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Chip CFOs get a crash course in silicon geopolitics

We're searching for a financial officer who can look beyond the numbers, semiconductor biz CEO tells us

Analysis Chief financial officers at chip companies are getting a crash course in global dynamics as component shortages and a highly charged semiconductor leadership battle between countries determine business decisions.

The fundamentals of the microchip business haven’t changed, though its CFOs have to be – if they are not already – savvy in understanding geopolitics and intellectual property, especially with chip technologies being considered important to national security.

“CFOs have to play a key role in understanding the geopolitical environment that's shaping – where should we invest, in which region?" Syed Alam, managing director and global lead for the semiconductor practice at Accenture Strategy, told The Register.

"I think these things are going to become more and more important going forward."

The ability to be a negotiator and navigate geopolitical issues are critical, given chip acquisition deals are under tighter scrutiny and take much longer than before, Alam said.

AMD closed a $49bn all-stock acquisition of Xilinx this week after the Chinese government took longer than expected to approve the deal. Nvidia last week walked away from a $66bn deal to buy Arm following objections from regulators on competition and national security grounds.

Humi Esaka, CEO at semiconductor designer Ambiq Micro, is searching for a chief financial officer who can look beyond the numbers. The fabless company’s business is booming thanks to a growing demand for its products that include low-power circuitry in battery-constrained devices, such as wearables.

Humi himself is trying to jump geopolitical hoops and striking a balance with customers in countries that include the United States and China.

“The geopolitical reasons as well as the success of the company requires me to have a CFO who can look up to various exit options, as well as the acquiring some of the talent and company in IP and also mitigating someone's geopolitical risk,” Humi told The Register.

Chip manufacturer CFOs are also driving record investments in factories to make components for the future. Intel and Samsung are opening multibillion-dollar fabs, and are also championing US legislation that will open up $52bn funds for the companies to establish new factories.

Intel last month appointed David Zinsner as CFO; Zinsner was previously CFO at Micron, where he talked about the impact of shutting down a Chinese DRAM facility in Xi'an following the city’s lock down due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

“The role of CFOs has changed in the last two years – there is more pressure to actually invest more in manufacturing and then build more capacity,” Accenture’s Alam said.

The field diversifies

Traditionally, the chip industry has been conservative on investing in new factories as the possibility of at-times idle infrastructure wasn’t attractive. Many chip companies in the 1990s had their own factories, though the frequent downturns and financial and maintenance burdens led companies like AMD and Motorola to divest manufacturing assets. AMD turned to a fabless model, an approach Nvidia, for one, used to its advantage from the start.

The pressure on chip manufacturer CFOs is now to avoid over-investment in factories by understanding whether the demand for chips is sustainable, or whether it’s just a huge blip.

The demands for investments are more and the size of the investments are also getting more

“The demands for investments are more and the size of the investments are also getting more,” Alam said, adding, “the design cost is also increasing as you are getting into more sophisticated leading node designs and things like that."

Intel has committed $20bn to opening a new fab near Columbus, Ohio by 2025. The funding provided by the government may not amount to much, but geography plays a role in striking a balance on investments in fabs and filling them up properly, S&P Global analyst John Abbott told The Register.

“That means getting relationships from the other chip companies that still have a fabless model,” Abbott said.

Jim McGregor, an analyst at Tirias Research, singled out Devinder Kumar’s body of work as AMD’s CFO for providing a strong financial foundation that helped CEO (and now also board chair) Lisa Su take the company to new heights. Kumar took over as CFO in 2013, and his cost-structure control helped keep the struggling processor company afloat and absorb years of losses. He also secured manufacturing capacity with GlobalFoundries while minimizing the financial impact on the company.

On the other hand, Intel’s Robert Swan, who was promoted from CFO to CEO, in 2019 cut R&D spending for the first time in close to a decade. He subsequently resigned, and R&D spending went up again under new CEO Pat Gelsinger, who has made manufacturing a big part of the company’s future.

Semiconductors are extremely complicated, and have unique demand and supply dynamics that are difficult for outsiders to understand, Accenture’s Alam said. “Because of this unique nature, you don't see semiconductor companies hiring CFOs from outside. Most of the CFOs are hired or promoted within the industry,” he predicted. ®

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