Viavi Solutions board chairman Rick Belluzzo: Hardheaded and softhearted

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Like many business executives, Viavi Solutions board chairman Rick Belluzzo relishes big opportunities, such as the chance to contribute to the creation of a new generation of Hewlett-Packard laser printers or the Microsoft XBOX gaming system.

“I like to see companies be built and create things that change people’s lives. That’s pretty exciting,” said Belluzzo, 62, who grew up in Santa Rosa and returned to live here in 2011.

But the alumnus of Montgomery High School and Santa Rosa Junior College says leadership means more than focusing on performance. It also involves striving to do right by people.

His business philosophy is summed up as “Hardheaded & Softhearted,” which also is the title of a 2013 book he wrote with executive coach and speaker Krish Dhanam. The phrase comes from HP co-founder Dave Packard, who Belluzzo once heard say, “To be a successful leader, you need to be hardheaded and softhearted.”

Belluzzo recently ended six months as the interim CEO of Viavi, a Milpitas-based company with $232 million in revenues last quarter. He stepped in last August after Viavi announced the departure of CEO Tom Waechter, who had been with the company since 2007.

Viavi, formerly known as JDS Uniphase, employs about 475 workers in Santa Rosa as part of its Optical Security and Performance division. Among the local products are color-shifting pigments used on the currency of more than 100 countries to thwart counterfeiting.

For Belluzzo, the hardheaded part of leadership means seeing challenges clearly and showing determination to solve vexing problems. Being softhearted means treating people with respect.

A difficult lesson in these concepts came in 1989. Belluzzo was then a young HP division general manager overseeing production of the world’s first laser printer priced under $1,000.

Success relied on getting a really good price for the device’s print engine, which in turn required a commitment by Hewlett-Packard to Japan’s Canon Inc. to buy higher volumes of the component than was justified by the marketing forecasts.

Belluzzo made the commitment. The printer went to market, but sales stayed in line with forecasts and HP was soon trying to cope with an inventory buildup of more than 350,000 units. The only solution was for Belluzzo to go to Canon and plead to reduce output.

In Japan, difficult negotiations produced a new agreement with reduced output in return for a slightly higher price for the print engines.

The Canon officials then sought one more thing, namely for Belluzzo to go to the affected factory and personally apologize for the financial pain he was about to bring on its workers by the slowdown. He agreed.

“I had to be accountable for that,” he recalled. He wrote that the experience was “sobering and humbling” and caused him to see “how my decision impacted a company, a community and many lives.”

In the end, he said, the printer project was a “grand success,” work increased at the factory and HP’s relationship with Canon was preserved.

While having worked for two of America’s top tech companies, Belluzzo counts as modest both his beginnings in Santa Rosa and his achievements as a public school student.

He was the son of an Italian immigrant who first came to the U.S. as a prisoner of war in 1944. His father, Joseph Belluzzo, a machinist, is credited with popularizing soccer in Sonoma County and with forming the Santa Rosa Youth Soccer League in the late 1960s. Joseph Belluzzo died in 2009, but his portrait can be seen today on the exterior of The Press Democrat’s downtown Santa Rosa building, selected as one of 50 most influential people in the county because of his efforts to promote the game he loved.

The son admits he wasn’t much of a student at Montgomery High, so much so that a guidance counselor once suggested that he next pursue trade school rather than college.

But in the summer after graduation, he began to make changes, including getting a job and losing 50 pounds. At the junior college, he became a straight-A student.

“Santa Rosa JC was just a gift for me,” he said. His experience showed that late bloomers still can succeed and “you can transform yourself.”

He graduated from Golden Gate University in San Francisco and began working at Hewlett-Packard in 1975 as a financial analyst. He left the company nearly 23 years later in 1998 as an executive vice president. The Wall Street Journal said his rise through the ranks earned him the nickname “Rocket Rick.”

After a stint as CEO of computer maker SGI, he went to Microsoft in 1999 and by early 2000 had been promoted as president and COO.

It was there that he made a lasting impact on one of his managers for his “softhearted” approach.

During Belluzzo’s tenure, in 2000, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and CEO Steve Balmer approved the high-stakes development of a gaming console, XBOX. In its first iteration, the product lost at least $5 billion before financial success came with XBOX 360.

Robbie Bach, the “chief XBOX officer” leading the project, pushed forward with his team to develop the new gaming system.

But after 15 months, he concluded that the effort was seriously in danger of failing, and he personally was failing as a husband and a father.

“There was no light in the tunnel,” Bach recalled in a recent interview.

On May 25, 2001 at 2:02 a.m., a frustrated, worn-out Bach sent Belluzzo an email seeking to resign.

As recounted in his book, “XBOX Revisited,” Bach told his boss that despite his desire to devote time and energy to his family, “the job (or at least the way I’m doing it) is pulling me from this.”

Belluzzo, however, refused to accept the resignation. Instead, that same day he helped Bach sort through his list of business and personal problems.

Some of the practical solutions he offered “ultimately changed my trajectory as a manager and leader,” Bach wrote. Belluzzo also introduced Bach to two business/family coaches to help him find ways to better balance time for work and family.

Bach remained at Microsoft until 2010, when he retired as president of its entertainment and devices division. He still considers what Belluzzo did to be “totally rare.”

“He thought about me as a person,” Bach said. “And that is super powerful.”

Those who know Belluzzo describe him as more than a talented businessman.

His friend Rick Carvolth, the chief medical officer for St. Joseph Health Sonoma County, sees complexity in Belluzzo: an introvert who nonetheless can be extremely personable; a private soul who can get very curious about what other people do and why they do it; and a busy man who nonetheless is looking for ways to make a difference personally as well as professionally.

“I’ve been impressed with his ability to relate to a variety of people,” Carvolth said. “I think that actually speaks a lot about him.”

Dion Joannou, a senior vice president at Viavi, said as interim CEO Belluzzo offered the right balance of “supporting but not micromanaging” his managers and of being “very open to everyone’s perspective.”

He noted that Belluzzo was willing to move forward on matters even when his team hadn’t come to a consensus on direction. He gained support to do so by first letting everyone voice their thoughts.

“It’s so much more powerful when people feel listened to,” Joannou said.

Belluzzo’s title may have been interim CEO, but “he didn’t act like an interim,” Joannou said. “He acted like a CEO.”

For his part, Belluzzo said a leader’s job is “to bring clarity” but also to know that “you can’t wait until you have all the information because it never comes.”

He said he listens because he wants to be informed. And relating to staff has proved important in order for them to feel willing to “tell me things I didn’t want to hear.”

He joined the board of what was then JDSU in 2005 and became board chairman in 2012. Last August JDSU split into two new companies, Viavi Solutions and Lumentum Holdings. Belluzzo remained with Viavi.

About the time of the split, Belluzzo found himself dealing with Waechter’s anticipated but yet unannounced departure. He recalled a day last summer at the county fair races, when he became unexpectedly locked in phone discussions about whether or not he should step in temporarily to lead Viavi until a new CEO could be hired.

Afterward, he talked with his wife, Pamela, as the couple made the 1.5-mile trek from the fairgrounds back to their home in the McDonald neighborhood. With his wife’s support, he agreed to become the interim CEO.

Among other things, he said, that meant “I lived at the Fremont Marriott for months.”

But for that time, he counts as success not only the February hiring of new CEO Oleg Khaykin, but also helping Viavi make strides in regaining momentum in core businesses, reducing operating expenses, developing new business opportunities and becoming more effective in the marketplace. And he credited the local division here for helping the efforts with its “best performance in many, many years.”

“The business in Santa Rosa was a big contributor,” he said.

Along with his work on the Viavi board, Belluzzo is the U.S. partner for Italian venture firm Innogest SGR. As such, he travels to Italy to advise young entrepreneurs and also works with American contacts to “connect Italian innovation with the tech industry in the U.S.”

Belluzzo now holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Italy. His father in 1972 took him on a six-week visit in Italy, a time that enabled the son to make lasting connections with family in the old country,

Said Belluzzo, “He also grew in me a love for Italy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit

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