RIP Al Shugart

Al Shugart, the Hawaiian-shirted co-founder of Seagate and computing legend has died, aged 76.


Al Shugart, the Hawaiian-shirted co-founder of Seagate has died, having become literally a legend in the disk drive business. Aged 76, he passed away following complications after a heart attack.

Al Shugart was famously down-to-earth. He would arrive at Seagate's offices dressed in a tie-less, short-sleeved polyester shirt, do without a personal assistant and brew coffee for the people in his office area. He was a chain-smoker and hated over-complex presentations. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) was almost a mantra for him.

Seagate's Al Shugart: RIP a computing legend

Seagate, then Shugart Technology, was founded by Shugart, Tom Mitchell and Finis Conner in 1979 to make hard drives for a new type of computer, the personal computer. It built 5.25-inch form factor drives.

Shugart was born in Los Angeles and began his career working for IBM in San Jose as a field engineer, becoming the product manager for its disk products, then the most profitable business in IBM. He was a crucial contributor to the world’s first disk drive, the Advanced Disk File or IBM 1301. Under his management IBM developed the floppy disk. Shugart was promoted to director of Engineering for the IBM's Systems Development Division. But he left in 1969 to be VP of Product Development at Memorex, staying until 1973. That year he founded Shugart Associates which was later bought by Xerox. Shugart left it in 1974. He was a private consultant to the technology industry from 1975 to 1979, when he, Conner and Mitchell started what was to become the largest disk drive manufacturer in the world.

Seagate was once involved in the tape business, as a result of a merger with Conner Peripherals in 1996, but got out of it to focus on disk drives. During its tape business activities it co-developed the Linear Tape Open (LTO) format with IBM and HP. LTO is now the world's dominant tape format. The tape business was off-loaded into Certance which was acquired by Quantum.

Seagate is a vertically-integrated company unlike competitor Western Digital which uses a group of suppliers for the various components of a hard drive: platters; read/write heads; control circuitry and so forth. Earlier products had a reputation for somewhat variable quality but now Seagate makes some of the consistently highest quality drives available

The purpose of Seagate was - is - to make a profit. Shugart and his VPs made Seagate staff work tremendously hard and under great pressure. Nicknames for the company included "slavegate" and "stressgate". If the company succeeded with its pressure cooker internal environment then the staff shared in the profit. There was no corporate politically correct internal PR about convoluted mission statements or the like. A Seagate spokesperson, Julie Still, said: "No one blows sunshine up your behind at Seagate."

Shugart's management style was clear-sighted and relied on much delegation to hard-driving lieutenants. Because of his honesty and the way Seagate rewarded loyal employees who could take the pressure and perform, Shugart was revered by his staff.

This high stress workstyle was built up over many years when three people ran Seagate: Al Shugart, Doug Mahon doing product design; and Tom Mitchell, an ex-marine, in charge of operations. Shugart was the strategist and Mitchell the tactician. It was an environment characterised as "raw knuckle". Mitchell had a hand grenade on his desk and made people work over Christmas and through Thanksgiving. There was a high staff turnover rate as people simply burned out under the pressure. Mitchell was Shugart's operations rottweiler. He was described by an analyst as the Darth Vader of the hard drive industry and left after a failed attempt to become CEO.

The hard drive business is a demanding industry to work in with product cycles of under a year, capacity jumps of 60 percent a year, format changes from 5.25in to 3.5in to 2.5in to 1.8in and even smaller micro-drives, plus intense competition driving price drops of 10 percent a year or more. Indeed Seagate instigated many price wars to try and shift stock and weaken competitors. The industry's volume is staggering. In April 1999 Seagate shipped its 250 millionth drive, just six years after shipping its 50 millionth unit.

Because there were so many competing suppliers and because it is a volume production industry the companies in it suffered from alternating supply gluts and starvation. Many suppliers failed and the industry has rapidly consolidated with Seagate emerging at the top of the heap.

Since the millennium and with fewer suppliers left the product delivery situation has stabilised and the industry's boom and bust reputation looks set to become history. Earlier this year Seagate acquired Maxtor to consolidate its front ranking.

Shugart wrote three books. "Ernest Goes To Washington (Well, Not Exactly)" was the story of a run for Congress. "Fandango, The Story of Two Guys Who Wanted to Own a Restaurant" was his account of his time in the restaurant business. "Al: The Wit & Wisdom of Al Shugart" ranged over topics such as the tyranny of hi-tech to the simple joy of curiosity.

From 1993 to 1997 he was Data Storage's most admired executive. He resigned from Seagate in July 1998, founding, as his website states "Al Shugart International, a resource center focused on helping entrepreneurs transform great ideas into great companies with lasting value."

Al Shugart was legendary. A favourite saying of his about leadership gives an example of his unconventional style: "Find a parade and get in front of it."

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