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Qualcomm CEO transition: Cristiano Amon to take over from Steve Mollenkopf

The chipmaker's current CEO is retiring at the end of June after 26 years at the company.

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Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon, speaking in December at the company's Tech Summit, has been named the chipmaker's new CEO. 

Qualcomm

Qualcomm is changing up its leadership. CEO Steve Mollenkopf will retire this summer, the wireless chipmaker said Tuesday, and President Cristiano Amon will take over the reins on June 30. The 52-year-old Mollenkopf, who has been at Qualcomm for 26 years and has served as CEO since 2014, will "continue his employment with the company as a strategic adviser for a period of time."

Amon, a 50-year-old from Brazil, has been at Qualcomm since 1995, first working as an engineer. He has served as the company's president since 2018 and has overseen the company's 5G strategy and its expansion of getting its chips into cars and internet of things devices. At the same time, Amon has overseen Qualcomm's efforts to expand its portfolio to provide more parts necessary for connecting a phone to a cellular network, something that has boosted the amount it makes from each design.  

"I am honored to be named the next CEO of Qualcomm and appreciate the confidence that Steve and the board have in me," Amon said in a statement. "The need for our solutions has never been more pronounced and our leadership position has never been more evident."

While Qualcomm isn't a household name, it's likely everyone owns something with the company's technology. The San Diego company invented technology essential for connecting phones to cellular networks, helping it become the world's biggest mobile chipmaker. Today it's viewed as the leader in 5G technology, something that Amon has championed. Its processors are used in phones from Apple, Samsung and virtually all high-end handset makers, as well as carmakers like Audi and various other companies. And Amon has been the main spokesman for all of those initiatives. 

The CEO news comes a month after Qualcomm introduced its latest high-end processors at its annual Tech Summit, which was held virtually in early December. The new chip, known as the Snapdragon 888 processor, is expected to be inside most high-end 2021 Android phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S21, which is set to be announced next week. And Qualcomm also has expanded 5G all the way to its low-end Snapdragon 480 processor, as it announced earlier this week. That chip will be in phones that cost between $125 and $250.

The CEO transition came earlier than expected, but Amon was the natural pick for the role, analysts said. 

"You can't say 5G and not say Cristiano in the same sentence because he's been relentless in talking about it and really bringing the ecosystem together," said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi. 

A new era

The appointment of Amon as CEO continues Qualcomm's long history of naming engineers as its leader. The company was co-founded in 1985 by Irwin Jacobs and other experts in wireless innovation, followed by Jacob's engineer son, Paul Jacobs, in 2005 and Mollenkopf, who also started at Qualcomm as an engineer and became CEO in early 2014

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Mollenkopf oversaw Qualcomm during some of the toughest years in the company's history. During his tenure, the company faced antitrust battles over its position in the chip market, as well as disputes with customers like Apple over its licensing practices. He also fended off an effort by Broadcom to acquire Qualcomm -- a hostile takeover blocked by the Trump administration in 2018 -- and helped it become the market leader in mobile chips. When Mollenkopf became CEO, Qualcomm faced 4G smartphone chip rivals like Nvidia, Texas Instruments and countless others. Today, there are only a few other companies capable of making 5G chips, and Qualcomm's antitrust and licensing battles are behind the company.

"Through it all, Mollenkopf's approach was mostly to not get caught up in the moment, hunker down and focus on the product roadmap," Bernstein analyst Stacy Rasgon noted. "And while controversial (and painful) at the time, looking back with the benefit of hindsight we have to admit that the approach was probably the right one for the long term, with the company (finally) prevailing on virtually every dispute, and emerging with what is perhaps the strongest product roadmap in their history."

To that end, Mollenkopf in a press release praised Amon's leadership as the company's president.

"With our business model clearly validated and our leadership in 5G, this is the right time for Cristiano to assume leadership of the company and preside over what I see as the single largest opportunity in the company's history," Mollenkopf said.

During Amon's tenure, he'll have to keep Qualcomm on top in 5G, as rivals like MediaTek gain traction. The company has bet on super-fast, millimeter-wave 5G, which has been difficult for rivals to build. The technology can reach high speeds but travels short distances, and it has been favored by carriers like Verizon. Most other carriers around the world have opted for the slower but more reliable flavor of 5G, which can be powered by chips from Qualcomm's rivals. Qualcomm's push to include 5G in less expensive processors will help its efforts to expand the technology around the globe. 

"Cristiano has been the face of Qualcomm, for the most part, for a very long time," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said. The CEO transition "works out perfectly with the move to 5G. Qualcomm has been very aggressive in driving that, but there's still a long runway to go on the 5G side."

At the same time, Amon will also have to continue Qualcomm's diversification beyond smartphones. While 5G is expected to boost demand for new phones, the market likely won't grow as fast as it used to. Instead, everything from cars to traffic lights will get smarter and will require more components that are supplied by companies like Qualcomm. The company has already moved into those areas and will likely make them an even bigger focus over the coming years. 

Qualcomm declined to make Amon available for an interview on Tuesday, but the incoming CEO told a group of business reporters that he will remain focused on 5G, artificial intelligence, IOT and other uses for Qualcomm's chips. 

In a December interview with CNET, Amon talked up 5G's expansion around the globe and emphasized Qualcomm's strength in that market. 

In 2019, "it was about getting 5G phones and faster speeds and making the technology real," Amon said. "In '20, it was getting scale in phones. And in '21, you'll see that speed and performance everywhere. You'll get to deeper penetration of 5G into other price points. ... And you're going to start to see applications beyond phones start to gain scale."