A legend in both technology and venture capital circles, Eugene Kleiner described himself simply as an “engineer” until the day he died. Kleiner passed away Nov. 20 at the age of 80.
Kleiner co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor, which laid the foundation for Silicon Valley, then went on to co-found Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which transformed the way venture capital is practiced. He could have achieved rock star status, but like George Harrison of the Beatles, Kleiner was content to be The Quiet One.
The two words that friends and colleagues use most to describe Kleiner are “quiet” and “gentleman,” words rarely associated with venture capitalists today. “He was a quiet kind of guy, and always a gentlemen,” says Paul Wythes, a founder of Sutter Hill Ventures who knew Kleiner since the 1972 founding of Kleiner Perkins. “He wanted to listen to what was said rather than being the guy who lead the conversation.”
“He was almost courtly in demeanor,” says Pitch Johnson, founding partner of Asset Management Co. who once sat on the board of Tandem Computer with Kleiner. “He was a very decent, honorable person, and he was soft spoken. I never heard him raise his voice.”
“Eugene was one of finest gentlemen I’ve ever known,” says Arthur Rock, who helped Kleiner get the financial backing to co-found Fairchild in 1957. “He never had a bad word to say about anybody.”
Even though Kleiner was “reserved and soft spoken, there was a steel backbone to him,” Rock says. “He wanted to do well in the worst way.”
Kleiner success made him a Silicon Valley legend, and it is all the more dramatic considering where he started. Born in Vienna, he and his family fled Nazi occupation in 1938. He made his way through France, Belgium and Portugal before landing in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1941 at the age of 17, says his only son, Robert.
He was skilled as a tool and die maker, an occupation he took up before he entered the Army. But he had bigger ambitions than working in a machine shop. After the war, he went to college on the GI Bill, earning a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic University and a master’s in industrial engineering from New York University. His degree got him into Western Electric, where he gained the attention of William Shockley, who recruited him to Silicon Valley.
Shockley was more than a little shocked in 1957 when Kleiner and his other recruits left Shockley Laboratories to start their own company to make silicon transistors. “There may not have been a Fairchild if it weren’t for him,” Rock says. It was Kleiner who wrote the letter to Rock, then a New York investment banker who helped finance Fairchild.
On top of its own success, Fairchild gave birth to dozens of tech companies -Advanced Micro Devices, Intel and National Semiconductor, among them. That was enough to etch Kleiner’s name in the history books.
He went on to make history in the venture capital business. Certainly there were others before him, men like Rock, Wythes and Johnson, but Kleiner and partner Tom Perkins were the first to incubate and work hand-in-hand with entrepreneurs, as they did with Tandem and Genentech.
“I devoted a lot of time with Jimmy Treybig at Tandem,” Kleiner told Forbes ASAP in May 2000 in a rare interview. “Both Tom and I were on the board, and we were almost co-founders of the company.”
Brook Byers, who along with Frank Caufield joined Kleiner Perkins in 1977, says Kleiner “was the benevolent, wise father figure. He was just a calm, wise person.” Back then Kleiner was 54 and Byers was a relatively young man of 32. He recalls going to his mentor, worried about the risk of investing in Hybritech, the first monoclonal antibody company. The biotech industry didn’t exist yet, and in those days the entire firm did one deal a year, so it was no small matter deciding which company to bet on. True to the firm’s hands-on approach, the deal also would require Byers to take a leave of absence to start and run the company. Would his career be over if the company failed?
“You should be taking these risks,” Byers recalls Kleiner telling him. “What do you want to be? Do you want to be someone who invests with others your whole career or invest in something you initiated where you are the entrepreneur?” (Hybritech went public in 1981 and was bought by Lilly for $400 million in 1986.)
As much as he loved investing in and mentoring startups, Kleiner was apparently less enthusiastic about the business of venture capital as it turned into an industry in and of itself.
He retired from Kleiner Perkins in the 1980s, very likely missing out on some of the firm’s most successful funds, a friend says. “He was not an overly material guy,” his son says. “He could have chosen a much wealthier route, but making money was not quite as important to him as enjoying how he was making it.”
Kleiner remained an active angel investor in startups like Biometric Imaging and Raven Technology. That he didn’t fund another Genentech didn’t seem to matter. It was more about the process of building.
It all goes back to engineering, says Robert Kleiner. “Whenever he was asked what he did for a living, whether it was filling out a form in a doctor’s office or meeting someone new, he always said, engineer.’ He never said businessman or venture capital guy.”
As important as Kleiner was to the technology and venture capital industries, his son remembers him for something that others may take for granted. “As busy as he was and as successful as he was, he was always home for dinner,” he says. “If he was in town, we always ate dinner together. Now I wonder, wow, how did he do that?”