Executive Interview: Robert Van Buskirk, RFMD
Robert Van Buskirk is president of RFMD’s Multi-Market Products Group (MPG). He spoke with Microwave Journal editor, David Vye about the technical and business focus of this group as well as details related to RFMD’s acquisition of Sirenza and Filtronic Compound Semiconductor. Robert was one of the plenary session speakers at this year’s IMS conference in Atlanta, presenting “Best of both worlds: Multi-market Diversity embedded in a scale RF semiconductor Business”.
Prior to joining RFMD, Mr. Van Buskirk served as Sirenza’s chief executive officer from May 1999 to November 2007, and as president and director from September 1999 to November 2007. Mr. Van Buskirk previously held the position of executive vice president of business development and operations from August 1998 to May 1999 at Multilink Technology Corporation, a company specializing in the design, development and marketing of high bit-rate electronic products for advanced fiber-optic transmission systems. Prior to his position at Multilink, Mr. Van Buskirk held various management positions at TRW, a semiconductor wafer manufacturer, including executive director of the TRW GaAs telecom products business from 1993 to August 1998. Mr. Van Buskirk holds a B.A. from California State University at Long Beach.
MWJ: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, Bob. You joined RFMD in 2007, coming on-board with their acquisition of Sirenza where you served as President and CEO. Could you tell us how this acquisition came about?
RV: My interactions with RFMD® extend back into the early 1990s when I was at TRW Space & Defense. I was tasked at that time to find ways to commercialize some of our microelectronics technology, and one of those feature technologies was gallium arsenide HBT (GaAs HBT). So, at the encouragement of our government through a DARPA program, called the Mimic Program, we opened the door as a foundry. RFMD came through that door as well as a couple of other end customers, one of which was Nokia who said to me at TRW, “We’d really like to see if what we believe about GaAs HBT in terms of its ability to operate from a single-supply voltage and its efficiency of operation can extend the talk time of cellular handsets. We started working with RFMD when they were a very small but exciting new company and that relationship extended over many years. I joined Sirenza Microdevices (at that time called Stanford Microdevices) in 1999 as president and CEO. At that time Sirenza was also a very small and exciting company, sharing many attributes with RFMD. Through the years I kept in regular contact with key members of the RFMD management team and we’d talk periodically about the potential for joining forces at some point. That dialogue continued up into 2007, and in the late summer of 2007 we agreed to be acquired. The acquisition of Sirenza was completed in November 2007.
The merger with RFMD came about largely because we saw an opportunity to become an important part of RFMD’s diversification strategy. The selling point from RFMD was the importance of the drive to diversify RFMD’s business and the interest in creating a Multi-Market Products Group, with Sirenza as the foundation for that group. This fit the Sirenza strategic vision at that time very well. As a fabless, much smaller stand-alone company, we were starting to run into barriers where we did not have technology or scale or, in some cases, the ability to reach the levels of integration our customers were seeking. Consequently, by partnering with RFMD and getting access to technology, scale and technologies and products to accelerate our integration roadmaps, we can now, as the Multi-Market Products Group, far better serve those customers.
MWJ: How has the merging of the two companies progressed? Has it been a good cultural fit?
RV: I think I’d answer the second part of the question first. One of the things we took great effort to fully explore was the cultures between the two companies. Since I had some familiarity with RFMD, I felt secure in my assessment of the cultural fit. However, I had to make sure that the view was the same for the management team and top contributors at Sirenza. During the due diligence process, a key criterion for us was, “Is there a good cultural fit throughout the organization?” And the answer was yes, that’s why we’re here today. It was important to us to partner with an RF company. It was also, important for us to partner with a company that understands the types of products and technologies we need, and who had exposure to our key customers. And, quite frankly, what Sirenza represented at the time of the merger was essentially where RFMD originally started. RFMD was originally an RF components company serving a diverse set of end markets and customers. Over time, RFMD largely became known as a handset component supplier. The merger fits in a lot of different dimensions but the culture compatibility is a strong fit.
Now the first part of the question. The merger is going extremely well. We just completed our first full quarter and we met all expectations and in some cases exceeded them. Just like any significant merger of two companies there are always a lot of issues that fall under the “blocking and tackling” category, but fundamentally and structurally, the merger has progressed very smoothly. Our customers are pleased with the broader and deeper capabilities we have now and with the potential for products and technologies we can offer them over the long term. We have always believed that one of the strengths in our RFMD/Sirenza combination was in our channels to market. RFMD had some very strong channels in areas where Sirenza was not as strong, and the inverse of that was true as well. So by combining our marketing and selling channels we’ve actually significantly strengthened the MPG global reach.
In the merger we were also looking for what we call “hard synergies” –up to $7m of near-term cost-savings--through public company expense, insurance, facilities, duplicate resources and so forth. We’ve actually achieved everything we set out to achieve in the “hard synergies” area and now we’re starting to find opportunities to realize what we call “soft synergies,” such as supply chain benefits. RFMD has a much more robust, worldwide scale supply chain so we can purchase a wide range of raw materials much cheaper than we could at Sirenza. In the area of wafer sourcing, we had some common wafer fabs, i.e. external foundries, that we used so we now get better pricing because of RFMD’s scale. So from a cultural fit, a financial synergy standpoint, hard and soft synergies, from a channels-to-market standpoint, the integration activities have gone very well.
MWJ: A press release at the time of the acquisition states that some of the driving factors behind the merger were RFMD’s desire to penetrate into high-growth markets, to diversify RFMD’s customer base and to improve RFMD’s margin profile. Reading between the lines, should one conclude that much of the handset PA market has become commoditized and that chip makers are concerned about shrinking profits?
RV: I would say almost everybody in the components/electronics industry is concerned with compression of gross margins driven by aggressive pricing worldwide, so we’re not immune to that. However, RFMD’s diversification effort was primarily focused on re-leveraging and re-monitizing IP and scale that already exists in the Cellular Products Group (CPG) into multi-market applications. And in those multi-market applications, performance often is at a very high premium. Price is always important but performance is also a premium. Since the volumes aren’t there to drive the pricing curves, you can often – because you’ve got a diverse set of end markets and customers – maintain a higher gross margin in those end market applications than you can in the high volume, scale business like cellular handsets. Essentially in the cellular handset market there are five OEMS. RFMD does a very good job selling to all five, but again there are only five, which means you’re putting a great deal of pricing pressure, or pricing leverage I should say, in the hands of a few customers. In our business, we serve more than thirty end markets. We have five business units, and literally thousands of different customers so we’re able to diffuse some of that customer pricing leverage.
MWJ: What were some of the products in the Sirenza portfolio and the markets served that were especially attractive to RFMD at the time of the acquisition?
RV: Frankly it was more about the market diversity than the specific product portfolio that made Sirenza an attractive acquisition target. We bring to RFMD the ability to re-use, re-monitize existing RFMD technology and products and as well as to continue to serve a global, diverse set of end markets and customers with existing Sirenza RF components.
MWJ: You were named President of RFMD’s new Multi-Market Products Group (MPG) which was announced the day after the completion of the Sirenza acquisition. What is the focus of this group and is it composed primarily of the former Sirenza organization?
RV: I was named president of the group and it really is, as the name implies, to diversify RFMD’s business. Our charter is to penetrate a wide range of global markets, serve a diverse global customer base, introduce many new products utilizing legacy product development underway from Sirenza, but also to bring in some new development activity that was and is underway at RFMD. For example, we’re targeting releasing more than 100 new products in our fiscal ’09 period, which is roughly 25-30 products a quarter, and we’re well on track to do that. The primary focus is to grow the business, grow it profitably, and to diversify RFMD’s business.
MWJ: That’s an impressive number of new products. Your engineering team must be quite busy. What are some of your biggest challenges winning in market share?
RV: One of the challenges we faced as Sirenza and one the merger is intended, in effect, to address, is that many customers we serve in Aerospace & Defense, Broadband & Consumer, Wireless Connectivity and Wireless Infrastructure –setting aside Standard Products for the moment—are strongly driving to narrow their supply base. Constantly we’ve been told over the past few years, “You need to sell us more”—“not only do you need to get bigger, but you need to give us a broader product portfolio.” In addition, they’ve been telling us, “You have to give us higher levels of integration.” As a stand-alone company as I mentioned earlier, we were starting run into barriers in terms of the breadth of our products and the level of integration we could offer. The companies that can do all of that--obviously do it at the right price and performance—are going to be the ones that win the market share. By partnering with RFMD, we are confident we’ve addressed this major challenge. We are much bigger, we have much more to offer customers in product breadth and in integration levels. In particular, the IP re-use we can offer as we have in our ICC product line, is a level of integration that as a stand-alone R&D project would probably not make most financial hurdles as Sirenza; but with the scale we now have in CPG and because we already have developed the IP, we’re able to meet the integration needs of the MPG customers much more quickly and cost-effectively.
MWJ: So potential customers in these diverse markets wanted to reduce their supply base but first you needed to be big enough to meet their needs and your products needed to be more integrated and priced appropriately. Merging with RFMD would certainly help address the size issue. Let’s talk about integration from a technical perspective. RFMD has always touted their Optimum Technology Matching® including AlGaAs HBT, InGaP HBT, GaAs pHEMT and Si CMOS as a key advantage. Additionally, RFMD has developed new technologies, such as micro-electro-mechanical-systems (MEMS), GaAs E/D pHEMT, GaAs BiFET and wafer-level-packaged (WLP) SAWs and duplexers. Does the Multi-market Product Group leverage all these technologies or are certain technologies more critical to the markets you are pursuing? Can you give us an example of how some of these different technologies are combined for a unique and superior solution?
RV: The question is Optimum Technology Matching® and if MPG avails itself of AlGaAs HBT, InGaP HBT, GaAs pHEMTs and BiFETS, and so forth…the answer is “Yes, whenever we can.” One of the things we did as a fabless semiconductor company was go to the best technology for the solution regardless of who owned it. So we were very adept at moving to new technologies and deploying them into our end markets because we were not wedded to any particular type of technology. So the answer is,”Yes, we do use all of these technologies in some form or another.”
MWJ: Will time to market be a key concern to being successful, is this one of your group’s strengths?
RV: Yes, always. You can almost refer to it more as “time to money” as opposed to time to market. What we’re all about is developing innovative RF products, or RF components, faster than the competition. And because of that we can release 25-30 products per quarter. Not all of those will be superstar products, but many of them will be significant contributors. And it’s all about how quickly we can turn ideas into revenue and into profit. In fact, one definition of innovation is the speed at which you convert ideas into revenue and profits. And so, time to market is very important for us in our business. We don’t place a lot of very, very large R&D bets. We don’t have very large project teams working multi-year projects. We place many smaller bets in our R&D effort but just by the sheer volume and sheer speed at which we can hit the market with these products, we can basically create a tremendous amount of energy and momentum. But we must do that efficiently and quickly or we can certainly get bogged down and lose opportunities. I would definitely say it’s a strategic goal of ours to be faster to market than our competitors. Our mission is to develop products faster than the competition.
MWJ: Is your group also focused on reducing development and manufacturing costs or is the emphasis on addressing the engineering challenges that will allow you to move into markets where the need for leading technology commands higher prices?
RV: Each group within RFMD is separately resourced so I put together an operating plan and go to the CEO and then get product development resources based on that operating plan. And embedded in that plan are MPG dedicated resources for sales, marketing, applications, engineering, and for product development; we in fact have our own dedicated MPG engineering teams in our business units.
The question is, “Where do we work on development and manufacturing costs improvement…” We have centralized operations and supply chain teams and we rely on these centralized groups to drive cost improvements in the supply chain, to drive cost improvements in the wafer fab, to drive cost improvements in packaging vendors and sub-contractors. The benefit to us is we get to ride along, if you will, with the scale that’s been given by the handset side. In fact, as an example, there are certain packaging vendors or subcons where Sirenza as a stand-alone company did not have enough scale or volume to get in the door. But now because we’re a part of RFMD, we’re already inside that door. We can get access to much better pricing, much better service, much better volume commitment from subcons.
MWJ: Great. Size to the rescue, again! RFMD has forecasted growth in calendar year 2008 based on extending the company's reach into complementary cellular product categories, including cellular mode switches, filters, duplexers and other high performance components for cellular handsets. Are these products coming out of the MPG?
RV: We are forecasting growth in calendar 2008, which is largely our FY-09 timeframe. The products are listed here are complementary cellular products that are actually being developed by the Cellular Products Group. Cellular mode switches, duplexers, other components for cellular would all be developed by the CPG group. We have, as I previously said, our own R&D budgets, and our own engineers working on products outside of handset applications.
MWJ: Will your group emphasize the development of more customized RF parts? If so, how will this reflect on your needs for engineering talent?
RV: This is really an important question for us and again it gets back to the reason we combined with RFMD. Our customers again said, “Get bigger, sell us more and give us more integration.” And so the integration I read into the question here is customized RF products. I prefer to refer to them in our market as “semi-customized.” They’re really not a single-point solution for a very high-volume socket like a cellular front-end module or something like that, but they’re platforms that can be semi-customized for various applications where we can hopefully reuse the IP. The ICC product line is an excellent example of –from our vantage point—a very customized solution that clearly looks like a semi-customized solution. But it’s a “slice” of functionality that can be semi-customized to a wide range of the types of customers we serve. We’ve actually started to bring in engineers from the Cellular Products Group to work within MPG to specifically target product applications where a deep radio systems knowledge which is critical.
MWJ: I like that concept of semi-customized. It implies you’ll be leveraging current know-how (in some cases using the CPG) with development to address the specific needs of your customers with fast turn around. I had recently read that part of MPG’s charter is to leverage the range of RFMD technologies, products and supply chain to better serve a broad base of end markets and global customers including: Mil/Aero, Broadband/consumer, wireless connectivity, infrastructure and those requiring standard RF components. Is any one of these end markets getting the lion’s share of your group’s attention?
RV: I guess you would have to define “attention.” If it means are we expecting all of them to grow and are we managing all of these business units for growth, the answer is “Yes.” They’re all getting equal attention in terms of expectations for growth and contribution. I would say that the group we currently expect to grow the fastest in FY09 is our Wireless Connectivity Business Unit because they have some very interesting, higher volume sockets for mobile devices and laptops, where our products could get into unit volumes of tens of millions per quarter in a very short amount of time. The Wireless Connectivity Business Unit may in fact be the fastest growing product area, but for example, looking at our Standard Products Group, in many ways it’s our most profitable. It may not be the fastest growing but it’s the leader in terms of overall operating income contribution at the group level. So, not any one business unit is getting a disproportionate share of R&D resources relative to their ability to contribute. We expect them all to be supportive of MPG’s key financial goals: to grow revenue 20 percent per year, to deliver gross margins approaching 50 percent, and to have operating margins approaching 20 percent. So we expect them all to share in driving our success.
MWJ: Could you describe the more challenging supply chain requirements today and how RFMD has uniquely addressed product development, manufacturing and delivery?
RV: Being a small stand-alone company like Sirenza, we would often suffer because we were not getting the priorities we needed in our supply chain. Often it was simple things like PCB supply,epoxy, capacitors, resistors or housings—usually we had a pretty good handle on the wafer sourcing. So generally it was likely raw materials that caused use the most heartburn in this area. Because of the scale in the RFMD supply chain and because of its global reach, we’re comforted by the fact that we believe when we go through business cycles with adequate materials supplies and “head of the class” priorities.
MWJ: How big or small you are certainly seems to change the rules of the game. In the press release announcing the formation of MPG ( November 14, 2007) one stated goal was to enhance component and semiconductor wafer sourcing. Was this the principle motive behind the Filtronic Compound Semiconductor acquisition? Does this GaAs fab now fall under the MPG organizational umbrella?
RV: The major motivation for the acquisition was that RFMD over the years had sourced a large number of pHEMT switch product wafers from Filtronic. Late December last year it was announced that Filtronic Compound Semiconductor was being sold to a large defense contractor . We engaged Filtronic and subsequently announced the deal to acquire that business. If you look at the financial details we announced, I think we paid, net of cash on hand, about $23 million for Filtronic Compound Semiconductors. We got something on the order of more than $40 million in tax credits that we’ll be able to use to offset tax in the UK as we produce wafers for CPG and MPG. We also got in the deal approximately $10 million in high-value inventory in-house at Filtronic when the deal closes; so when you go through all the math, just buying the wafer fab looks to be a very positive financial move and clearly it’s a very important strategic move for RFMD to bring that GaAs capacity in-house. Now, forward-looking, it’s also financially sound because of the accounting for that very large, highly cost effective wafer fab. This fab asset will directly benefit MPG because pHEMT switches fabricated at what we now call RFMD UK do find their way into products that we sell today. And if the benefits I’ve outlined is not enough, additionally we also got another product line that belongs to MPG: a microwave and millimeter wave IC business. This product line is sold to European aerospace and defense customers as well as point-to-point radio customers, such as Ericsson, Nera, and Nokia-Siemens. So all in all, in the deal we got a wafer fab at a tremendous value and we got a high-margin, microwave and millimeter wave product line for MPG. In summary the wafer fab operation reports into our global operations organization and the IC-based business reports to MPG’s Wireless Infrastructure Business Unit.
MWJ: Wow - that sounds like a fantastic move. I’m reminded of when Gordon Moore of Intel observed the doubling of transistors per integrated circuit was doubling every two years (what would become known as Moore’s law). This information helped him and his management team in deciding what their future manufacturing capability would need to be. As we all know, Intel was able to invest wisely and build capacity that was right for the pending demand yet far ahead of their competitors. This in turn, gave them a near monopoly in their space for years. It’s been about six month’s since the formation of the MPG. How is the organization coming together in its first year and what are some of your immediate goals as a group?
RV: It is in fact very close to the six-month anniversary. I think I talked about it earlier in the answer I gave on the acquisition integration. The group has come together extremely well and as I said, we met our revenue target for the March quarter of $50 million. We’re looking to grow 15 percent to 20 percent sequentially in our June quarter, taking revenue up into the $60+ million range. We also recently reaffirmed our commitment for MPG to deliver $250 million in revenue in our fiscal ’09 period. And if you take the $51 million as your starting point, and on the high end put the 20 percent sequential growth, you’re already at a $250 million run rate for the year. So we’re off to a good start, and that’s always a good barometer of how you’ve come together and if the acquisition has gone well. The customers are increasingly buying more from us so that’s a good sign. We have an aggressive but achievable set of financial goals for the year and we clearly have very definite product development goals that I outlined earlier. We’ve added sales resources in Europe and we’ve expanded our sales and marketing footprint in Greater Asia. I would say the major MPG goals we currently have for this year are to complete the final stages of the Sirenza integration, to complete the integration of Filtronic, and, to meet our financial targets for the year. We want our customers to think of us when they think of RF components for multi-market applications.
MWJ: Are there any particular products or technologies that you feel need special mention because of the impact you think they will have on the market?
RV: We have high hopes for the ICC product line that we recently launched because of its unique flexibility. We believe it’s unique because of a customer’s ability to buy functionality, so to speak “off the shelf,” that you can’t get anywhere else at the volume levels at very competitive prices. Our customers are starting to find very creative ways to apply and use these products and we’re very excited about that. I mentioned earlier an exciting new semiconductor technology at RFMD: gallium nitride. As we move toward full qualification of that process later this calendar year, we have a whole range of customers anxiously awaiting products. The cable TV end market is certainly an end market where there is a very near-term benefit/payoff for us when we get our GaN into full-scale production. Many, many last-mile CATV distribution systems are moving the optical nodes closer to the end user, which means that the line amplifiers are going to be carrying signals/channels over more bandwidth. The “triple-play” is something the cable companies are pushing very hard: voice, video and data. The HD video side is really the driver in this upgrading effort. In order to get more HDTV and more bandwidth to individual subscribers, line amplifiers have to be much more linear in their performance, and, of course they have to be cost-effective at the same time. Our GaN technology is a perfect fit for these applications and we are already sampling GaN-based products to our key customers.
MWJ: Are configurable components a part of your strategy to address multiple low-volume markets, profitably?
RV: Yes, in fact it’s a key part. We can reuse IP, which means the below-the-line investment cost for these ICC products is dramatically lowered. And consequently, we can serve price-sensitive commercial as well as high-performance, less price-sensitive markets with the ICC products. We can provide customers the integration and performance they demand much faster and much cheaper. So we definitely believe that non-scale markets can be served best by this ICC approach.
MWJ: Last question. After the company merger, I see you moved to North Carolina. Are you having fun?
RV: I’m having a great deal of fun. I relocated to Colorado from California back in 2003 and so here five years later, I’ve relocated to North Carolina. It’s a very exciting time for me personally but also for what we’ve built. To see what we built at Sirenza merge into and continue to grow as a part of RFMD is very exciting. I have high hopes for MPG’s ability to contribute to RFMD’s growth and profitability. And I think our customers are very pleased with this industry consolidation step we’ve taken. So, it’s very exciting and I’m having a great deal of fun.
MWJ: Well, Bob thank you so much for your time today. I feel very enlightened and would like to wish you the very best of luck in your new role.