First Solar President May Join Rival After Leaving, Analyst Says

Bruce Sohn, First Solar Inc.’s president of operations, may pursue work as chief executive of another solar company when he steps down at the end of this month, an analyst said.

The world’s largest maker of thin-film photovoltaic panels said yesterday in a statement that Sohn won’t be replaced after his April 30 departure.

Sohn was a top executive at the Tempe, Arizona-based company, and didn’t get the CEO job when First Solar’s original top executive Michael Ahearn was named chairman in 2009. That role went to an outsider, Rob Gillette.

“Some people believed that Bruce Sohn might have been the heir-apparent” at the time, said Mark Bachman, an analyst with New York-based investment bank Auriga USA LLC. “Everybody aspires to have those three letters after their name, CEO,” and Gillette may have “impeded his path.”

Sohn, 49, joined the company from Intel Corp. in 2007, and his expertise was in developing a reliable manufacturing process, Bachman said. Those skills were invaluable at First Solar, and may be equally valued at another solar company.

It’s “very possible” that Sohn may end up running a rival solar company, Bachman said.

Nathaniel Bullard, lead solar analyst for North America at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, speculated that Sohn may move into other areas. “My guess is that he lays low for a little while and either enhances his government activity with his involvement with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Manufacturing Council, or enters venture capital,” he said.

Non-Compete Agreement

Bachman said Sohn may have a non-compete agreement in place, and may not be able to move immediately to another solar company.

Bachman said it’s notable that First Solar will not find someone to take over the role, a sign that the task of developing the company’s manufacturing technology is largely complete.

“That heavy lifting has been done,” he said. “Now it’s a reiteration process.”

Bullard suggested another option -- that Sohn will take time off. “The years of ramp-up to global commercial operations are extremely busy for any executive.”

First Solar’s shares were little-changed after the announcement. It fell less than 1 percent to $144 after the close of regular trading yesterday on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

“It probably shouldn’t move,” Bachman said. “The share price is predicated on being able to sell product,” and Sohn’s departure doesn’t change First Solar’s ability to produce and deliver solar cells.

A First Solar spokesman said he couldn’t comment on Sohn’s departure.