Nearly four years ago, Mike Lehman, then CFO of Sun Microsystems, made the career move only a fortunate few can afford: he retired at age 51.
After 15 years at Sun, 10 of them as CFO, he walked away from the constant tumult of Silicon Valley to a presumable life of leisure. Sun, meanwhile, fell on hard times: its revenue and share price flattened, and by last October things turned so ugly that shareholders cast a nonbinding vote demanding that the company’s poison-pill defense be abandoned, a move that many analysts construed as a collective call for Sun to put itself on the block. The same day that vote was cast, CFO Steve McGowan announced plans to retire at the end of the current fiscal year, and in February of this year Sun announced that Lehman would return as the “new” CFO.
How was retirement?
My running joke was that the toughest decision I had to make each morning was whether to go golfing or mountain biking. But in truth, I sat on four corporate boards during the Sarbox transition, including my position as audit-committee head for Sun, so I was really very busy. It’s hard to say I was living up to anyone’s definition of retirement.
You remained very close to Sun during your retirement. Did they ask you to come back, or did you volunteer?
As soon as I heard about Steve’s plan to retire, I raised my hand and said, “I’m ready to come back. Put me in, coach.” During my retirement I had communicated to [senior management] that I was committed to Sun and prepared to step back in if the opportunity presented itself.
Steve McGowan announced his plan to retire in October 2005, and Sun announced you as the new CFO in February ’06. What took place during the intervening three-plus months?
It was in the company’s best interest to conduct a thorough internal and external search, and after an extensive review process they decided that I was the best candidate for the job.
You’re returning to Sun at a time when the company is in a far different position than it was when you left. What makes this move appealing for you?
Our acquisitions of StorageTek and SeeBeyond give us the best product lineup we’ve had in a long time, but there is work to be done to make sure we leverage those deals. And I plan to help us create a leaner, more effective business model. Over the next 90 days, Scott [Editor's Note — McNealy resigned as CEO after this article went to press, but remains with Sun as Chairman of the Board], president and COO Jonathan [Schwartz], and I will look at everything we’re doing across the company in great detail to really examine how and where we’re doing business. Another key for me will be to improve our relations with investors. Clearly, in the last few years the company hasn’t been the darling of Wall Street, and I want to get out and talk to people to improve those relationships.