Robert B. Palmer is one to seize the moment. In 1970, as a young chip designer and co-founder of Mostek Corp., he visited Sprague Electric's Lab in North Adams, Mass. In a corner, he spied an odd contraption Sprague had abandoned, recalls L.J. Sevin, another Mostek founder and now a venture capitalist. Palmer realized it could be adopted to fix a nagging problem Mostek faced in building momory chips. He was right and his quick insight "had huge commercial inplictions," says Sevin.
That ability to salvage failed ideas should serve him well as CEO of $14 billion Digital Equipment Cor. In his seven years at DEC, Palmer has proved he can make things happen. As head of semiconductor operations, he got prototypes of DEC's Alpha, It's RISC chip, working in 20 days, not the usual 20 weeks, Getting Alpha to market quickly is crucial for DEC, which badly needs a successfull product to replace the 500,000 VAC minicomputers customers hav installed. Palmer's role in the project inpressed DEC directors and helpd pave his path to succeed founder Kenneth H. Olsen. "He has leadership qualities," says director Thomas L. Phillips, retured chairman of Raytheon Co. "He knows how to make a plan and abide by it."
Palmer's smarts and toughness have served him well since his hardscrabble youth. He was born in Gorman, Tex., a peanut-farming community 90 miles southwest of Fort Worth. In an interview last year, Palmer recalled leaving home at age 15 after a dispute with his father. He lived on his own and with friends until finishing hight school. Embarrassed at having to wear his friends' cast-off clothes, Palmer says he sought self-respect by excelling at school. He graduated as class valedictorian in 1958.
At Texas Tech, in Lubbock, Palmer waited tables while pursuing degress in math and physics. He joined Texas Instruments in.c in 1966, just as the microelectronics revolution was heating up, but left after a few years with fellow engineers to form Mostek, now a division of France's Thomson-CSF. With success, Palmer has loosened up. Now, he dirves a Porsche, wears expensive double-breasted suits, and sports a year-round tan. At staid DEC, he's know as GQ Bob.
RULE-BREAKER. He's also known for being fast-moving and decisive in a company that hase been neither. Even while closing 10 plants, Palmer has managed to make DEC a major force in chip technology. Palmer also has pushed a total-quality management program to trim production times. One strategy: to rely more on local suppliers to keep tabs on quality of parts. Palmer's success makes him an anomaly at DEc. He's the outsider who flourished in its taciturn engineering culture. He has gotten along, rising quickly, but has broken many rules along the way. To put DEC at the forefront in chips, for instance, Palmer hired key outside talen from Thomson and Siemens.
Still, running an entire company -- never mind the world's third-largest computer maker -- poses challenges that palmer has never encountered. But Sevin, his lingtime buddy, preducts that DEC's new CEO will rise to the occation. "Bob's smart enough to know what he doen't know," Sevin Says. That could be a cardinal irtue for DEC's new CEO.