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Dodging Elephants: The Autobiography of J. Fred Bucy

J. Fred Bucy, Edited by
Kenneth R. Martin

Pages: 252
ISBN: 978-145752-266-6
List Price: 19.95
Available: January 2014
Edition: Perfectbound

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Dodging Elephants tells the story of how a contented teenage soda jerk from Tahoka, Texas, with no plan for his future, found his way to higher education, landed a research job at Texas Instruments, and, over three decades, helped move that company from a small, oil-searching firm to a worldwide electronics giant. From the start J. Fred Bucy was a tireless, driven manager who turned failures into successes. Taking on TI’s government equipment division in 1963, he successfully championed ingenious new designs. In 1967 he moved to the company’s volatile, ever-expanding semiconductor division, establishing factories worldwide. Meanwhile, he had become an influential advisor on U.S. government export regulation. By 1976, when TI was competing in the consumer market, he was the company’s president. Bucy left TI in 1986 after a brief, controversial term as CEO. His autobiography is rich in anecdotes and unsparingly honest.

Educated in physics, not business, Bucy brought fresh ideas to challenging projects. Dedicated, fearless, and totally absorbed by his assignments, he proved a good fit for TI’s workaholic, highly innovative culture. In the mid-1950s, his team developed geophysical equipment that revolutionized the search for oil, while he simultaneously rescued the company’s bizarre, floundering attempt to install oil-pumping equipment on Lake Maracaibo.

Promoted to general manager of TI’s struggling government equipment group in 1963, Bucy stuck his neck out, with dramatic results. He turned the group’s ingenious but failing terrain-following radar project from disaster to success. He secretly funded complex infrared technology when the company lost interest. He sustained a struggling effort to produce a laser-guided bomb, literally hiding it from corporate view. These and other innovations proved to be of strategic military importance, and they coined money for TI. Bucy also enacted disciplined management procedures, some of which were later adopted by the entire company.

Moving to TI’s enormous semiconductor business in 1967, Bucy kept pace with the industry’s relentless downward price curve by designing devices to cost, funding new product research, installing the world’s first automated manufacturing system, and building TI plants far and wide around the world, eye-opening experiences all.

Bucy became TI president in 1974, when the company had commenced its fateful plunge into consumer products: handheld calculators, then digital wristwatches, then a disastrously unsuccessful home computer, and the wildly successful educational toy, Speak & Spell. Bucy, who became Texas Instruments’s CEO in 1984, gives a candid account of this period and the company’s top managers. He resigned in 1988.

The book is leavened with amusing, often frustrating political episodes, observations on American education, and a fascinating, previously untold account of Texas’s successful bid to become the site of the nation’s momentous but ill-starred Super Collider.

Dodging Elephants is stylishly written, full of surprises, and historically significant.

Growing up on the rural High Plains of Texas in the years of the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and World War II, Fred Bucy learned the value of self-reliance and hard work. He seemed headed for a farming career when his life took an abrupt turn. Against substantial odds, and with a family to support, he earned two degrees in Physics and, in 1953, joined a young but promising company, Texas Instruments Incorporated. For the next thirty years he played a major role in TI’s phenomenal growth and history-making innovation, moving steadily upward, becoming TI’s president in 1976 and its CEO in 1984. It was a tough climb. Along the way he successfully managed a variety of brilliant, often-endangered projects including digital computers, sophisticated weaponry, and complex semiconductors, playing a crucial role in the explosive, worldwide expansion of microchip technology.
Bucy had no game plan for his life in general or his career in particular, but when an interesting challenge appeared, he made the most of it. Although untrained in business, he brought insight into thorny technical and management problems, turning potential failures into major successes. Inside TI, he became known as a demanding, tireless manager who would stand his ground with superiors when necessary. His rewards were rapid promotion and ever-larger responsibilities.
TI’s semiconductor business grew exponentially, and Bucy oversaw its expansion into Europe, Japan, and the Third World, an exhaustive process that kept him globe-trotting almost constantly, leaving family affairs to his capable, loving wife, Odetta. During his presidency, TI plunged into the retail consumer market, a venture full of rude awakenings, hard decisions, and internal controversy. He left TI in 1986. An outspoken conservative in his personal life, Bucy drew public attention to the growing danger of selling America’s cutting-edge, proprietary technology abroad. As his influence grew, he rubbed elbows with many state and local politicians, contacts that ranged from casual to historically important. In 1979, he was a member of the U.S. trade mission to China, an icebreaking event of great importance to both nations.
As a long-serving member and chairman of Texas Tech University’s board of regents, Bucy promoted unorthodox ideas about higher education while becoming a major benefactor of that institution. After retirement he chaired the Texas Research Laboratory Commission, through which Texas was selected as the site of the enormous Super Collider project, a cliff-hanging effort of well-earned success and abject frustration. J. Fred Bucy’s autobiography, Dodging Elephants, is a lively account of important triumphs, comic episodes, and a few disasters, told with refreshing candor.