Andy Grove, who has died aged 79, drove Intel to dominate the global market for the microprocessors used in modern computers. Along the way he transformed himself from a techno-geek into a management guru before becoming – after Time magazine made him its Man of the Year in 1997 – a figurehead and mentor for the rest of Silicon Valley. Time called him the “person most responsible for the amazing growth in the power and innovative potential of microchips”.
Grove was Intel’s first employee when the company was founded in 1968, and was responsible for getting the firm out of the memory chip business – where it was being beaten by the Japanese – and into microprocessors. But when he eventually became chief executive in 1987, Intel’s annual sales had fallen for four straight years to $1.3bn, it was closing factories, laying off thousands of staff, and running at a loss – “heading for bankruptcy” in the words of Richard Tedlow, Grove’s biographer.
By 1998, its turnover had grown to $26.3bn, and annual profits reached $6.1bn. Intel’s market capitalisation had also grown by more than 40% a year to $197.6bn, making it one of the world’s most valuable companies.
Intel’s success, like Microsoft’s, stemmed partly from one of its products being used in the market-defining IBM PC in 1981. However, it was Grove who refused to “second source” its much-improved 80386 processor to an alternative supplier, in defiance of IBM – Intel’s biggest customer and major shareholder – and industry tradition. Instead, he built expensive new chip factories on different continents to ensure uninterrupted supplies. The success of the Compaq Deskpro 386 and similar PCs running Microsoft Windows marked a transfer of industry power from “Big Blue” to “Wintel”.
Under Grove, Intel also switched from using numbers to names that it could trademark (the 586 became the Pentium), and started marketing to consumers over the heads of its actual customers, the PC manufacturers. This transformed a parts manufacturer into a global brand, known for the bong sound that accompanied its “Intel Inside” logo in television adverts.
Grove took scary risks, and he wanted everyone at Intel running scared. “Business success contains the seeds of its own destruction,” he said. “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” The final phrase became a motto and the title of one of his bestselling management books.
Grove ran Intel from an almost standard office cubicle, not a fancy office, and was happy to adopt an informal approach: at more than one industry conference he danced on stage in a cleanroom “bunny suit” to the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive. He introduced a system of “constructive confrontation”, which often meant shouting at people, and a former chief financial officer recalled that “Grove loved to fight.” However, arguments had to be won with data. For Grove, “knowledge power” always trumped “position power”. What you knew was more important than your job title, and workers could know more than managers.
Of course, Grove had been at Intel from the start and knew the business from top to bottom. He had done everything from writing scientific papers and winning patents to teaching courses at Stanford University’s business school. But he made a point of sending people short, handwritten “Andygrams” when he was wrong.
The auto-didactic approach spilled over into his personal life. After being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1995, he researched the field thoroughly enough to overrule his doctor. The data convinced him to refuse surgery and opt for an alternative called radiation seeding (brachytherapy). It worked. Grove was less successful after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000, though he tried to shake up the medical establishment and donated cash to foundations sponsoring research.
He was born András István Gróf into a middle-class Jewish family in Budapest, the only son of George, a partner in a dairy business, and his wife, Maria. The young Grove and his mother spent the second world war hiding from the Nazis – who had taken his father into a labour camp – until a Stalinist dictatorship replaced the fascist one. When the Hungarian uprising was put down in 1956, Grove fled to Austria, crawling across the border. He never went back, but eventually was able to bring both his parents to the US. The International Rescue Committee got him to New York, where he had a cousin, and after his arrival in early 1957 he changed his name to Andrew Grove. While working as a busboy in a restaurant he met a fellow refugee: a waiter called Eva Kastan. They married in 1958.
Partly deaf and unable to speak much English, Grove enrolled at the City College of New York to study chemical engineering. He graduated at the top of his class – which merited a mention in the New York Times – before gaining a PhD at the University of California in Berkeley in 1963. After graduation he was hired by the businessman Gordon Moore to help out with research and development at California’s first chip company, Fairchild Semiconductor. Grove then joined Moore and Robert Noyce to start Intel in 1968, and served the company until 2004, when he retired as chairman of the board. Although he was a rich man, being an Intel employee rather than a co-founder cost him billions of dollars.
Grove is survived by Eva, by two daughters, and by eight grandchildren.
• Andrew Stephen Grove (András István Gróf), computer engineer, born 2 September 1936; died 21 March 2016