T.J. the Barbarian

He’s so tough even nuns don’t scare him.

From the outside, Cypress Semiconductor looks deceptively mild, like every company in Silicon Valley and, for that matter, the Valley itself. The long, low rectangular buildings, with their asphalt moats and windows that don’t open, are indistinguishable from those of companies up and down the road. You would never guess that the people inside have made a religion of Individualism.

The day I visit Cypress, its chief executive, T.J. Rodgers, is swaggering through the halls dressed in what appears to be a complete uniform of the Green Bay Packers: yellow slacks, Reggie White jersey, official NFL turtleneck. His official Green Bay Packer helmet sits on his desk. His official Green Bay Packer wristwatch has a tiny brown football glued to the end of its second hand. I do not know whether this is his everyday costume, or if it’s just for me. T.J. loves the Packers because he grew up in Wisconsin, and also for their role as the very symbol of old-fashioned American macho bullshit.

The office he leads me into is not so much a place of work as a shrine. One wall displays framed copies of the many lawsuits filed against T.J. Beneath these is T.J.’s favorite sign. It says: CYPRESS …WE EAT NAILS. Another wall has a collection of the magazine covers on which T.J.’s face has appeared. (“The Humbling of T.J. Rodgers,” reads one especially improbable headline.) It is difficult to be short and blond-haired and pink-skinned and still project an air of menace, but in nearly all his photographs, T.J. does just that.

Propped up on his corner table is an important-looking book with an important-sounding title: Capitalism. It turns out that T.J. and the rest of his Cypress management team have just finished a two-year course on the subject. T.J. thought he and the boys needed to brush up on their first principles, and so he hired a free-lance intellectual steeped in the writings of Ayn Rand to come in once a week and teach them. The course left T.J. very clear in his own mind what his company stands for. Every three months he gives a speech on Core Values to Cypress’ new employees. For me, he pulls out one of the graphics that accompanies his speech as an example:

Core Value Number 4

“We’d all be better off if they didn’t exist,” he says. Then he recites a prose poem of his personal convictions:

I compete I compete on merit I don’t owe my goddamn job to anybody. I have a lot of money only because I’m not interested in acquiring money. It’s the yuppie who drives the BMW that’s owned by the bank I don’t want to interfere with other people who create wealth for themselves. Capitalism is not an economic system. It’s a way of life.

T.J., who is 49, came out to the Stanford graduate School of Engineering in the early 1970s, by way of Dartmouth College. Even then engineers knew there was gold in these hills. Anyone at Stanford who could fix a toaster oven was talking about starting his own business. But not everyone did. “Animals start businesses,” explains T.J. “You don’t start a business because you want money. You start a business because you need to compete.” T.J. joined Advanced Micro Devices, then quit to compete with them when the firm refused to back an idea he had for designing semiconductors. (Cypress makes S-RAMs, which are a kind of chip. Don’t ask me anything more.)

The investors who loaned T.J. the $7.5 million to create Cypress back in 1983 got it back 37 months later with $195 million in capital gains. Cypress is now worth something over a billion dollars, and employs 2,700 people at an average wage of $78,000 a year. These triumphs interest T.J. more than his own wealth, he says. “How rich are you?” I ask him. The question is more delicate than it might have been. It is the evening of the day on which the stock market fell 550 or so points. “Yesterday I was worth $30 million,” he says. “Today, I don’t know. Twenty?”

Every day T.J. arrives at his office by 7:30 in the morning and stays until 8 in the evening, with only a quick break to run six miles instead of eating lunch. Every night he drives home with a thick blue folder of material his secretary has culled from that day’s incoming signals. T.J. plonks tonight’s three hours of homework onto the table and ticks off the first few items: “Someone wants me to spend $461,000 to incorporate a company in Singapore. I’ll do that. … A medical clinic wants me to give them 50 grand. I’ll do that. … A contract I wish I hadn’t signed with another chip company–got to figure out a way to get out of it.” It’s a life in which leisure, or its prospect, clearly plays no role. On weekends during the football season, T.J. flies to see the Packers play. He has a movie theater in his home that he pieced together from “state of the art” audiovisual companies in and around Silicon Valley. He also has a small vineyard, an acre and a half around his house in Woodside from which he hopes to produce “state of the art pinot noir.” But the vineyard, like the theater, seems less like fun than an outlet for T.J.’s need to demonstrate technical superiority.

The meaning of life? “To defeat the enemy, see him run before you, and hear the lamentations of the women,” as Conan the Barbarian once put it. Japanese semiconductor companies, French vintners, U.S. congressmen, venture capitalists, Wall Street bankers–there are many things in this world worth vanquishing, and T.J. seems to have vanquished every one of them. A year or so ago, a nun from the Order of St. Francis sent a letter to American corporate chiefs, complaining that women and minorities were insufficiently represented on their boards. When T.J. received the letter he went apeshit: That night he dictated a six-page memo attacking the nun as not merely stupid but also immoral. After all, what was she proposing? That he take his mind off winning! T.J. mass-mailed what he calls “my nun letter” to every Cypress shareholder. Soon enough the fracas was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and T.J. was onstage at Stanford University, debating the nun. “She got blown away,” he reports. He has received more than a thousand letters about the episode, he says, and more than 90 percent have been favorable. The only group of Americans who have disapproved of T.J. stomping on a nun, T.J. says, are other nuns. “I got 13 letters from nuns,” he says. “One hundred percent unfavorable.”

But the hottest war T.J. is currently fighting is against a few fellow Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have turned their backs on the Cult of Individualism. Of these, the most noxious are a small cadre that has recently cozied up to Bill Clinton. In T.J.’s mind, people who suck up to politicians are usually looking for pork. And people who are looking for pork are afraid to compete honestly. And people who are afraid to compete honestly are natural-born losers. “For years, I’ve said that there are two men who, if they don’t fail in business, will invalidate my theory of life,” he says. “One is Gil Amelio [former CEO of Apple]. The other is Ed McCracken [CEO of Silicon Graphics]. Amelio flamed out last January. I’m waiting for McCracken.” McCracken has been a prominent supporter of Bill Clinton.

There are those in the valley who tell you that T.J.’s attitude toward his fellow man lacks compassion. But a lot of people who kick and claw their way to the top lack compassion. What sets T.J. apart is that T.J. is willing to stand up and say compassion is for sissies. His lack of hypocrisy will no doubt cost him a crowd at his funeral, but for now it heightens the pleasure he gets from watching his enemies die a horrible death.

Two days after T.J. delivered his curse, Silicon Graphics fired Ed McCracken.