Cover Story: From skinny Penang boy to global tech leader

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 20, 2017 - November 26, 2017.
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TAN Hock Eng revelled in telling his life story in the Oval Office on Nov 2. “Back in 1971, I was just an 18-year-old, skinny kid growing up in Malaysia who had just gotten the opportunity to enrol in the best engineering school in America, or the best in the world, MIT,” he said. “My parents could not have afforded to send me to college, much less MIT, but this great American educational institution took a chance on me, sight unseen, by giving me a scholarship to pursue the American dream.”

Tan did not disappoint. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1975 and a master’s degree later in the same year. He later went on to earn an MBA from MIT’s cross-town rival Harvard University and returned to Malaysia, where he ran Hume Industries between 1983 and 1988 before moving to Singapore as managing director of Pacven Investment, a venture capital firm. In 1992, he relocated back to the US as vice-president of finance for PC maker Commodore International, then worked as a senior finance executive at PepsiCo and as a senior executive at General Motors. He also acquired US citizenship.

In 1999, at the start of the global tech boom, he was hired to lead Integrated Circuit Systems, which designs, develops and sells silicon-timing devices to the communications equipment and electronics industries. He later served as chairman of another tech firm, Integrated Device Technology, which makes sensors and timing devices for the electronics industry. It was in those two jobs that he honed the art of acquiring companies, ruthlessly cutting costs and striving for maximum operational efficiency, which eventually led him to Silver Lake Partners, the owners of Avago Technologies, who put him in charge of the firm as they beefed it up before its eventual listing.

On Dec 14, Broadcom is expected to report a net profit of US$7.3 billion on revenues of US$17.7 billion for its fiscal year ended October. Analysts expect Broadcom’s profits to surge to US$8.2 billion on revenues of US$19.2 billion in the current fiscal year. Because Broadcom is currently in its “quiet period” ahead of its quarterly earnings next month, Tan declined to speak with The Edge Singapore.

Tan is reportedly one of the highest-paid tech executives in the US, but his package is linked to total shareholder returns at Broadcom. With its shares up 1,600% since IPO in 2009, he has done well, for himself and his shareholders. He is well known in California as a philanthropist and has regularly donated to his alma mater, MIT.