Meet CW Chin of Applied Materials

Upon arriving in Taiwan for master’s degree studies in 2001, CW Chin did not expect that the two years he planned to spend on the island would become two decades. With Taiwan as his home base, Chin’s journey from MBA graduate to Managing Director of Corporate Development & Public Affairs at Applied Materials has been far from static. His broad skill set, leadership mindset, and language abilities have helped him navigate one of the world’s most influential industries, sending him on numerous trips around the world, attending midnight board meetings, and performing ad hoc interpretation during high-stakes negotiations. Chin has also been an active AmCham member for many years, and served as Chairperson from 2020 to 2021.

Chin connected virtually with TOPICS Associate Editor Julia Bergström in January to discuss his approach to leadership, how the semiconductor industry works to lower its carbon footprint, and how diversifying work functions can help create a fast track for one’s career. An abridged version of their conversation follows.

What made you decide to pursue your degree in economics and later an MBA? How did it help prepare you for your eventual career?

I was something of an athlete in high school; I played football and ran track and field. My early role models were athletes or coaches, and I always wanted to give back and mentor others the same way my coaches had done for me, through coaching either at the high school or college level. Because of my bilingual background, I was always interested in international business.

I was accepted into the University of California, Berkeley’s economics department but also took a lot of classes outside of my major, such as political science, game theory, business, and Japanese. After graduating, I attended National Taiwan University’s MBA program the following fall. I ran on the track team at NTU for a few months, but given the lower priority athletics had in my life at that point, I decided to focus on my studies and career.  

My network at NTU helped me significantly. Our professors were well connected in the business community, and we had some classes with the EMBA students, who we would help with projects. Our classes included people from IBM, Citibank, and ChinaTrust – big names – who were happy to make job recommendations for us. In a very broad sense, the curriculum also prepared me for my career. Every company has a different way of performing analysis and due diligence, but the logic I learned in class has definitely been relevant.

Was there anyone in particular that influenced you early in your career? What did you learn from them?

I’ve been lucky in that I have had a great boss at every company I’ve worked at. I still keep in touch with all my previous bosses, sharing personal and professional information. At the beginning of my career, I had a very short stint at my friend’s uncle’s company as a special assistant to the president. He was a gentleman-type businessperson, and his corporate morals and standards were very high. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with many senior, C-level managers in the role of chief of staff at Micron, Applied Materials, and other companies.

I was also strongly influenced by the President and the Chief Financial Officer of Power Chip when I worked there. We used to go on roadshows abroad to do fundraising, which would entail intense week-long trips around the world. In each city we went to, we would meet with two or three key investors. I spent a lot of time with the two leaders during these projects and learned a great deal from them.

Working closely with leadership teams and learning about the technical side of the products as well as the financing early on helped me build the career I have now. That kind of education was just as, if not more, valuable than my MBA.

What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of working in your industry?

The semiconductor industry is quite hot these days; we are at the forefront of innovation. Anything connected needs a chip, and Applied Materials provides the tools that build that technology. Working within one of the most critical industries in the world is rewarding in itself, especially as we’re now working to evolve the industry beyond just trying to grow faster and become more powerful. There’s a heavy focus on lowering power usage and our products’ environmental and social impact, and we constantly innovate to make our tools more sustainable and environmentally friendly. As a result, chips are getting faster while using less power, which benefits both users and the environment.

Before the pandemic we had initiatives to help minimize travel, and COVID has expedited that process. Sometimes you need to send engineers to install a tool for a client and show them how to use it. Although we still use our regional training centers, we’ve complemented them with augmented and virtual reality (VR) – we use VR headsets and customized VR tools that look like the tools used to install our products. This allows us to teach the process virtually, instead of having to fly to the site each time. For its efforts, the company is included in many prestigious rankings, of which I’m very proud.

What does a typical workday look like for you? What are the advantages of being based in Taiwan for someone with your job description? 

My job centers around the Pacific Time Zone. A typical day starts with calls to California at around 8 a.m. Around midday, I do administrative tasks. In the evening until about midnight, I have meetings with colleagues on the East Coast and in Europe. Since our HQ and most of my colleagues are on the West Coast, due to COVID and the inability to travel, I also attend board meetings that last through the night.

Before COVID, I would travel a lot. I’d typically go to the U.S. once a month – leaving on a Wednesday and returning to Taipei on Sunday. As we have learned with COVID, we can function via videoconference, but in my opinion, nothing replaces the efficiency of a face-to-face meeting. I also took many trips to China, Japan, and Singapore to negotiate deals. That’s what corporate development is all about – a lot of facetime for relationship building.

Taiwan is an excellent hub because you have perfect geographic proximity to most locations in the APAC region. All my jobs have had an outbound feature, and Taiwan is a great place to commute regionally from; you can get anywhere in East Asia within five hours. Apart from convenience, the talent is exceptional, and the cost of living is great. All the studies showing that Taiwan is one of the world’s best places for expats to live speak for themselves.

What motivates you and how do you in turn motivate and cultivate talent?

Transparency and honesty are beneficial to any relationship, including professional ones. I’m not allowed to tell my staff all the details of all our projects, but I try to keep them informed on the company’s strategic direction. They should understand that they are part of the process and that their tasks are part of a greater strategy. Some managers don’t like to get too close to their employees since they might have to lay them off later down the line. I’m the opposite: I think you should have a great working relationship with your staff to understand and motivate them.

When I have a sense of ownership of a project, I’ll be more interested in going to work every day. Of course, some people are motivated by financial incentives, but I feel that most people want to achieve a sense of accomplishment from their job. I try to give this to my team by keeping them involved and trusting them with responsibility.

Applied Materials also provides many opportunities to diversify work functions. We do a lot of cross-management and cross-departmental teamwork, and before COVID this involved travel opportunities. The chance to go abroad is a strong motivator – going to Singapore or the U.S. to work for a couple of months is an invaluable experience for most young people.

What advice do you have for young people looking to have a career similar to yours?

My language abilities have definitely aided my career. Apart from being bilingual in English and Chinese, I’m at least functional in Japanese, and many Taiwanese companies do business and partner with Japan. There was a point when I had to interpret at high-level negotiations; the talks were highly confidential, and you don’t bring in a translator for some discussions.

Some people have very particular job descriptions, but I try to be diverse. If you’re purely focused on finance and don’t learn the technology side, you’re bound to lose out. I preach this to everyone who works for me; you need to know more about what products you’re making and all aspects of your business, especially in our industry. Understanding finance, geopolitical situations, how governments operate – this enables you to move between departments and functions. If you’re willing to spend a couple more hours a day learning about the different functions within your company or take in-house courses, it will benefit your career.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I still love to exercise as athletics has been a huge part of my life. I try to at least get between 30 minutes and an hour of exercise every day, whether that’s through running, playing golf, or snowboarding in the wintertime. Now that I have kids, I like to go running with them. I also enjoy food; I do a lot of baking and cooking in my free time. It’s a great way to spend time with family.