Seagate CEO: I help people "watch porn"

You think tech execs are boring? Check out a freewheeling interview with Seagate's Bill Watkins, who might be Silicon Valley's most outspoken CEO.

By Jeffrey M. O'Brien, Fortune senior editor

SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- Sitting at the arm of a tech CEO during a corporate dinner is rarely as interesting as you might imagine. Usually, the CEO stays on message throughout the meal as a PR flak hovers, smiles, nods and prods the conversation along. Just keep the drinks coming, guys.

Not so with Bill Watkins, the mercurial, salty-mouthed Texan who runs the $15 billion hard-drive king Seagate Technology. At a San Francisco dinner on Tuesday evening, he was candid about his company's ultimate mission: "Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn."

Watkins is like that renegade uncle you heard so much about as a kid - the one that your parents were always afraid would be a bad influence. An adventure racer and sports junkie, Watkins spends $1.8 million of his company's money every year on Eco Seagate, flying 200 employees to New Zealand every year to do a modified triathlon.

It's a controversial approach to team-building - popular with participants and otherwise widely criticized as a waste of money. But it's consistent with Watkins' style. He does - and says - what he thinks is right.

At San Francisco's Town Hall restaurant Tuesday night, Watkins was game to discuss just about anything. We did go off-the-record once - a wise choice by him - but all else was fair game. Here's a peek at some of the ground we covered.

Seagate (Charts): "The biggest issues in our business are security, DRM (How can we unlock the content?), form factor and power. How can we make a low-power solution? These are the problems." As for upcoming products, "We'll have a terabyte drive out by the summer. It'll probably be about $700, but you know how it works. People will be able to get it for less."

Dell (Charts): "The 90s were all about the enterprise, and that's why Dell did so well. Now, it's all about the consumer, and that's why Dell is having problems. They don't understand the consumer. They want a competitor to the iPod and what do they do? They go with Creative."

'This business is about the consumer'

Apple (Charts): "Apple figured out a long time ago that this business is about the consumer, and the world finally caught up to them. Most companies have a technology and go looking for a problem to solve. Steve Jobs looked at what was happening - people were loading music onto their computers and wanted to take it with them - and he built a product to solve that problem."

Watkins, who has an understandable Apple-envy (after all, what is an iPod but a hard-drive with a sleek-but-simple operating system and nifty packaging?) also discussed the importance of building Seagate's brand. The company plans to introduce a number of consumer-oriented storage products at the tech trade show CES - think high-capacity drives that will be plug-and-play with any computer, so you don't have to carry a laptop - and is readying an ad campaign created by Apple's agency, TBWA Chiat/Day.

Mistakes & Management: "Let me tell you a great story. I had these guys go into Scientific Atlanta (Charts) trying to sell one of our drives for their boxes. Scientific Atlanta said 'They run too hot. We don't need that capacity and it needs to be cooler.' But our guys kept pushing our new product and talking about fans to cool them, so we lost the business. They didn't understand that with cable boxes, people don't want fans, because they don't want to hear that in their bedroom. And speed doesn't matter. So, eventually, I went in and won the business back, but it taught me a lesson. I need to teach my people how to talk to the customer better - and to listen."

The Blue-Ray/HD-DVD war: "Let them fight it out. They can have it. As far as I'm concerned, it's really a battle of electronic storage versus hardware."

'Come on guys, get over it'

The media: "People worry that newspapers are going out of business. So what? It's the content that's important. No one gives a s**t about the delivery mechanism. Think about mail. You had the pony express, truck delivery, airmail, email. You don't care how it gets to you. I read more now than I ever did, but I get it off my PC. I don't need to go down to the end of the driveway and pick up the newspaper. It's the content that's most important."

Sarbanes Oxley: "CEOs who whine about Sarbanes Oxley don't belong in their jobs. Come on guys, get over it."

The private equity boom: Seagate went private in 2000 - in a $2 billion buyout led by Silver Lake Partners - only to go public again in 2002, giving Watkins insight into the current privatization wave. "It's all about investors getting short-sighted. They've lost their patience. There's nothing these private equity firms do that Fidelity couldn't do. If you're Fidelity, and you own $40 million of my business, and you want a meeting to discuss how my business could be run more efficiently, I'll take the meeting. I'll listen. But that's not the way things work. When you go private, the only thing you think about is going public again."

The 2006 NCAA championship football game: A University of Texas alum, Watkins says going to school in Austin is a life sentence. He still can't get enough of his beloved Longhorns - and he was damned if he was going to miss the championship game. "I was at CES, in Vegas. I was supposed to take some meetings, but I said no. I went up to my room, ordered a pizza and watched one of the greatest college football games ever."

UT's 2003 loss in the NCAA basketball Final Four match to my alma mater, Syracuse University: "I lost so much money on that game."

'Never ask board members what they think'

The M&A boom: The Valley is no longer "about building a company and a culture. It's about making money for the top guys. If you look back to Intel (Charts) and Fairchild, they set out to build a company that would become massively large. Google (Charts) was another good example. They waited a long time. They wanted to build a big company. People don't think like that now." That includes, Watkins continues, YouTube. "YouTube is like eBay. The founders didn't know what they were doing. The consumers just took hold of it."

The HP pretexting scandal: When I ask if anyone really cared about this story outside of the media, Watkins shakes his head. "Wall Street certainly didn't. I saw it and thought, it's good to know there's a board of directors more dysfunctional than mine."

The secret to managing a board of directors: "You never ask board members what they think. You tell them what you're going to do."

Investing carefully in hard drives

Seagate's goal: Hollywood's hard drive Top of page

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