The Chip Titan Whose Life’s Work Is at the Center of a Tech Cold War

In a wood-paneled office overlooking Taipei and the jungle-covered mountains that surround the Taiwanese capital, Morris Chang recently pulled out an old book stamped with technicolor patterns.

It was titled “Introduction to VLSI Systems,” a graduate-level textbook describing the intricacies of computer chip design. Mr. Chang, 92, held it up with reverence.

“I want to show you the date of this book, 1980,” he said. The timing was important, he added, as it was “the earliest piece” in a puzzle that came together for him — altering not only his career but also the course of the global electronics industry.

The insight that Mr. Chang gained from the textbook was deceptively simple: the idea that microchips, which act as the brains of computers, could be designed in one place but manufactured somewhere else. The notion went against the semiconductor industry’s standard practice at the time.

So at the age of 54, when many people begin thinking more about retirement, Mr. Chang instead put himself on a path to turn his insight into a reality. The engineer left his adopted country, the United States, and moved to Taiwan where he founded Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC. The company does not design chips, but it has become the world’s biggest manufacturer of cutting-edge microprocessors for customers including Apple and Nvidia.

Today, the company that partially exists because of a textbook is a $500 billion juggernaut that has put the most advanced chips in iPhones, cars, supercomputers and fighter jets. So critical are its airplane-hangar-size chip factories, called fabs, that the United States, Japan and Europe have courted TSMC to build them in their neck of the woods. Over the past decade, China has also invested hundreds of billions of dollars to recreate what TSMC has done.

Mr. Chang’s unlikely entrepreneurial journey helped Taiwan become an economic giant, restructured the way the electronics industry worked and ultimately charted a new geopolitical reality in which a linchpin of global economic growth lies in one of the world’s most volatile spots.

That has thrust Mr. Chang, and the company he created, into the spotlight. And at the twilight of his career, a man who has preferred to remain in the shadows reflected on what he has built and what it means to no longer be able to stay under the radar.

“It doesn’t make me feel particularly good,” said Mr. Chang, who retired in 2018 but still appears at TSMC events. “I would rather stay relatively unknown.”

Over a recent three-hour discussion in his office, Mr. Chang made it clear that he identifies as American — he obtained his U.S. citizenship in 1962 — at a time when the company he founded is at the center of a technological Cold War between the United States and China. Even as the rivalry for tech leadership intensifies, he does not give China much of a chance for semiconductor supremacy.

“We control all the choke points,” Mr. Chang said, referring collectively to the United States and its chip-making allies such as the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. “China can’t really do anything if we want to choke them.”

More than a dozen people familiar with Mr. Chang, many of whom knew him as a colleague at TSMC, said he built the company — and outmaneuvered giants like Samsung and Intel — by being meticulous, stubborn, trusting his best people and, crucially, having boundless ambition and making daring moves when justified. When TSMC stumbled after the 2008 financial crisis, he returned as chief executive at age 77 to take over again.

“He’s probably the only person left in the chip industry who was present at the creation of the industry itself,” said Chris Miller, the author of the book “Chip War” and an associate professor of international history at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “That he’s not only still in the industry but at the center and top of it is extraordinary.”

To understand the tech industry’s future, it is crucial to understand the world through Mr. Chang’s eyes and how he made that initial bet when others didn’t. And unlike today’s tech moguls — such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, who have publicly considered a cage fight — Mr. Chang has shown more restraint. If competition between the global tech giants is a series of high-stakes poker games, he is the quiet man who runs the casino.

Mr. Chang was born in 1931 in a China on the brink of war. Before the age of 18, he lived in six cities, changed schools 10 times, experienced bombings in Guangzhou and Chongqing, and crossed the front lines as his family fled Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II.

When he made it to Hong Kong in 1948 with his family, who by then were trying to get away from the Chinese Communist Party’s advancing army, there was no going back.

“My old world crumbled as the mainland changed its color, and a new world was yet to be established,” he wrote in his autobiography, which was published in 1998.

In 1949, Mr. Chang moved to the United States, attending Harvard before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study mechanical engineering. In 1955, when he twice failed a qualifying exam for a doctoral degree at M.I.T., he decided to test out the job market.

“Many years later, I considered failing to be admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Ph.D. program as the greatest stroke of luck in my life!” he wrote in his autobiography.

Two of the best offers arrived from Ford Motor Company and Sylvania, a lesser-known electronics firm. Ford offered Mr. Chang $479 a month for a job at its research and development center in Detroit. Though charmed by the company’s recruiters, Mr. Chang was surprised to find the offer was $1 less than the $480 a month that Sylvania offered.

When he called Ford to ask for a matching offer, the recruiter, who had previously been kind, turned hostile and told him he would not get a cent more. Mr. Chang took the engineering job with Sylvania. There, he learned about transistors, the microchip’s most basic component.

“That was the start of my semiconductor career,” he said. “In retrospect, it was a damn good thing.”

Three years at Sylvania opened doors and cemented Mr. Chang’s passion for semiconductors. But Sylvania struggled, teaching him a lesson that would inform how he later ran TSMC.

“From the beginning, the semiconductor industry has been a fast-paced and unforgiving industry,” Mr. Chang wrote of Sylvania’s eventual collapse in his autobiography. “Once you fall behind, catching up becomes considerably difficult.”

In 1958, he jumped to a buzzy new semiconductor company, Texas Instruments. The Dallas company was “youthful and energetic,” with many employees working over 50 hours a week and sleeping overnight in the office. Four years later, Mr. Chang became an American, an identity he considers primary.

“Ever since I fled Communist China and went to the United States and became naturalized in 1962, my identity has always been American, and nothing else,” he said.

Mr. Chang became a pillar of Texas Instruments’ then world-beating semiconductor business. Breakthroughs were constant. In the 1970s, the firm produced a chip that could synthesize the human voice, which led to the famed Speak & Spell toy, a hand-held device that helped children with spelling and pronunciation.

“It’s just like Camelot, but it was not a long period of time,” he said.

In the late 1970s, Texas Instruments turned its focus to the burgeoning market for calculators, digital watches and home computers. Mr. Chang, then in charge of the semiconductor side, realized his career there was approaching a “dead end.”

It was time for something different.

If the first puzzle piece that led to TSMC’s creation was the textbook, the second was an experience that Mr. Chang had toward the end of his time at Texas Instruments.

In the early 1980s, Texas Instruments opened a chip factory in Japan. Three months after the production line began churning out chips, the plant’s “yield” was double that of the company’s factories in Texas. Yield is a key statistic that refers to how many usable chips emerge from production.

Mr. Chang was dispatched to Japan to solve the yield mystery. The key was the staff, he found, with turnover surprisingly low among well-qualified employees.

But try as it might, Texas Instruments could not find the same caliber of technicians in the United States. At one U.S. plant, the top candidate for a supervisor job had a degree in French literature and no engineering background. The future of advanced manufacturing appeared to be in Asia.

In 1984, Mr. Chang joined General Instrument, another chip firm, where a third puzzle piece fell into place. He met an entrepreneur who later started a company that would only design chips without also making them, which was then uncommon. He spotted a trend that would prove to have staying power: Today most semiconductor companies design chips and outsource manufacturing.

This final piece coincided with Taiwan’s transition from a labor-intensive and heavy industry economy to a high-tech one. When Taiwanese officials set their sights on developing the semiconductor industry, they asked Mr. Chang, whose reputation as a chip expert was established, to lead an institute for supercharging innovation.

So in 1985, Mr. Chang, then 54, left the United States for a place he knew only from several visits to a Texas Instruments factory.

“I certainly had no plan to spend nearly so much time in Taiwan,” he said. “I thought I was going back in maybe just a few years, and I really had no plan to set up TSMC, to set up any company in Taiwan.”

Within weeks of Mr. Chang’s arrival, Li Kwoh-ting, a government official who became known as the godfather of Taiwan’s tech development, asked him to make the state-led chip project commercially viable.

When Mr. Chang assessed Taiwan’s strengths and weaknesses, he sensed an opening. “I concluded that Taiwan was a lot more similar to Japan than the U.S.,” he said, referring to his experience with the Texas Instruments’ factory in Japan.

In 1987, Mr. Chang founded TSMC. The business model was clear in his head: TSMC would make chips for other companies and not design them. That meant it just had to win over those inside the industry and then focus on what it could do best — manufacturing.

From the get-go, Mr. Chang had plans for TSMC to tap into a global market. He introduced professional management systems, which were uncommon in Taiwan, at the company. To foster an international environment, internal communications were in English.

His vision proved prophetic. As semiconductors became more complex and expensive to produce, only a few firms could even afford to try. Making chips involves hundreds of steps that pull on advanced lasers and chemical manipulations to create tiny pathways for electronic signals that do the most basic calculations for a computer. Costs were astronomical.

Over the years, Mr. Chang kept going as others dropped out. If TSMC could attract enough customers, leveraging economies of scale, it had a chance to take out the kings: Intel and Samsung.

In 1997, Mr. Chang recruited a new head of research of development, Chiang Shang-yi. He told Mr. Chiang to benchmark TSMC against the industry leader, Intel.

“Our goal is to be No. 1, barring none,” Mr. Chang said.

Mr. Chiang was surprised. “To be No. 1, you have to spend three times as much as your next competitor,” he replied, implying that being in the lead would be too lofty and costly a goal.

“It may be three times, but I do want to spend enough so that we become No. 1,” Mr. Chang said. And he was prepared to be patient, even after stepping down as TSMC’s chief executive in 2005 and staying on as the company’s chairman.

In April 2009, angry TSMC employees — many who had recently been let go by the company — set up a protest camp at a leafy playground in Taipei’s quiet residential neighborhood of Dazhi. They were down the street from Mr. Chang’s upscale apartment building.

As dark fell, the protesters rolled out sleeping bags next to a slide and jungle gym, covering themselves with a large sign that read “TSMC lies lies lies.” Throughout its more than two-decade history, TSMC had never laid off employees. Yet after the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Chang’s successor, Rick Tsai, began letting employees go.

Mr. Chang, then 77, decided he could no longer stay on the sidelines. He took back his job, rehired the talent Mr. Tsai had let go and more than doubled TSMC’s spending.

Coming at a tough time for the industry, the move was not appreciated by investors. Elizabeth Sun, TSMC’s former head of investor relations, recalled her reaction to the news: “When I heard it, I felt like banging my head against a wall.”

But the bet paid off. In 2010, Mr. Chang got the call that would turbocharge TSMC’s growth and clinch its lead over Samsung and Intel. Jeff Williams, a senior vice president at Apple, reached out through Mr. Chang’s wife, Sophie Chang, who is a relative of Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn, Apple’s largest assembler.

The call led to a Sunday dinner with all four of them, which turned into negotiations the next day. Apple had worked with Samsung to produce the microchip it designed for the iPhone, but it was looking for a new partner, partly because Samsung had become a major smartphone competitor. TSMC, which does not compete with its customers, was in pole position for the contract.

The discussions stretched on for months. “It was very complicated — the contract itself,” Mr. Chang said. “It was the first time we ran into this kind of thing.”

At one point, Apple announced a two-month pause in talks. Mr. Chang heard Intel might have intervened.

Worried, Mr. Chang flew to San Francisco to meet Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, who reassured him. In a 2013 interview, Paul Otellini, then Intel’s chief executive, said he had turned down the chance to make the chips for the iPhone because Apple would not pay enough.

Mr. Chang would not make the same mistake. Apple demanded better terms and lower prices than others, but he understood the contract’s scale would help TSMC rocket past competitors. That was a lesson he learned from Bill Bain, who founded the consulting firm Bain & Company, back at Texas Instruments.

Mr. Bain, then a consultant for Boston Consulting Group, had worked in an office next to Mr. Chang for almost two years. He had analyzed Texas Instruments’ production and sales numbers and argued that the more the company produced, the better it would perform.

When the deal with Apple was complete, Mr. Chang borrowed $7 billion to build the capacity for making millions of chips for the iPhone.

In the ensuing years, Apple briefly turned to Samsung for iPhone chip production again, but TSMC became its primary chip maker. Apple is now TSMC’s largest client, accounting for about 20 percent of revenue.

Mr. Chang remains cautious about what he says about TSMC’s customers even now. After beginning a story about Apple at his office, he wondered whether he had said too much.

“I don’t think I have exceeded Apple’s limits of what to tell you,” he said.

In a statement, Mr. Williams, now Apple’s chief operating officer, said Mr. Chang had “pushed the semiconductor industry to new frontiers.”

In 2018, Mr. Chang, at 86 years old, retired again. By then, TSMC had succeeded where others lagged, mass producing chips with electronic pathways the size of a DNA double helix. That gave Mr. Chang confidence that he had achieved a key tenet for TSMC: technological leadership.

Among the awards and photos with world leaders that stud the walls of Mr. Chang’s Taipei office, one is a framed comic portraying his close relationship with Jensen Huang, a founder of the chip firm Nvidia.

If Apple turbocharged TSMC, it was Mr. Chang who helped make Nvidia the world’s most important designer of artificial intelligence chips. The cartoon tells the story. In the mid-1990s, when Nvidia was a start-up, Mr. Huang sent a letter to Mr. Chang asking if TSMC would make its chips. After a call with Mr. Huang, Mr. Chang agreed.

“I liked him,” Mr. Chang said of Mr. Huang.

By taking that chance, Mr. Chang helped spur the A.I. revolution in the United States. With TSMC’s manufacturing, Nvidia became the world’s most important A.I. chip designer. Breakthroughs like generative A.I. rely on huge numbers of Nvidia chips to find patterns in vast amounts of data.

In a 2018 speech at Mr. Chang’s retirement gathering, Mr. Huang said Nvidia — now worth $1 trillion — would not exist without TSMC. An inscription on the comic, which Mr. Huang gave to Mr. Chang, reads: “Your career is a masterpiece — a Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

For Mr. Chang, the final notes of that masterpiece have not yet been played. He is healthy for a nonagenarian, though he can no longer smoke a pipe — once his trademark in photos — after he had stents put into his heart a few years ago.

At his office, he still keeps a Bloomberg terminal. He also makes regular public appearances around Taiwan to discuss global politics and the economy. Like many, he worries about a potential conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan, though he believes the chance of such a confrontation is low.

“The chance of China invading Taiwan, amphibious warfare and all that stuff, I think that’s a very, very low probability,” he said. “A blockade of some kind, I think I still put it as low probability, but it’s still a chance and I want to avoid that.”

Mr. Chang said he was not worried about U.S. policies that have cut off Chinese firms from access to cutting-edge semiconductor technology.

“I think it’s still OK,” he said, though he noted U.S. companies would lose business and China would find ways to fight back.

As the conversation wound down, Mr. Chang said he had some regrets that he could not be in the driver’s seat as TSMC faces geopolitical challenges. But he said the timing of his retirement in 2018 made sense, driven by technology and not politics.

“I was literally sure that we had achieved technology leadership,” he said of that time. “I don’t think we’ll lose it.”


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