As Seagate celebrates our 40th year, we reflect on a history as innovators and on the race ahead to solve the needs of the future and an ever-expanding datasphere. No look at Seagate’s accomplishments and amazing opportunities ahead would be complete without recognizing our founder, Al Shugart, whose birthday is today, September 27.
This week we spoke with Seagate executive chairman Steve Luczo, who shared his memories of Al Shugart and reflected on his legacy.
Luczo joined Seagate in 1993 as senior VP of corporate development, after a career in investment banking. In 1996, Luczo led the acquisition of Conner Peripherals, which resulted in Seagate becoming the world’s largest independent disk drive producer. Luczo remembers an early meeting with Shugart to talk about the Conner acquisition and why it was important for Seagate.
Getting to the core
“I came into Al’s office, thinking I was prepared with all these reasons why we should do it, and Al asked the one question that I hadn’t even thought about,” Luczo said. “I don’t even remember what his question was now, but I came back a week or so later with an answer for him, and Al just said, ‘Yeah, that’s good — let’s do it.’ Al was obviously super bright but he also had this unique clarity, a way of getting to the core of any issue.”
As another example of how Shugart evaluated big issues, Luczo recalled a presentation by the leadership team to evaluate how aggressively Seagate should move into the 1.8-inch mobile HDD market.
“Everybody went back and forth on their opinions, very passionately,” Luczo said. “At the end of the meeting, Al decided the time wasn’t right, and I asked him later if he worried about being late to market. Al’s response was, it’s a lot better being late than too early with a technology. If the market’s not ready for a product, you’re just going to sit on inventory and chew up a lot of capital, and he was absolutely right.”
Despite all of his business success and power, Shugart remained “incredibly humble,” Luczo recalled, with a down-to-earth style (as evidenced by a fondness for colorful Hawaiian shirts) and wry sense of humor. At the same time, Shugart could be mercurial — as Luczo remembered from a quarterly earnings call with analysts.
“Don Waite, who was our CFO at the time, went over the numbers, and then Al got on the call to take questions,” Luczo said. “It was probably a nit-picky question, but Al didn’t like it, and said, ‘That’s a really dumb question and this call is over.’ He hung up, and we’re all just looking at each other, with our mouths open. Al just said, ‘We don’t have time for this nonsense. We have more important things to do.’ Al was a free thinker, with an independent streak. He was a tough kid from a tough background, so in that sense, maybe he was a bit of a maverick.”
Although remembered largely for his entrepreneurial spirit and vision, Shugart was also an underrated “technologist,” Luczo said. “I went into his office once and I saw that he had all of these books spread out on his desk. I asked Al, ‘What are you doing?’ And he was trying to work out all of the implementation points for perpendicular technology. He wanted to know the issues around head design and what that meant for the media and the read-write channel. He was incredibly curious.”
After a downturn in the industry, Luczo replaced Shugart as Seagate’s CEO in 1998; 20 years later, Luczo considers his former boss and mentor to be one of the all-time Silicon Valley greats.
A Silicon Valley great
“Al is right up there with Gordon Moore and Andy Grove of Intel, Steve Jobs, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, or Larry Ellison,” Luczo said. “I was so lucky and blessed to be exposed to Al at such an early age in my career. I was 31 when I joined the company and Al was clearly in his prime. I was so fortunate to have him as a mentor.”
Seagate’s endurance — it’s one of just three hard drive companies left standing today — is the best of all testaments to Al Shugart.
“Al built our company from an idea,” Luczo said. “How many companies survive for 40 years, let alone remain a leader in what’s arguably the most difficult technology arena around? Seagate is still a very fundamental part of our world today. Preserving our history and legacy is one of Seagate’s true competitive strengths. We have amazing people solving phenomenally complex technical problems every day and then figuring out how to manufacture it, with all the infrastructure and support teams underpinning everything. This is an amazing company, and how lucky are we that it all started with Al Shugart?”