Chipmaker and outspoken libertarian T.J. Rodgers has become one of the biggest proponents of solar power -- even if it is government-subsidized.
If you want to hear a lengthy diatribe from Thurman John Rodgers, just mention Al Gore. Rodgers is the founder of Cypress Semiconductor (CY), a billion-dollar computer chip manufacturer, but he's also one of the most outspoken libertarians in Silicon Valley -- and the PowerPoint-toting former veep is his bete noire. "Al Gore talks about the world on fire to gain political clout," Rodgers says. "He cares about nothing other than Al Gore's power. Agreeing with him would be a sin of the first order in my value scheme."
None of this, however, stops Rodgers from being deeply invested in Gore's favorite technology: solar power. Back in 2002, Rodgers wanted his company to buy SunPower, a then-struggling startup known for building the most efficient solar panels on the market.
Why? Not because Rodgers wanted to save the planet, although he does believe that carbon emissions are causing global warming. And not because of the rich government subsidies, though he is happy to take them. Acquiring SunPower made business sense for a company like Cypress that designs and manufactures silicon wafers, the building blocks of solar modules.
At that time, Cypress was in dire need of a second act: Its revenue was drooping to a low of $775 million a year. But its board members didn't buy Rodgers's pitch that SunPower was their passport into the $5 trillion global electricity market, and they turned him down flat. Rodgers promptly cut Sun-Power a $750,000 check from his own funds to keep it afloat, while he kept hammering away at the board.
A former football player at Dartmouth, Rodgers built Cypress into a silicon powerhouse much the same way his hero Vince Lombardi guided the Green Bay Packers to the Super Bowl: Set a course and then run over anything that gets in the way. The thick-built 59-year-old still jogs three miles every afternoon, not so much gliding through the route as demolishing it. His employees tend to stand a little straighter when he marches back into the office.
The third time Rodgers approached his board about buying SunPower was the charm. Brandishing a silicon wafer, he told the board it would be worth a mere $600 if it were gold and $20,000 if it were used to make either computer memory chips or solar cells.
"We turn silicon into something more valuable than gold," he said. "Now people want to get clean energy, and silicon can do that too." The board finally agreed, and in 2004 Cypress bought SunPower for $24.7 million. The solar manufacturer was spun off in 2005, and the SunPower shares owned by Cypress are now worth nearly $2.5 billion.
Al Gore never asked Rodgers to invest in solar power, which is probably for the best. "I don't like being told what to do," Rodgers says. "But if people subscribe to Gore's view of the environment, then I supply them with products that allow them to do something about it. And that is perfectly consistent with my view."