Freescale Needs to Divide to Conquer

Freescale should get ready for change. I visited the Austin-based chip maker yesterday to talk about wireless and networking chips as well as broad trends in the industry, and walked away realizing that the firm needs to split itself up in order to survive.

The company has some very cool technology — especially around its multicore processors for embedded systems such as printers, storage arrays and routers — and a huge base of users for its Power architecture. But it has too many areas of focus. In the next two years, it’s unlikely that the company will have the same combination of businesses it has today.

Specialization is key in the chip-making industry because it allows a company to allocate its R&D more effectively, optimize manufacturing processes and generally improve profits. Freescale, which makes chips for automobiles, RFID systems, cell phones, base stations, networking equipment and industrial applications, designs both high-volume chips at advanced process nodes and low-volume chips that require a lot of manufacturing tweaks.

It’s likely that Freescale’s private equity owners will divide the company along the lines the firm established late last year: networking and multimedia; microcontrollers; cellular; and RF, sensors and analog. Each of the divisions made more than $1 billion in 2007 and could be combined with similar divisions at other firms such as Infineon, Broadcom, STMicroelectronics or even Intersil. Earlier this year, Freescale got a new CEO (from Intersil) with M&A experience, so change is certainly in the air.

For Freescale, It’s Beyer to the Rescue

When Freescale Semiconductor named Richard Beyer as CEO on Wednesday, many of my friends at the company felt the faint stirrings of hope. Freescale, which was spun off from Motorola in December 2004, is a kind of wallflower in the chip world.

It has some good products, but it also has some real problems that need solving before it can live up to the expectations set by its $17.6 billion buyout in September 2006. The buyout left Freescale saddled with $9.5 billion in debt. That’s a lot for a company that reported sales of $5.72 billion last year, down from $6.36 billion in 2006.

Freescale has three big problems. The first is that about a quarter of its sales come from its former parent, which is having a tough time all its own. The second is that it’s in so many markets — some of which are growing — while Freescale is standing still. The third and final problem lies in the fact that former CEO Michel Mayer was not the kind of leader needed to take a newly independent company down its own road.

Beyer may solve the third problem if he can step into his job in mid-March, listen to managers and figure out a strategy (likely involving a push to analog) that gets Freescale growing in step (or even ahead of) the markets it dominates.

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