Tech Industry

Jerry Sanders: It's witchcraft

Shareholders hound AMD chairman Jerry Sanders for his extravagant ways--they don't appreciate the example he sets for Silicon Valley millionaires.

Jerry Sanders is battling recalcitrant shareholders bent on removing him as chairman of Advanced Micro Devices. Frank Sinatra bounces in and out of the hospital. It hasn't been a very good year for swingers.

And it won't be a good year for the rest of us if Jerry has to go.

By the time you read this, Sanders will have likely won a proxy fight at the AMD stockholder meeting in New York brought by the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) to appoint an independent chairman. Even if he wins this round, though, Sanders's troubles will not end. Wall Street analysts have pointed out that AMD's stock rises whenever rumors circulate that Sanders will step down. Some, in fact, have said he has to go in any event if AMD is ever to truly challenge Intel.

Granted, they do have their reasons. CalPERS asserts that $100 invested in a peer group of stocks on December 31, 1992, would have been worth $369 on December 31, 1997. Invested in AMD, the same $100 would be worth $98.

Last year, Sanders took home $1.7 million in compensation, an amount that included $256,428 in personal security services and a $473,812 cost-of-living increase. AMD lost $21.1 million during the year. The year before, he received $1.3 million by delivering losses of $69 million. Other SEC documents show that Sanders has had his own stock options repriced in the past after a stock collapse.

Still, these excesses aside, Sanders' departure from the IT scene will mean a monumental loss. For Sanders in many ways symbolizes the goofy glory and unabashed extravagance of postwar America.

It is an America where the swag lamp and the three-martini lunch still reign, where deals are based on a handshake, and the bathing suits are big. It is a place where character is measured by honesty and masculinity by the amount of gold jewelry a man wears.

Sanders himself comes across as a one-man Rat Pack. Typically decked out in a designer tie, various bracelets, and a rose lapel, it doesn't take much imagination to picture him mixing a pitcher of cocktails with Peter Lawford or, say, lifting weights pool-side. Did he date Elke Sommer? He might have even been married to her for a few days.

More importantly, Sanders seems to be one of the few reminders left that money should be spent in large, obvious ways--which is why we need him.

Despite news reports about the fancy cars and expensive restaurants popping up all over Silicon Valley, the area remains one mired in cheapness and grim determination. In many ways, self-inflicted torment is the ultimate status symbol here. Where else in the world, after all, is the reward for making millions overnight a 15-hour workday? Budgets get continually reviewed for waste and inefficiency. Stock option tycoons celebrate by buying a bag of Pepperidge Farm goldfish and complaining about the capital gains tax. The Gilded Age--when a railroad baron might become famous for burning down a mansion, dueling with a rival, or talking to his or her pet otters--it is not.

Intel remains one of the standard bearers of the relentless local work ethic. An annual memo reminds employees that Christmas Eve is not an excuse to go home before 5 p.m. The company's mission statement hangs in each conference room. This drive has made millionaires out of many, and most of them still go to Supercuts.

While this line of behavior may work to preserve fortunes, it takes the panache out of the greatest explosion of wealth in a century. Sanders may not be an answer to all our ills, but he is all we have.

Senior writer Michael Kanellos never dated Elke Sommer, in spite of all the rumors to the contrary.