“Our culture was honesty, integrity, respect for every individual” — Ray Zinn, Silicon Valley’s Longest-Serving CEO
Ray Zinn is the longest-serving CEO in Silicon Valley. He has seen the ups and downs of this innovative region through several decades. Having been the CEO for 37 years of one of the world’s leading microchip companies, he created a culture that valued honesty, integrity, dignity, and respect of people as well as doing the tough things first, which propelled his company, Micrel, to success and an $839 million acquisition. Not only was Micrel successful, but it was profitable from its very year under his management and for most of its duration. Now, Ray focuses on building the next generation of entrepreneurs through his program ZinnStarter, where he helps students gain funding and mentorship. In his book, Tough Things First, Ray shares his lessons from entrepreneurship, leadership, management, and life experiences.
What was your childhood like, and has it helped you to become who you are today?
I’m the oldest of 11 children, and as such, a lot of the responsibility for taking care of the children, my siblings, fell on me. My mother was a school teacher, but once she started having children, she quit teaching school, but still had that acumen, teaching, as you would. And that helped us, of course, me, grow up. I was able to get a good education. Of course, the responsibility of being the oldest of the family, I had to do a lot of things. And my parents, apparently, really trusted me or really let me grow as fast as I was able to. I remember, at the age of four, four years of age, my mother giving me a slip of paper and some money to take down to the grocery store. This is four years of age, okay, to buy some groceries.
So, you can imagine a four-year-old walking two blocks down to the grocery store, handing it to the clerk. In that bag that I was carrying home were two quarts of milk, which is pretty heavy for a four-year-old, as well as some bread and some other things. So this was a pretty heavy bag, and I, of course, didn’t think anything of it at the time, but looking back on it and having 13 great-grandchildren myself, it’s amazing my mother would put that responsibility on me to do that. And then, at the age of 12, I was able to get a driver’s license at the age of 13, but for about a year, almost a year, I was driving my dad’s truck up to water the alfalfa, the hayfield, and that’s the age of 12.
But then, I had a driver’s license at the age of 13, because I got stopped by the police once and didn’t have a license, and of course, here I am 12 years old driving a truck. And I was driving a tractor and baling hay, and this is at the age 12 and 13 years of age. So from the age of 12 on, I provided for myself, otherwise, I earned my own money, and ever since. My father was a cattle rancher. So, we did a lot of chores around the ranch, milking the cows and feeding them and just doing the chores at the ranch, as I mentioned before, I’d go out and irrigate, at a very young age. That’s the sort of thing that helped me. I developed a very strong work ethic at a very young age.
Have you always wanted to be a business leader when growing up?
Yes. That’s what my dad was. We had about 20 people that worked for us, and I always thought of myself as being an entrepreneur, even though I didn’t really know what that word was, back in that timeframe. I had a lot of self-confidence and I felt perfectly comfortable about being around people and interacting with people. And I had a paper route at the age of 12 and having to go collect money from my customers, and of course, the responsibility of delivering them every day. And that really was a hallmark of how I got to where I am.
So, what is your learning process when learning to do new things?
Well, as I mentioned in my book, I learned to do the tough things first. If I wanted to enjoy something, I had to get my chores out of the way quickly and early. And so, I just learned to do things I didn’t want to do first, get them out of the way, and then the rest of the day became more productive.
How do you react to changes?
None of us like change, because change requires work. So, if you learn to love work, then you don’t dislike change. I mean, you adapt to change. And so, change is ever-present. Just look at your watch… time moves on. And so, as they say, time’s a wasting. You just adapt to change because change is ever-present. We’re not going to avoid change unless you’re dead. Okay. But change is what keeps us moving forward.
When is a time where you had to learn something fast, and how did you put that into action?
Well, learning quickly, anytime you have a responsibility, whether it’s riding a bike like I was delivering papers, or whether I was learning to drive the tractor, or whatever it was, you had to learn quickly. I remember, at the age of eight, I was bringing a load of hay into the barn to put it through the mill, to grind the hay up for the animals… I was so small I couldn’t get my other foot on the other side to stop the tractor, and it went right through the side of the mill. Took out the whole side of the barn, as you would.
I learned quickly, don’t do something unless you’re prepared to do it or can do it. While here I thought I could do it, and at the age of eight, I didn’t think anything of the fact that failure comes with learning. So, you learn through failure. So, I learned a great lesson, even though I was still eight. I mean, thinking about that, how young eight is, and having that responsibility and what damage I did, was pretty dramatic. But again, I didn’t stop trying, I didn’t stop learning, I didn’t stop failing, as you would. Because that’s how we learn, is through trial and error.
What quotes do you live by, other than tough things first?
Honesty and integrity. Honesty is, always be truthful. Integrity is, doing what’s right when no one’s watching. Treating people with respect, irrespective of their background or their status in life, treat everyone fairly. That was very important to me, is being a very fair person and being willing to respect everyone and treat everyone with dignity. So, those are the three main principles, honesty, integrity, and respect for everyone.
How was your author journey? Can you take us through this?
Going back to the very earliest point where people started asking me to make a journal or write down my experience starting my company; I started Micrel, my semiconductor company back in 1978. And as early as 1981, people could see how much I had done with so little because I virtually funded the company myself. And so, they thought it would be good to document this. Years went by, and it wasn’t until 2014 that I finally decided that I should write this book. With a lot of prompting from people and just deciding to grind it out, as you would, I sat down and wrote the book in 2014. It just took some time. I’m not a particularly good writer. I have good thoughts. But for me to sit down, I guess I’m too impatient, so I learned to dictate. I dictated into a recorder and then transcribed the information from the audio that I did.
When building a team for a company, what should you look for?
Obviously, people that have the same values that you have. What you do is you have to set up a culture. Your culture really defines who the company is. And at Micrel, our culture was honesty, integrity, respect for every individual, and then doing whatever it takes, no excuses. Doing tough things first, as you would. You want to find people who are willing to do that. What I did is, I listed ten items that I thought were important, that I wanted to get their view, perspective employees view. Then, I would have them rank those ten items as to what they think are the most important to them. I would compare that with what I thought should be the priorities. If they lined up pretty much with what I thought were the priorities, then we had our deal, as you would.
So, I like to find people who have a good work ethic, who have that culture that I believe in, honesty, integrity, dignity, and respect people, and then doing the tough things first. I look for that. I also look for people who liked their previous job; that they liked the previous supervisor. For example, 75% of the people that quit and go to another company is because they didn’t like the supervisor. So, if they didn’t like their previous supervisor, they’re probably not going to like me or like the supervisors at my company. I like people who get along with people, that’s that respect for individuals. I just ask them, how’d you like your previous job, how’d you like your boss? If they didn’t like their job, they didn’t like their boss, I didn’t hire them.
Awesome words of advice. What are some of the strategies that you have used to expand your company in the past?
Of course, they say customer’s number one. If you don’t treat your customers right, then somebody else will. So, you want to make sure that your customers are treated properly, but that takes time. It’s interesting that it’s harder to find a new customer than it is to keep an old one. And so, you just want to make sure you really keep your customers happy. Again, it goes back to this culture of honesty, integrity, and respect. Customers like that. I mean, they relate to that. The two most important things that help a company grow is service and quality. You want to make sure your product has good quality and that you give good service. In other words, you don’t put people off, you respond quickly. They want good service. If you look online and look at the reviews on a particular product, the two most prevalent ones were people rating the company high or low, is on service and quality.
Do you think shipping is an important factor today if people are in the products industry?
You want to provide good service. Customers want it now. They don’t want it in two weeks from now. So yes. Being able to get product… It’s so good now, the online shopping is so good. Let’s say you want to buy something at the store… you got to drive down to the store, you’ve got to go talk to somebody, where is it on the shelf? And that takes time. If you can do it online, you just Google it, as you would, sorry for using the word Google. But you search for it, and there it is, and you look and say, that’s what I want. You say, buy now. You hit the button, and it ships. And you save a lot of time.
What have been some of your best moments while working in Silicon Valley?
Well, Silicon Valley is really fast-paced, very creative, with very ingenious people. And they tend to congregate, they say birds of a feather flock together. Because of the environment that’s in Silicon Valley, there are a lot of very qualified, very good people. What I thought was so unique about Silicon Valley was just the quality of the people that are there. We were able to take advantage of that because we were right in the heart of Silicon Valley, long before it was called Silicon Valley. I don’t think it got its name until almost the mid-eighties, and my company started in ’78. But it’s, of course, a good climate, good universities, and just the access to good people.
What improvements should Silicon Valley make, in your opinion?
I think, at least over the past 15 years, it’s become more political. I think companies need to stay out of politics. I think they need to run their companies and stay out of politics. Silicon Valley, because of its presence and who it is, it’s naturally gravitated to more of a political stance, and I think that’s injured the quality of Silicon Valley. There are two things you don’t talk about, one is your religion and the other is your politics. So, if you can stay out of religion and politics, you’re better off. They’re talking too much, they get too up in politics, in my opinion.