about 25 years old. "Yes," I say. "I was here to meet with Morris Chang." Her voice jumps nearly an octave. "Oh, really? How exciting!" she yelps. "That must have been so, so…." Her English fails her. I feel sorry that I hadn't mentioned it sooner; I could have gotten his autograph for her and really made her day.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as the old saying goes. Chang wasn't trying to reinvent the semiconductor industry when he started TSMC. He did it because government officials in Taiwan wanted him to start a semiconductor business, and with Taiwan weak in both design and marketing, he didn't see any other way.
Chang had no idea that he was launching a technological revolution, the likes of which the semiconductor industry had not seen since, arguably, the rollout of user-programmable logic devices during the previous decade. Suddenly, entrepreneurs could create semiconductor businesses around chips without the huge expenditure of cash and effort it takes to open a semiconductor fabrication facility; all they had to do was design a chip and then market it. Thus was born the "fabless" semiconductor industry, which racked up $73.6 billion in revenues last year. A surprising number of today's hottest high-tech companies got their start in TSMC's factories—telecommunications pioneers Broadcom and Qualcomm, graphics powerhouses Nvidia and ATI, mobile device innovator Marvell, programmable logic creator Altera—and their products continue to roll off TSMC's manufacturing lines today.
"Morris Chang completely changed the landscape of the semiconductor industry," says James Plummer, dean of the school of engineering at Stanford. "He enabled start-ups to start with a few million dollars rather than a few hundred million. That makes a huge difference."