Former auto exec cruising tech world

Technology: The ex-CEO of Ford Motor Co. says he wouldn't mind shifting gears and leaving the Motor City behind for Silicon Valley.

May 27, 2002|By Peter Delevett | Peter Delevett,KNIGHT RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Jacques Nasser sounds like a man ready to leave cold Detroit winters behind.

En route to a surf trip to his native Australia last month, the former chief executive of Ford Motor Co. quietly swung through Menlo Park, Calif., to confab with some top tech investors.

In his first interview since resigning from Ford under pressure last fall, Nasser admits he's intrigued by the possibility of running a Silicon Valley company.

"One of the areas that has always fascinated me, particularly over the last few years, was technology and the way it's brought to market," said Nasser, who spent 34 years at Ford before being forced out amid plunging profitability and market share.

But Nasser, 55, enjoyed some successes during his three-year turn at Ford's helm. The automaker embraced new technologies, cutting deals to put wireless Internet access in some cars and offering its 350,000 workers home computers.

On his recent valley swing, Nasser met with a half-dozen leading venture capital firms and investment banks, though he won't name names.

"I wanted to know what the thought process was, what the pulse of the community was at this stage," said the soft-spoken executive.

So is there a tech job in Nasser's future?

"I think so, I hope so," he said. "I always felt there was no real distinction between the Old Economy and the New Economy."

Nasser says he was struck by the amount of investment capital lying fallow on the sidelines.

"The real scarce resource is the availability of good operating people and leadership," he said.

He cautioned, though, that his discussions with the tech world are in the embryonic stage. He wasn't looking at specific companies in need of leadership, but rather at potential hot segments.

Nasser ticked off the qualities he's looking for in his next firm: a consumer focus, innovative technology, a global presence and a large work force.

There's not a long list of valley companies that come immediately to mind, though it helps that Nasser said he's not necessarily set on holding a chief executive's job.

"I'm not stuck on titles," he said. "Sometimes CEO is an overblown position."

In researching his next move, Nasser's been sounding out friends such as former Oracle President Ray Lane and erstwhile Covad Communications chief Robert Knowling. Nasser in the past brought both men in to speak to Ford executives, and like him, both have suffered the ego blow of being forced out of a job.

Lane, now a partner at venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, won't reveal what was discussed during Nasser's valley visit, but said: "I think Jac can be a good leader for any company, and as a business executive he has an acute awareness of technology's value."

"Just the sheer fact that this guy has run a multibillion-dollar global company obviously qualifies him as a leader," added Knowling, who now heads a Houston startup called Internet Access Technologies. "The bag of skills he brings to the table are so awesome, he'd be hard-pressed not to succeed."

Nasser said he may search for a middle path between those his friends pursued. He's not sure if the startup mode is right for him, but he's not ready to give up an operational role for the life of a venture capitalist.

"I really promised myself I wouldn't make a quick decision unless something special came up," Nasser said. "I've listened to a lot of people; I've listened to a lot of recommendations and proposals."

Nasser also is looking at other parts of the country, including Southern California and New York.

Still, Silicon Valley may have gotten an edge thanks to David Roux, the Silver Lake Partners investor, who owns a classic 1956 Thunderbird. He surprised Nasser by having the convertible waiting for a ride through the hills of Woodside.

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