Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co’s (TSMC, 台積電) chief financial officer Lora Ho’s (何麗梅) career has taken her through smoke-filled meeting rooms with men cracking lewd jokes. It has also seen her helm US$46 billion in capital spending at Taiwan’s largest chipmaker.
Since becoming chief financial officer in 2003, Ho has overseen a tripling of annual profit amid TSMC’s escalating battle with Intel Corp and Samsung Electronics Co to make chips for the world’s largest technology companies.
Her 30-year career charts a climb through male-dominated management teams, motherhood and early adoption of technology to the top ranks of a company that earns about US$8 in revenue from every smartphone sold worldwide.
“The glass ceiling is in your heart,” Ho said in an interview at the company’s Hsinchu headquarters. “It does not really exist.”
Commanding half the market for contract chipmaking and supplying chips to Apple Inc and Qualcomm Inc, TSMC this year won orders to make the processors that power Apple’s iPhone, ending Samsung’s exclusivity.
That victory is part of a continuing trend at TSMC to manufacture more of the chips that connect a device to networks, control its display or sense movement, netting what Ho estimates is an average of about US$8 in sales from every smartphone sold worldwide, regardless of brand. Intel and Samsung also see potential in the chip foundry business, opening up more of their factories to the designs of outside clients.
Increasing demand and heightened competition mean that Ho has had to find funds to cover annual capital spending that has ballooned from US$2.7 billion in 2009 to a record US$9.6 billion this year — a figure exceeded by only Samsung and Intel in the chip industry — while still maintaining a return on equity that has kept shareholders hanging onto the stock.
“For fiscal and financial management, TSMC gets a five-star rating,” said John Brebeck, Taipei-based senior adviser at investment advisory firm Peace Field Ltd.
Ho’s credibility allows TSMC to easily tap capital markets, he added.
In 2011, TSMC sold bonds for the first time since 2002, commencing a US$7 billion debt-raising spree that allowed Ho to access low interest rates and still pay a dividend. The same year, Institutional Investor magazine named her Asia’s best chief financial officer.
A graduate of National Chengchi University, Ho, 58, followed her mother’s advice to become an accountant because it was easier to find work. Her break came at a local pharmaceutical company, where she became the only female manager among a team of “old men.”
Ho recalls sitting through meetings as colleagues smoked and told lewd jokes.
More than three decades after Ho started her career, Taiwan still lags behind on gender equality, with 30.7 women in leadership positions for every 100 men, according to a MasterCard Inc survey of gender parity conducted last year.
Taiwan ranked fifth out of 14 Asia-Pacific economies in overall equality, while placing sixth behind nations including New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines in the leadership category.
“It is still very difficult for women to move up and be considered credible managers” at companies in Asia, said Veronique Salze-Lozac’h, senior director of economic development at nonprofit Asia Foundation in Bangkok. “Very often, when you are the only woman in the room, you just have to go with the whole atmosphere and cannot really be too outspoken.”
From pharmaceuticals, Ho stepped into Taiwan’s burgeoning technology industry as a cost controller at a personal computer company before moving on to a chipmaker.
By 1999, she was recruited by TSMC, which at the time had annual sales of US$2.4 billion.
Her career advanced because she picked up on technology at a time when few companies had computers, she said. In the early 1980s, she had learned to use spreadsheets on her home computer and was soon able to do the work of three people.
“In many cases, I was the only woman. It did not make me feel uncomfortable; I got used to it,” Ho said of the male-dominated business culture she faced in the late 1970s.
She did not complain about the smoking or jokes because she “did not want to spend time on that. I just keep quiet, do not echo it.”
Balancing cash flow, planning strategy and working under four different male chief executives officer to manage TSMC’s finances, Ho said her gender had been irrelevant.
A mother of two, Ho says that having her in-laws help with childcare allowed her to focus on her career, while she got support from her husband, who also works in the technology industry.
She was introduced to Facebook Inc chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s now-famous TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk by her daughter.
Sandberg’s Lean In speech gave voice to much of what Ho had already discovered about balancing the competing pressures of family and career.
“She speaks for what really happens,” Ho said. “‘Do not give up before you have to,’ right? Females are too easy to give up.”
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