DECEMBER 15, 2010
Frank G. Hickey
Among the unforgettable characters I knew in industry, Frank G. Hickey was among the brightest and most likable. Frank joined General Instrument Corporation (GI), became CEO in 1975, and retired from active management in 1990.
I knew of GI, as they were called in the electronic industry, but because their semiconductor ambitions were in the game market I didn’t track them as I did close competitors, however I did see occasional pieces in the Wall Street Journal, often quoting Hickey.
Having missed the presidency of Harris Corporation by one vote I took a flyer with an electronic Holter Monitoring company, which is worth a magazine length article all by itself.
After a tussle with German investors I left and was funded by Intermedics, a pacemaker company principally, to create a similar product. After a couple of years the Intermedics board decided to dump several divisions, ours being one of them.
As I negotiated the sale of the company, I got a call from Frank, who had drastically lost market share in their integrated circuit (IC) company. They retrenched all the IC resources in Chandler, Arizona except for overseas assembly and sales operations. He asked if I was interested in rebuilding the company, renaming it and taking it public.
After a lot of back and forth and visits to New York and Chandler we forged a deal. I would be president and CEO and he would be chairman until the division became an independent company.
After recruiting a board we settled on monthly meetings.
I already knew Frank was a heavy drinker and he measured the quality of men on their ability to match him drink for drink. He was proud of his Irish heritage and their reputation for being able drinkers of adult beverages.
Frank had a casita in Hilton Village in Scottsdale and I often met him at one of the watering spots near there for drinks and dinner. We started with a martini, shared a bottle of wine with dinner and ended with a couple of brandies with desert. Wags at the company who knew Frank and had transferred from the New York office would tell me to hurry and go public before my liver gave out.
Frank had waited a long time to take delivery of a Ferrari Boxer and when he drove away in it after an evening of imbibing he would drive down the road erratically. I wondered why I was the one who narrowly missed DUI arrests. He was a big man maybe six feet five inches and heavy so he looked like he was driving a toy car as he weaved away.
Wall Street friends had no use for Frank, but as history was formed it was they who lacked the vision and corporate abilities, not Frank.
One of the biggest measures of his acumen was his behavior in board meetings. Frank would listen more than talk. Often he asked for a time out to go out for breakfast, claiming hunger. His breakfast was a quick double martini and then back to the office to continue the board meeting. He sometimes looked ill and belched with his eyes half-closed. But, at the close of the meeting he would summarize what happened in exquisite detail and make suggestions, never demands or orders.
Make no mistake, he would look carefully at the issues and move like lightening. Let me jump ahead for an example.
We finally got an underwriter and wrote a prospectus. I traveled around the country selling our offering at $12.50 per share. In a few weeks the underwriter said they had commitments for all the shares and the GI board voted to sell the company to investors. Then Black Monday happened and the offer was abandoned. There were no more IPOs for seven months.
We updated our prospectus and hit the streets again. The market softened and our underwriter said they could sell the offering with a discount from $12.50 to $10. For reasons I have never understood the board refused that sale and I was summoned to the New York corporate office where Frank’s staff told me to be aware Frank was going to pull the plug.
Frank had a spacious office that overlooked Manhattan. He strode to the huge picture window and told me he was going to “give” the Chandler facilities to their power semiconductor division and he would give me $2 million dollars to get the close down done in six months or less. He handed me a script that scheduled the announcement on Dec. 24.
I protested the announcement date. He stood in front of the giant window, with his back to me and hands clasped behind him, and said, “I don’t know why we have done that, on that date, but we have done it three times.”
Finally he agreed to give me five days to find a buyer and I did, but that is another story.
I’ll never know by whom or why that decision was made, but there was little wiggle room left after the corporation decided to get rid of Microchip Technology.
Nonetheless, he and I worked closely to effect the purchase by a consortium of venture capitalists and continued our relationship, booze, food and all.
We often went to El Chorro where we usually sat at the bar for a while. If a good looking woman was sitting at the bar he would call the bartender over, give him a business card and whisper, “Buy her a drink, give her my card and tell her I am worth $40 mil.” More often than not she would wiggle over, get close, join us for dinner and they would leave together. After all, we were in Scottsdale.
Frank told me he was going to sell GI to Forstman Little and was anxious to see how they increased the value of a company and make money doing it. He remained on the board for a while and then he was removed.
The last I heard from Frank he was going to remain in New York, keep his casita in Scottsdale and go on the board of a California health institution.
Frank died in 2006.
His daughter Stephanie published his obituary in the New York Times. She wrote, “He raged against death during ten years of illness and surgery but left this world gently on the afternoon of his 79th birthday. May he now enjoy the peace and prosperity that a life of success and struggle did not provide.”