|December 16, 2003|
|Engineering Alumni Named Chairman of UF Board of Trustees|
The UF Board of Trustees unanimously selected Manuel A. Fernandez on Dec. 3 to immediately replace Marshall Criser as chairman of the board. Criser had been chairman since the board was formed in July 2001. He resigned his position on the board to accept Gov. Jeb Bush's appointment on the Scripps Research Funding Corporation Board. Fernandez, who chaired the UF presidential search, is managing director of SI Ventures.
Manuel “Manny” Fernandez is a classic American success story. A teenage refugee from Cuba in 1959, he learned English and engineering at the same time, and built a career capped by running a billion dollar business. To top it all off, he is the first College of Engineering graduate to be appointed a trustee of the University of Florida.
Fernandez was originally from Havana, where his father had been a successful electrical engineer. He was 15 when the family left Cuba and settled in Daytona Beach. Because of the move, his high school career was disrupted. He decided to take the GED high school equivalency test and enroll at Daytona Beach Junior College.
Fernandez soon transferred to UF, where he suddenly found himself “a 16 year old junior in a big place.” He enrolled in the electrical engineering program – his father wished it and, Fernandez says, “It seemed natural, the logical path to take.”
He found the adjustment difficult, because of his limited English, but he had outstanding professors willing to help him. He also found that being around engineering students kept him grounded under difficult circumstances, and he made good friends. The first year at UF was tough academically, he says, but his peers and professors helped him make the grade. Fernandez received his bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering in 1967.
When Fernandez left UF, he began a fast-moving career. He first worked for ITT and then Harris Corporation. He was soon recruited to go to Silicon Valley to work at Fairchild. While at Fairchild, he made the switch to management, and in 1968 followed an opportunity to be the CEO at the Zilog Company. Zilog at one time was Intel’s main competitor – it made the microprocessor that fueled the development of the personal computer, the Z 80, which is remembered as the processor in Radio Shack’s TRS 80 computer. Exxon eventually bought Zilog, and Fernandez left to start his own business.
In 1982, Fernandez founded the Gavilan Computer Corporation, which made the first truly portable laptop. The computer won awards for its innovative design, but, “Unfortunately, it was ahead of its time,” Fernandez says. Another problem occurring at about the same time was a downturn in available venture capital. There was simply no market for the computer. Still, Fernandez says, “I loved my years at Gavilan.”
After Gavilan folded in 1985, Fernandez became the CEO of the Dataquest Company. Dataquest grew to be the pre-eminent market research company under Fernandez’s leadership. In 1991, as part of the management buy-out of Gartner, Fernandez went to head Gartner and took Gartner from a relatively small niche company with revenues of $40 million to a multinational billion-dollar company that reached a market capitalization high over $4 billion. Interestingly, Gartner bought Dataquest in 1995.
“This is pretty good for a company with no software or hardware product,” Fernandez says. “Gartner’s growth was aided by the explosion in information technology and by the switch from mainframe to PC environments in business. Originally, though, it took faith that there would be a diversified market for our research; then we had the challenge of building a marketing channel to reach millions of IT professionals.”
Computer users might be more impressed by another Fernandez accomplishment, warning the IT world about the Year 2000 problem earlier than anyone else. The distant early warning coming from Gartner, which had proven itself as the leading independent computer information group, made the transition into the new millennium virtually trouble-free.
Fernandez is also responsible for UF’s special partnership with Gartner. Gartner recognized UF as a pre-eminent institution, and wanted to enhance their mutual relationship. It was an unusual move, because Gartner rarely recruits employees from colleges, nor does it ask universities to do applied research for it.
Gartner has funded the Gartner Group Teaching Laboratories, which are housed in the Computer & Information Science & Engineering department. Gartner provided $300,000 for the state-of-the-art facility, as well as a $270,000 graduate fellowship endowment in CISE.
The real benefit for Gartner, Fernandez says, is that UF students are exposed to Gartner through the on-campus labs and, hopefully, learn to think of Gartner as the “voice of IT.” The idea was to raise student awareness that Gartner is “the only source of unbiased information on IT,” and that graduates, once employed, would go to Gartner for answers to IT questions. The company has a similar relationship with only four other institutions.
Fernandez retired from Gartner in September 2001 and now serves as chairman emeritus. Since then he has focused on his other company, SI Ventures, a venture capital company based in Ft. Myers, which invests in startup IT companies. “I like dealing with small companies,” Fernandez says.
He is also on the board of directors of several corporations and is director of the Fernandez Family Foundation, which funds UF scholarships for students from Lee County, Florida, where he has his home. A major Gator sports fan, he helps support the men’s baseball and soccer teams through his family’s foundation, as well.
Fernandez has been active with the Engineering Advisory Council for many years, and sees the college as improving all the time. “I am proud of being a UF alumnus, and I am honored to be selected as the new chairman of the UF Board of Trustees. I hope to help the college achieve more by helping to find ways for it to apply its resources, and to help the college and UF move to new heights, ” Fernandez says.