How Strict Ethics Keeps ON Semiconductor Competitive

ON Semiconductor’s Sonny Cave compares the high-tech industry to a high-stakes game of chess. His role as a leader of risk, compliance, and ethics ensures that the company wins that game in the most ethical manner possible.

“Our work is in the context of a global chess game for technological leadership of the future,” says Sonny Cave of ON Semiconductor. Governmental and industrial superpowers have made the semiconductor industry a nexus of international power struggle. While American companies have traditionally led the pack, over the years Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Europe, and, more recently, China, have sought to challenge that leadership.

Sonny Cave, ON Semiconductor

“Semiconductors are the brains of technology, an essential element of everything electronic,” Cave explains. That all makes for an incredibly high-stakes chess match. And while ON Semiconductor continues to grow and become a bigger driving force in that game, Cave and his team ensure that they do so while following the rules and taking all the right risks.

Cave took an executive role with the Phoenix-based organization when it spun off from Motorola in 1999, and he has since amassed a lengthy title and list of responsibilities as executive vice president, general counsel, chief compliance and ethics officer, chief risk officer and corporate secretary, legal department. A lot has changed in the time since he joined the industry, but Cave has led his team with a constant eye to improvement and keeping the company ahead of any potential issue. “Some risks are fundamentally different to those I faced initially, and others have new twists and turns. Whoever stays the furthest ahead on identifying current risks and those coming around the corner will be the leaders,” Cave says.

How Ethics Lead to Business Success

That focus has been embraced throughout the organization, leading not only to massive growth and success, but also to ethical business practices and a powerful connection throughout the organization. In fact, Ethisphere named ON Semiconductor one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for the third year in a row in 2018—making it one of only three US semiconductor companies to join the list. That resonates with customers and suppliers, who can further trust the relationships that ON Semiconductor has established. “There’s going to be a higher level of comfort that they’re not going to get any surprises down the road,” Cave says.

To that end, many customers have named ON Semiconductor their “Supplier of the Year.” Additionally, that ethical nature has resonated with millennials, a growing factor in the talent marketplace. The company was honored by Forbes as one of America’s best large employers, and the positive environment and culture is palpable. “People come up to me in the hallways and tell me how proud they are of working for one of the world’s most ethical companies,” Cave says.

Cave’s focus on ethics doesn’t go unnoticed by his colleagues. “I’ve worked with Sonny for nearly a decade on a variety of matters, but have always been impressed by his integrity and thoughtfulness,” says Eric McCrath, co-chair of Morrison & Foerster’s M&A practice.  “His commitment to ethics is always paramount in each of his decisions.”

A Focus on Cybersecurity

That ethical nature is vital to the confidential, competitive nature of the high-tech organizations with which ON Semiconductor works. Cybersecurity becomes increasingly important as a risk management topic as well.

“We have to worry about keeping our employees’ personal information safe, but we also have to protect our strategic road maps, which we need in order to make products for them and develop products in the future,” Cave says. So, rather than have that concern siloed in one office, he stresses the need to cross-collaborate throughout the company. Once everyone understands the risks, they can create the optimal plan and then operationalize.

Though he transitioned to the organization from firm work in environmental health and safety, Cave approached the semiconductor industry with a zeal for knowledge and a drive for success. Upon first meeting the then-general counsel of Motorola seven years prior to the spin-off, Cave asked what it would take to eventually become general counsel himself. The opportunity came with the establishment of ON Semiconductor, and Cave needed to quickly get up to speed in several functional areas. “My intention was to make this place into something special,” Cave says. “Over the years, we have grown from $1.6 billion in revenue and a ranking of the forty-eighth largest semiconductor company on a global basis to now over $5 billion in revenue and a spot as a top-twenty global semiconductor supplier.”

As the US faced recession in the late 2000s, ON Semiconductor needed to reconsider how it approached risk. The struggles that companies such as Lehman Brothers faced acted as a wake-up call and a reminder that the boardroom didn’t always know how each individual management team assessed and set their risk appetite. Enterprise risk management had been a factor in the business world for decades, but it was at this point that Cave saw it as a major need for ON Semiconductor. Having been with the organization since its inception and working closely with many departments, Cave was the right person to take on enterprise risk management. “The general counsel will generally have a database of organizational information in their head because every aspect of the company has a legal issue,” he explains.

Building the Right Team to Focus on Risk

In addition to his in-depth understanding of the organization, Cave researched the state of enterprise risk management across the industry in order to set up an initial plan for the program. He also developed a robust team to execute all of the various concerns that fall under his equally robust title. That included promoting from within, bringing in top talent, and encouraging self-development.

It also includes a focus on diversity and inclusion, a topic for which Cave has been a champion since the organization’s foundation. “As a company, we believe that improving diversity enhances your capabilities, and in the high-tech industry, that means improving gender diversity,” Cave says. “Today, I would put this law department pound for pound up against anybody.” In fact, the department was named the best law department in Arizona by the Arizona Corporate Counsel in 2012, one of many awards and accolades the organization has won.

Because of his wide range of responsibilities, Cave’s day could be spent discussing topics ranging from proxy statements for a stockholder meeting to cybersecurity. His impact reaches far further, though, a fact that fills Cave with pride. His work can make a difference for employees and the company, for partners and vendors, and for customers, as well as for the world at large.

“We have a responsibility to our communities, to the governments, to humanity,” Cave says. “Foreign governments are spending billions of dollars trying to overtake American companies’ lead in the industry. Our focus on compliance and leading ethically is a very important part of our response to remain a leader in this highly competitive and ubiquitous field.”

Off the clock with Sonny Cave

Though he may spend his days in the bustling offices of ON Semiconductor, Sonny Cave’s background relates more to the great outdoors. Even before he focused in environmental health and safety in law school, Cave earned two degrees in botany and plant ecology. Now, he and his wife hike and stand-up paddleboard, just to get out into nature whenever possible.

“The real balance for me is getting out in Mother Nature and putting this whole high-tech world on the shelf for a while,” he says.

He finds his new focus on ethics naturally ties to his past as an environmentalist. “My past focused on planetary ethics, and now I’ve moved to business ethics,” he says. “But today, businesses are actually in a better position to influence planetary ethics than governments. Corporations are the ones that need to take the lead.”

Photo: Courtesy of ON Semiconductor


Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP congratulates Sonny on this extraordinary honor. His leadership over the last 19 years has helped propel ON Semiconductor to industry leadership while setting the highest ethical  standards. Quinn Emanuel is proud to work with Sonny Cave and his terrific legal team at ON Semiconductor.