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AMD’s Lisa Su: I ‘can return this company to making a lot of money’

As Lisa Su passes her three-year anniversary as CEO of AMD this month, the turnaround she has orchestrated has been dramatic.

Advanced Micro Devices, with the launch of Ryzen Mobile, is completing what can only be called a revolutionary year for the company.

AMD’s AMD, -2.64% processor is aimed at Intel’s INTC, +1.40% seventh- and eighth-generation Core processors in ultra-thin and 2-in-1 notebooks.

With more than 10 major product launches this year, including Ryzen, Threadripper, Vega, EPYC, the upcoming Xbox One X and Thursday’s Ryzen Mobile, AMD has completely restructured its product portfolio.

CEO Lisa Su said in an interview with me Thursday that this shift is “perhaps one of the most ambitious product ramps that has been done, certainly in AMD’s lifetime.”

It’s hard to dispute that claim.

Hitting at Intel, Nvidia

Ryzen Mobile is one of the most important launches. I have previously written about how this new architecture could threaten Intel INTC, +1.40% and Nvidia NVDA, +1.05% with performance improvements on both the processor and graphics portions of the chip. Because the ultra-thin and 2-in-1 notebook space is the largest of the PC business, and that AMD has largely been absent from the premium segments of this market for years, the underdog has a lot potential ground to gain back from Intel.

Ryzen Mobile combines the best design points of Zen, the company’s latest processor architecture, and of Vega, its most recent and modern graphics architecture, into a single product. No other company has the ability to build premium processing cores of both categories and merge them into a single chip. AMD has been planning to use this advantage for more than a decade.

OEM system partners HP HPQ, -0.69% Lenovo and Acer have announced products that will ship this quarter in time for holiday buying. Getting retail space and commitments from top notebooks vendors has been a key priority for the company in the buildup to this release.

“I have spent time with many of the top retailers detailing our commitment to the PC space,” Su said when asked how AMD can push its way into a segment that Intel has controlled for so long. “Scale is important, choice is important.”

More Ryzen Mobile products

The CEO is confident that not only will the systems launching this year have an impact, but many more design wins will be found on shelves using Ryzen Mobile starting in January.

AMD said commercial systems using Ryzen Mobile will be available in the first half of next year as well, addressing the enterprise, and small and midsize business markets.

And for the most part, this has gone exactly as AMD had planned. Though Su, who has a doctorate in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, admitted that this business is “never without its twists or turns,” the steps from desktop consumer processors, to server processors, to high-end desktops and, finally, mobile have resulted in competitive products that are gaining momentum across the board.

This progression was based on the optimization time lines that a new CPU architecture would require, giving the most time for Ryzen Mobile as it faced the toughest technological hurdles. Getting a complex processor and graphics architecture to operate at high performance but within the thermal limits of a mobile form factor is challenging, and placing the mobile designs at the tail of the product pipeline gives AMD the best chance of success.

Enthusiast market

Now that we are a few quarters into these new architectures, AMD seems upbeat about the response that consumer products like Ryzen and Threadripper have received.

“I’m very happy with how Ryzen has ramped, especially in the enthusiast market, where consumers are very savvy about processors,” Su said.

Ryzen has seen incredibly high market share in the do-it-yourself and consumer markets, nearing 50% at key retailers like Amazon AMZN, -0.05% and Newegg. The rollout to OEMs and system builders takes more time as the platforms go through scheduled platform validations.

“We put ourselves back in the high-end conversation,” Su said.

High-end markets

Getting back into the high-end markets for PCs is a big deal. From a financial standpoint, the rise in share and demand for Ryzen will help AMD as the shift in unit shipments moves toward those new processors. AMD’s latest quarterly results showed a 74% revenue increase for the Compute Group (covering processors and graphics) and a large portion of that is because of higher ASPs (average selling prices) of Ryzen processors.

Higher pricing is good for the brand too, as it can reshape the way people think about AMD. Su said she wants AMD to “be associated with high-performance computing.”

Other areas of AMD’s portfolio have been transformed as well. Vega is the company’s latest graphics architecture and it offers competing performance in high priced markets for the first time in a couple years. Adoption and sales have exceeded its previous high-end architecture, Fiji, at the same point post-release.

‘All upside’

Though the competition from Nvidia on the consumer and enterprise fronts remains strong, having an option in the game gives AMD a lift. The Instinct brand that targets machine learning, artificial intelligence and enterprise compute servers is ramping quickly, Su said, and that it is “all upside” as this is a “market we haven’t been overly present in for many, many years.”

AMD said in its quarterly earnings release Oct. 24 that the MI25 product was already shipping to multiple cloud data-center customers for AI workloads.

The EPYC server processor family that launched in June is seeing accelerated engagement from customers, Su said. There is a long tail to enterprise platform adoption, and AMD has previously said it expects a four- to six-quarter ramp for EPYC. But with three of the “Super 7” enterprise data center customers already publicly involved with EPYC systems and evaluation, this is another area that AMD can claim success in with almost any share gain away from Intel.

Volatile stock price

Despite positive numbers from AMD’s most recent quarterly report, investors reacted negatively, pushing down the stock to $12 Thursday from $14.25 earlier in the week. Su contended she is “very proud of what we have accomplished with the financials of this company,” and that projected 20% year-over-year growth in its full-year guidance, adding another $1 billion to revenue, proves that its long-term strategy is working.

As Su passes her three-year anniversary as CEO this month, the turnaround that she has overseen is drastic and covers nearly every aspect of the product families and IP portfolio that AMD holds.

Su told me that if AMD can continue to grow at an above-average rate compared with the rest of the market, she “can return this company to making a lot of money.”

It’s clear that investors still have doubts, and they will demand to see multiple quarters of execution.

“That’s our job to prove,” Su said.

Ryan Shrout is the founder and lead analyst at Shrout Research, and the owner of PC Perspective. Follow him on Twitter

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