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Podcast: Qorvo CEO James Klein

James Klein is president of infrastructure and defense products at Qorvo. Interviewed by Tech Titans’ President/CEO Bill Sproull, James talks about his background, Qorvo’s history, how Qorvo managed to keep their plants healthy even in China and the need to support STEM and diversity efforts.. Part of the discussion focuses on the importance of culture, leadership and the trust of the team. 
Access the podcast directly or through the Tech Titans podcast page.


Transcript
Bill Sproull
0:00
This is Bill Sproull, the CEO of Tech Titans. And I am honored to have with me today James Klein, the president of the infrastructure and defense products group at Qorvo, a semiconductor company with headquarters in Richardson. And James, thanks for being with me today. Appreciate your time very much and your leadership. For those of you that don't know, James was the 2019 Tech Titans Awards Gala, CEO of the Year. And James, it's quite an honor.
 
2
James Klein 
0:28
Well, Bill, thanks. Thanks for making time today. And thanks for having me for this chat. I'm looking forward to it. Again, thanks for the honor of the award last year. It was a tremendous amount of fun. We've done a lot of great stuff here in North Texas, and it's fun to
get recognized. I think my team enjoyed it as well. They've been a big part of what I've been able to accomplish. So thanks, I appreciate it.
 
1
Bill Sproull
0:51
That’s always the case: it takes a team to support the group. Let's just start with a little bit more about you. Tell us a little bit about where you're from and where you went to school -- I know that you have a favorite university -- and maybe a little bit about your career path.
2
James Klein 
1:05
I was in born and raised in Texas. My family was from the Hill Country and then later moved down to South Texas. I was born in South Texas and raised south of San Antonio and went to a small school. I think that had a big part of my development, as I grew up in a rural environment. 
 
I had a lot of jobs that I look back on, and I'm glad that I don't do those today. They were hard jobs. I have a passion for rural America because it had a big part of helping me develop a work ethic. It's also a particular part of the country today that's been struggling over the last 20 years or so. 
 
One of the most important things growing up is I met my wife in high school, and we got married after college. So we've been married for a long time. 
 
I probably messed up at the awards gala, because, when I got the award, I went first and I thanked my team, and I failed to thank my wife. I wasn’t in trouble from my wife, she knows that I really appreciate everything she's done. But I was in trouble from my team. I need to take the opportunity today to thank Mary for everything she's done to help me, including working and paying for my graduate school. 
 
I went to A&M and got a double degree and, yes, we are one of those crazy Aggie families. My dad went there in the ‘50s and was an engineer. I have two brothers and a sister who all went there. Both of my daughters have gone there. If I have anything to do with it, all my grandkids will all go there. The theme with my girls was that you can go to school anywhere you want, but I'm only paying for it if you go to A&M. I maintain a lot of contact with the university. I chair the EE board at A&M. I stay actively involved in the university and, again, it played a big part of helping me develop during that timeframe. 
 
I've always appreciated what A&M does as sort of a balance of academics and real-world experience. We pride ourselves on creating engineers that have a good mix of background on technology but also some common sense and being able to go through the engineering process.
 
1
Bill Sproull
3:39
What was the first job you had out of college?
2
James Klein 
3:41
I went straight to TI. I had multiple job offers but TI was the one in Texas and, it's hard to leave, right? Mary and I loaded up, didn't have a penny to our name and moved to Dallas. I worked for TI for about 12 years until Raytheon bought TI defense business. 
 
TI was and is a fantastic company. I did a lot of development at TI, a tremendous amount of training. I learned a lot about accountability, because it was a culture where you were held accountable for what you needed to accomplish. It was just a fantastic experience for me. 
 
I remember when Raytheon bought TI. Most people were kind of depressed, because we thought, wow, we're leaving this world-class company, and we're going to a company that we didn't really know about, but we thought can't be good. I went to Raytheon and spent another 12 years. It turned out to be fantastic as well. We were scared of the change. But again, Raytheon was and is a world-class company, with world-class execution. 
 
That's one thing that I've learned with those two companies is the discipline about how to execute a business and be disciplined about your financials and the processes that you follow. Great experiences.
 
In 2011, I left a great job at Raytheon and went to a small company called Triquint Semiconductor. The revenue was about a tenth. The number of employees we had was about a twentieth. You can imagine this was a big adjustment for me, but I went there because I wanted to help that company transform, and I wanted to do more work on the commercial side.
 
We merged with RFMD and created Qorvo coming up on six years ago. It's been a fantastic journey as well. I’m getting close to 10 years now with the third company. It’s been a very great broadening experience for me to get to spend time with investors, to spend time in a boardroom, to spend time doing a tremendous amount of international business, which I had done it Raytheon, but it was fairly limited to NATO countries. Right now, with the kind of business we do, we do business all over the world. 
 
It's been a big learning experience for me to be at Qorvo and create something new. It was a tremendous amount of work and very challenging, but also fun (with the branding) to create the font for the name and the color and everything around it. I think it’s met its promises and turned out to be a really world-class company.
1
Bill Sproull
6:47
Tell the audience what is infrastructure and defense products, and then tell us what competitive advantage Qorvo has, maybe its technology?
2
James Klein 
6:57
Qorvo is broken up into two divisions. The largest division is our mobile business. That's where we supply mainly RF and power management chips – semiconductors -- to the mobile handset volume. Every one of your handsets, it doesn't matter where you get it or where you live in the world, if you if you're talking on a mobile phone, you've got a Qorvo chip in there somewhere that's helping you to communicate and help a device run more efficiently. 
 
The other division is what I have the pleasure to run, and it's called infrastructure and defense. There's probably no good name that we could ever come up with, because we really service 14 different markets with a broad variety of products. 
 
Infrastructure for us is around all the data infrastructure. That can be the cellular network, so every base station has got our products in it. It can also be the fiber networks and the cable networks. It can be the wireless network in your house, the wireless infrastructure in your home. Your Wi Fi router definitely has our products in it as well. 
 
Defense is pretty self explanatory. We are a long time a U.S. defense contractor. We supply advanced semiconductors to the defense business and supply the U.S. and all the NATO countries. We're in about almost every major defense platform that exists and been doing that for years. 
 
Our competitive advantage is probably twofold. We win on helping our customers solve their most complex problems. We focus heavily on technology. We think that gives us a good discriminator and also is a long-lasting discriminator. 
 
I don't want to lose focus of that partnering with our customers, because the other thing that we pride ourselves on is not just technology for technology's sake, but making sure that we have a solid partnership built with our customers, so that we can see what problem they need to solve in the future and have the technology ready when they need it. 
 
We're the leader in bulk acoustic wave filtering and also one of the leaders in gallium nitride technology, which are the two new semiconductor things. Both of those are manufactured in Richardson, and a lot of design and development work done is in Richardson as well. Community is important to us, for many reasons, but certainly important to us from a technology perspective.
1
Bill Sproull
9:30
You were talking a little while ago about doing business internationally. I remember you telling a story a few months ago as Covid was really breaking out in China. I know you have production facilities there. I thought it was remarkable that you were able to keep producing in China, and particularly with the track record you had on safety. Can you talk about how you navigated through that?
2
James Klein 
9:51
The pandemic has shown the value of having strong leadership and being proactive as a leadership team. We experienced this earlier than a lot of U.S. companies, because we have manufacturing in China. We've been dealing with the pandemic since January. 
 
We quickly formed a response team, and that team reports into our leadership team. We meet typically three times a week as a senior staff, just associated with COVID, so we can respond quickly. We put in a lot of safety protocols in China, including things like temperature checks, and social distancing rules early, including closing elevators and using one-way stairwells. We were able to keep our factories in China up and running through the whole thing. 
 
In fact, we did not have an employee incident, which was incredibly positive for the company. Paul Faygo runs our worldwide operations organization, and he was incredibly proactive early on. We set up a great team of local leaders to help. 
 
We took those lessons learned and brought them back into our U.S. and European operations. Not just Ops, but all of our design centers and everything else into the U.S.  
 
Today, when you walk into our major facilities in the U.S., we have automatic thermal scanners that scan your temperature that allow you in and out of the building. We've done a lot of work with social distancing in our facilities, and we've been very successful with work from home. The vast majority of our engineering population works from home, and that's been great. Our IT teams have done a fantastic job in getting us up and running. We've got metrics in place to see how well productivity is going and, so far, it's going very well. 
 
Now we're starting to look at what's next. What is the workplace of the future going to look like? How do we adjust? I suspect work from home will be a part of our environment that will last for the long run. But we're also trying to figure out how to stage employees to get back to work into the office for those that need to be there.
1
Bill Sproull
12:24
Do you anticipate those safety protocols, like temperature checks in the factories, just to continue in perpetuity? Is that just thing that's going to stay?
2
James Klein 
12:34
You know, it's early, Bill. I think they will continue until at some point in time that we all agree that the virus isn’t a substantial threat to health. Is that when a vaccine comes along or something else? I'm not sure. But for now, we'll keep that up. We're certainly going to also maintain things like hand sanitizers and our cleaning protocols and social distancing. We're even changing the way our offices are laid out to adjust and make sure that we can keep our employees safe. 
 
I talked earlier about our discriminator. It really is, when it’s all said and done, about the folks that are on the team. We can't do what we need to do if we don't have a world-class team. And we can't do that if we don't keep them safe. It's really important that we keep our people safe and working productively during this environment. 
 
I want to say one other thing, and I think this is important during these times--we didn't stop with lessons learned and use them just in Qorvo. We've been sharing that information very freely. We're a member of several industry organizations, and we sent out our data and our lessons learned in China to the entire industry. 
 
I, personally, have shared that same data set with numerous customers. We have a bit of a community approach here, that we're not just trying to keep Qorvo up and running. We're trying to keep the country and the world, because we shared them in Europe as well and in China. We want to keep everybody up and running and get past a pandemic as quickly as we can.
1
Bill Sproull
14:16
Well, congrats to you and the team for taking the COVID threat seriously, early on and acting on it too. I want to turn back here to North Texas. Why has Qorvo focused on North Texas and expansion here?
2
James Klein 
14:39
It's been a great community for us to be part of for a long period of time.
 
A few years ago we moved into the new headquarters in Richardson, and that's been fantastic. 
 
Our focus on the area has been different things. It's one, a great base of talent. We can hire from the universities in the region. And there's also a lot of competitive companies in the area. 
 
Texas has been a great state to do business in and, and certainly the involvement of things like Tech Titans in North Texas have been very helpful for us. We are a big employer, big taxpayer, a big utility user. Having the partnership with the local community has been very helpful, and I hope we're giving back. 
 
One of the things that's always been fun for me in my career is working in areas where I feel like I’ve done something that helps. Certainly I got that in defense. When I came to a commercial company, at first I sort of missed that because that stuff is right in front of you that you were saving lives.
 
When I came to commercial company at first, maybe I missed that, then I realized what we we’re doing is very helpful. 
 
Now, when you look at COVID, can you imagine a world where you couldn't do this, couldn’t be connected, where your mobile phones didn't work and you couldn't shop online? The value that Qorvo is bringing today and being able to connect, is having a huge impact now in the way society continues to move forward. It's been very rewarding during this timeframe to not just help our company keep up and running and people's jobs going, but knowing that we're really helping the whole world move forward.
 
1
Bill Sproull
Speaking about helping the world and helping locally, Qorvo and you personally and some of your leadership team are deeply involved with our STEM efforts and what Tech Titans is doing to inspire the next generation of technologists. You spend a lot of time personally hosting young students, interns and college kids. Why? 
 
2
James Klein 
One, it's just a passion for me, trying to help. I've always tried to mentor kids through college.
 
But to be honest, it's a business imperative as well. Look at a business like mine. We've been growing almost 20% a year for the long run here. We can't do that if we can't bring great employees in. We need this next generation of kids coming out of the STEM environment. 
 
The U.S. is really built on this sort of great high-tech culture. If we don't have kids in STEM coming out of colleges that are going to feed that when all the old guys like me retire, we're going to be in a world of hurt. 
 
On top of that, we need to have a diversity push to also increase diversity in our field and in our particular markets. That's also a passion for me in the company to make sure that we're doing that.
 
Personally, what I do is has been involved with A&M for years. One, because I love the university, but, two, because it really rewarding for me to be able to help any way I can. I've been on the board for at least 15 years and helping the university move forward and try to create students that can be successful when they get out into the work environment. A little bit of me is just trying to pay back. It’s obviously been fantastic for me, and it was great for my father. 
 
1
Bill Sproull
18:57
We appreciate all that you do. I hope that diversity for you means more than just race or gender. I hope it means that you hire engineers other than Aggies.
2
James Klein 
19:06
Yeah, I have a few folks from UT. It can be a challenge sometime, but certainly we do hire from anywhere. We have strategic colleges, obviously A&M, as you can imagine, is one of those. We hire a broad range. 
 
Diversity is broader to me than just race and gender, by the way. It is diversity of thought. I've had the pleasure of running diverse teams and also, in some cases, not diverse teams. What I've seen is that diverse teams just make better decisions. The different points of view average into a great decision-making process. Groupthink can get you into trouble. It's the right thing to do, but also very healthy for the business.
1
Bill Sproull
19:59
You mentioned mentoring. What was the best advice that you were ever given? And/or the best advice you currently give to a young engineer?
2
James Klein 
20:12
I got to thank Mary for this a little bit, because I think my wife keeps me grounded. That’s probably in the long run the best advice, Mary helps me maintain balance, which I think is really important. 
 
Probably the best business advice that I've gotten in my career was to really make sure that you understand how you can provide value and then develop and work toward that. Where can you make a difference in the team you're in or for your boss or for, in my case, the company? What does the company need out of IDP and how can I provide that value? If you focus on value, and providing that value, in a selfless way, then I think that really helps.
 
My advice right now as a manager is that I ask most people, are they having fun? You'll see that, if you work for me, I ask that a lot. Because I think that's important and it's hard to do. I'm not world class at it. But I think it's important that you enjoy what you're doing. And during this time, it's even more challenging. And I understand that. 
We spend a good chunk of the day doing this. I want folks to make sure they're having fun. Also buried in there is I want them to have that balance that I talked about earlier. Work is fantastic. But you’ve got to refill the gas tank every once in a while.
1
Bill Sproull
21:39
I've often heard executives like you, and I certainly feel this being CEO of my organization, that culture is really important in the organization. It strikes me that perhaps it's even more important now, during this kind of virtual COVID environment. Are you seeing that?
 
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James Klein 
21:54
Yeah. One thing I've seen during COVID is a company's ability to adjust. You guys have experienced it, I won't mention company names, that the way some companies have just adjusted is fantastic. They're probably experiencing great revenue and profitability. 
 
And then other companies, you look at them and go why are you doing that during this timeframe? That ability to adjust is a really great part of the culture. It's one thing that I've loved about being at Qorvo is our ability to change, and our employees’ willingness to change and do things different is just so fun for me. 
 
The employee base wants to do stuff different, they want to develop new technology, they want to work different. That's an important part of culture. It's a time that you've got to get close to your employees and your employees have to trust you. Markets are moving all over the place; supply chains are a challenge. Some customers are challenged, some are doing great. 
 
It takes a tremendous amount of leadership during this environment. If your folks don't trust your leadership and where you're going, then it's really hard to lead, just in this virtual way. You need that culture. I won’t speak for our employees, but I sure hope we have that in Qorvo today. It's certainly something that we strive for, and that our employees can trust the management team that we're really working hard to keep the company moving and keep them safe during the environment.
1
Bill Sproull
23:32
I can tell you that having read through your nomination last year, for our CEO of the Year Award, I don't think you could have achieved the kind of results that you had Qorvo unless you have the right kind of culture and leadership and the trust of your team. I want to thank you for spending some time with us today. Stay at it. Keep giving back. We appreciate Qorvo’s involvement in Tech Titans and STEM.
2
James Klein 
23:57
Thanks, Bill. Again, thanks for your leadership. What do you do in the community is really important. You help a lot of us companies and it's changing folks lives with their ability to have a great job, some great employment in North Texas. I'm glad you guys do it and North Texas will remain an important part of the company. So we appreciate everything that you guys are doing as well. 
1
Bill Sproull
24:21
James Klein, president of infrastructure and defense products group at Qorvo. Thanks Qorvo.

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