Cree names successor to longtime CEO

Four months after its President and CEO Chuck Swoboda announced he was retiring, Cree has named Gregg Lowe his permanent successor.
Four months after its President and CEO Chuck Swoboda announced he was retiring, Cree has named Gregg Lowe his permanent successor. file photo

LED lighting company Cree has named a permanent successor to its longtime chief executive Chuck Swoboda – giving the company its first new leader in 16 years.

The Durham-based LED lighting and semiconductor maker revealed on Monday that Gregg Lowe will be the company’s new president and CEO. Lowe’s arrival comes nearly four months after Swoboda announced he was stepping away from the company for personal reasons.

Swoboda will remain with the company until Oct. 24.

Lowe joins Cree having previously served as the CEO of Freescale Semiconductor, a company in Austin, Texas, that makes semiconductors and employs around 17,000 employees. Before that Lowe worked for nearly 30 years at Texas Instruments.

Cree employs around 2,600 people in Durham and around 6,000 in total.

Gregg Lowe joins the company having led Austin, Texas-based semiconductor maker Freescale Semiconductor. Courtesy of Cree

In his first statement as CEO of Cree, Lowe thanked his predecessor for the work he has done at the company since becoming CEO in 2001.

“I want to thank Chuck Swoboda for guiding this company for the past sixteen years. His leadership helped solidify Cree as an industry leader in multiple businesses,” Lowe said in a statement. “Cree’s innovation engine is unmatched in the industry. I am honored to be a part of this team and look forward to working with the employees and the board to establish and execute a clear vision for the company moving forward.”

The change at the top comes at a trying time for Cree. The company has struggled with declining revenue in recent years and, in February, it had to abort a planned $850 million sale of its Wolfspeed semiconductor subsidiary to Infineon, Europe’s largest semiconductor company.

The sale was meant to help accelerate growth in Cree’s core lighting business, which has declined by 21 percent over the past year. Lighting products made up 48 percent of the company’s revenue this year, which was a decline from 55 percent of revenue in 2016.

But instead of pursuing another deal – the Infineon sale was canceled after the U.S. government raised objections on grounds of national security – Cree decided to keep Wolfspeed.

Wolfspeed, which is based in Durham and has 550 employees, makes power components that are used in computer servers and RF transistors used in radar systems. Wolfspeed is the only part of Cree’s three main business segments to see growth over the past year – its revenues increased 25 percent, from $176 million to $221 million.

Investment research firm CFRA said the hiring of Lowe made sense given his background in the semiconductor industry.

“We believe Mr. Lowe’s work in the industrial and consumer markets will be an asset and ... he can help with Cree’s intent to penetrate into the automotive space,” Angelo Zino wrote in a note.

Zino also noted that Lowe has experience closing deals with other semiconductor companies, having done so while at Freescale and Texas Instruments. Cree has said in the past it would be looking for potential acquisitions to bolster its lighting business.

In its most recent quarterly earnings, Cree posted revenue of $359 million, an 8.1 percent decrease from the $388 million in revenue a year prior.

For its full fiscal year, revenues were down 9.3 percent, declining from $1.62 billion in 2016 to $1.47 billion this year.

Shares of Cree were trading at $25.91 at noon Monday after its hiring of Lowe, up 3.72 percent.

Before Monday’s surge, Cree’s stock had declined 6.1 percent since the beginning of the year. Over the same period of time, the Nasdaq was up more than 18 percent.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes