Idaho Governor Butch Otter said today that he had named James Ellick to be head of the Department of Commerce, to be effective July 1 when legislation splitting the agency from the Department of Labor takes effect.
Otter called Ellick “a veteran of Silicon Valley’s phenomenal growth and sustained high-tech success.”
Otter said Ellick had worked for Silicon Valley companies such as Fairchild Semiconductor, Applied Materials, and four startups, most notably Photon Dynamics, Inc., which he took public. He resigned soon after “for personal reasons.” He was earning around $200,000 a year at the time, and took a six-month consulting contract after his resignation. This isn’t unusual; such an arrangement enables new management to ask advice from the old, helps reduce the chance he’ll run out and found a competitor, and essentially gives the previous head a bonus that isn’t identified as such.
According to the press release, Ellick resigned because he wished to go back to working for private companies. Of course, not long afterward he became president, CEO and co-chairman of Mitsubishi Silicon America, which is hardly a private company. Since then, he’s been a consultant and investor.
So what kind of guy is Jim Ellick? That’s proving remarkably difficult to figure out. Partly because of his consulting career, he doesn’t appear much on the Internet. Otter said he lived in Hansville, Washington, a small town in Kitsap County, not far from Seattle, where the big annual event is the town rummage sale.
About the most interesting thing one can find about him is that he and his wife were among those who moved away from an exclusive gated community in San Ramon, California, due to an overofficious homeowner’s association president.
This is not necessarily bad: he’s not a “Star.” He’s not Bill Gates or Larry Ellison (mercurial founder of Oracle). On the other hand, he isn’t Larry Ellison, or Enron’s Ken Lay. We should count our blessings.
The companies for which he’s worked thus far are primarily hardware component vendors — Microns, in other words. He’s probably going to be really good at talking with Micron, which could jell nicely with some of the work the Boise Valley Economic Partnership is doing to help build a technology “cluster” in Boise. On the other hand, even Micron is offshoring much of its development; what are the chances he’s going to be able to encourage other component vendors to settle here? How good is he going to be at persuading a Google to open up a data center here to take advantage of our cheap power? How will Micron feel about his encouraging potential competitors to set up shop here?
As someone who reportedly prefers private companies, how’s he going to deal with working for a state government agency, with all the bureaucracy that entails? Is he going to be primarily the salesman, while someone else manages the day-to-day operations of the agency?
Someone who made $200,000 a year in 1996 and who’s moving to Idaho to run a state agency obviously isn’t motivated by money. How much is he getting paid? And if his motivation isn’t money, what is it? Does he have a list of deliverables?
What will this mean to the Office of Science and Technology in the Department of Commerce? How about the Governor’s Science and Technology Advisory Council? Will this help Idaho get a CIO?
How well is he going to work with some of Idaho’s other high-tech vendors? Living in San Ramon, he was probably pretty familiar with executives from Pacific Bell, which had its headquarters in the area, which may put him in good stead dealing with Qwest. On the other hand, chummy with those guys….
Ellick does not appear to be particularly political; at least, he didn’t appear to donate during the 2004 presidential campaign, nor did he come up during a cursory search of donors to political campaigns in California or Washington. Silicon Valley can tend blue, as is Kitsap; how well is he going to work in a very Republican Idaho?
Otter did what he said he was going to do: hire a Silicon Valley venture capitalist guy. It remains to be seen how well it’s going to work out.