In many ways, Intel's (INTC) next CEO might not deviate much from the strategy the departing Brian Krzanich embarked upon.
However, Intel's new chief would likely do well to try to strengthen the chip giant's hand in two areas --- manufacturing technology and PC CPUs -- where it has seen historical leads wither and openings created for AMD (AMD) and other rivals.
As most readers probably know by now, Intel announced on Thursday morning that Krzanich had resigned because of a past relationship with an employee that violated the company's non-fraternization policy for managers. CFO Bob Swan will serve as interim CEO as Intel's board searches for a permanent successor.
Financially, Krzanich's five-year run as Intel's CEO was hardly a disastrous one. In 2012, Intel's last full year before Krzanich became CEO, the company had revenue of $53.3 billion and non-GAAP EPS of $2.13. This year, analysts on average expect Intel to post revenue of $67.6 billion -- close to $3 billion of this will admittedly stem from the Altera and Mobileye acquisitions, both of which happened during Krzanich's tenure -- and EPS of $3.87.
These estimates, it should be noted, might soon go higher, since Intel also raised its Q2 guidance this morning. The company now expects Q2 revenue of $16.9 billion and EPS of $0.99, above prior guidance for revenue of $15.8 billion to $16.8 billion and EPS of $0.80 to $0.90.
Moreover, Intel has grown sales and EPS in recent years even though the PC market has shrunk considerably. Research firm IDC estimates that 259.5 million PCs were shipped last year, down 26% from a 2012 level of 352.4 million.
Intel's stock has also appreciated about 120% since Krzanich took over the helm at Intel -- in line with the Nasdaq's change over the same time frame, but ahead of the Dow Jones Industrials Average and the S&P 500 Index.
Growing sales of server CPUs and complementary products -- particularly to cloud giants and telecom service providers -- have helped Intel grow in spite of PC unit pressures. So have higher sales of flash memory and processors used in embedded/IoT hardware, and rising average selling prices (ASPs) for PC CPUs. EPS, meanwhile, has benefited from job cuts and stock buybacks in addition to top-line growth.
Just as Intel's financial performance during the Krzanich era can't be criticized too much, it's hard to take issue with his long-term strategy -- outlined to a large degree in a 2016 open letter -- of cutting Intel's PC CPU dependence by investing heavily in data center, IoT/automotive, memory, 5G modem and (following the 2017 hiring of former AMD graphics chief Raja Koduri) GPU opportunities, both through organic investments and M&A.
Though Krzanich's successor might tweak this strategy -- for example, by stepping up or slowing down Intel's M&A pace, or taking another stab at battling Qualcomm (QCOM) in the mobile system-on-chip (SoC) market -- it's hard to imagine him or her breaking with it to any significant extent.
On the other hand, following major cuts to Intel's PC-related R&D and marketing spend during Krzanich's reign, Intel's next CEO could choose to reverse some of these cuts. That's both because the PC market has been showing signs of stabilizing in recent quarters -- the gaming PC and ultrabook/2-in-1 markets, both of which feature high ASPs, have been seeing decent growth -- and because AMD has begun taking meaningful desktop/workstation CPU share via its Ryzen and Ryzen Threadripper processor lines.
And following years of manufacturing technology delays, it wouldn't be shocking to see Intel's next CEO shake up the company's Technology and Manufacturing Group (TMG). Intel is just two months removed from disclosing that volume production for chips based on a 10-nanometer (10nm) manufacturing process, once expected by the second half of 2016, won't happen until some point in 2019 (exactly when in 2019 remains unknown).
Due to the 10nm delays, Intel's once-large manufacturing process lead over top chip contract manufacturer (foundry) Taiwan Semiconductor (TSM) will soon turn into a deficit, and it's possible that TSMC rivals Samsung (SSNLF) and Globalfoundries will also pull ahead of Intel. TSMC will soon start mass-production of chips based on a 7nm process that's viewed as competitive with Intel's initial 10nm process.
Apple (AAPL) , rumored to be planning to use its own processors within Macs as soon as 2020, is expected to use TSMC's 7nm process to make the its A-series SoC going inside of its 2018 iPhones. AMD recent began sampling a 7nm server GPU; it plans to launch it later this year, before rolling out a number of 7nm PC and server products in 2019. And Qualcomm, which recently began competing with Intel in the Windows notebook processor market, reportedly plans to use TSMC's processor to make a next-gen mobile SoC launching in early 2019.
Five years ago, the notion that Apple, AMD, Qualcomm and others could be shipping chips that rely on a more advanced manufacturing process than anything Intel has in mass-production was pretty much inconceivable. One way or another, Intel's next CEO will need to make sure that this state of affairs doesn't turn into a long-term reality.