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Western Digital Senior VP Faces Her Tandon Acid Test

Times Staff Writer

When Kathy Braun was turned down for a promotion with a county computer company because she is a woman, she decided that it was time for a parting of the ways.

She went to work for another local high-technology firm, Western Digital. That was the smartest career move she has ever made.

Now, 10 years later, Braun--hard driving, exuberant and described as “tough as nails"--heads Western Digital’s storage products division, which last year rang up sales of $400 million and accounted for 70% of company revenues.

$500 Million in Sales

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Braun’s division is expected to hit $500 million in sales this year, a figure that would rank it among the Fortune 500 if it were a separate company.

“I don’t know of any woman in the computer industry that’s running that big of a business,” said Karen Payne, a technology analyst with Butcher & Singer, a Philadelphia investment firm.

But Braun, a 37-year-old senior vice president, said she prefers to think of herself in different terms: “Because I’ve never particularly thought of myself as a woman in business, I’ve never let it get in my way. It’s tenacity that makes you succeed.”

Braun’s tenacity will be tested with Western Digital’s recent $80-million acquisition of Tandon Corp.'s computer disk-drive operations. The Tandon operations have spilled red ink in recent years, and the disk-drive business is as competitive as any in the computer industry.

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Turning Tandon into a money-maker “is my acid test,” said Braun, a high-spirited woman whose rapid-fire speech is often punctuated with staccato laughter.

Braun is a native of rural Wawatosa, Wis., near Milwaukee. Her father was a chemical engineer whose job required that the family move frequently, so Braun lived in Illinois, Idaho and Washington, D.C., before heading south to attend Duke University in North Carolina.

After earning a degree in biology and psychology from Duke in 1973, Braun headed for Southern California to test the job market.

Turned Down Waitress Job

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She was turned down for a receptionist’s job in an optometrist’s office (“I think he thought I wasn’t going to stay”). She was offered a a job as a cocktail waitress at a Jolly Roger restaurant but turned it down.

Eventually, Braun “stumbled” into a job with an Irvine computer company that had a training program for female college graduates. As part of the program, Braun spent time on the production line, assembling printed circuit boards, fielding customer service calls and teaching in-house computer programming classes.

“Having that broad background helped me significantly,” Braun said.

In 1978, after five years at that job, Braun decided that she wanted to go into sales. She was offered a sales position, but the move was vetoed: She was told by an executive with the firm that top management didn’t want women in sales.

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“It was the first time I’d run up against something like that,” Braun said. “I was very angry.”

Emerging From Reorganization

Braun decided to look for another job and caught on with nearby Western Digital, which was emerging from a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

In the late 1970s, Western Digital’s core business was making semiconductors, the tiny silicon chips that are at the heart of computers and other electronic equipment. But the company was beginning to look for ways to diversify.

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Braun joined Western Digital as a technical support person assigned to work on a project developing a personal computer that would be used in school systems. It was the company’s first and only attempt to build an entire computer rather than the parts that went into one.

Although the project was a flop, Braun nevertheless distinguished herself as an able manager and trouble-shooter. She was promoted to head of marketing for another new Western Digital business, manufacturing specialized computer chips that control the functions of hard disk drives used to store data in computers.

Western Digital’s decision to get into the data storage market proved to be a wise one. Today, the Irvine company is the market leader in the disk-drive business, which accounted for more than 50% of sales in 1987. And as Western Digital’s storage business has grown by leaps and bounds, so has Braun’s standing and influence in the company.

‘Grew Up With the Business’

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“I don’t think any of us thought the storage business was going to be as big as it is, or that we were going to be as successful as we have been,” Braun said. “I grew up with the business.”

About three years ago, Braun was instrumental in Western Digital’s decision to get into the business of making floppy-disk controllers for IBM-compatible personal computers. Some industry experts considered that a risky move, because the market was crowded by much larger and more experienced competitors.

But under Braun’s leadership, Western Digital’s floppy-disk business rang up sales of about $60 million last year and turned a profit.

Western Digital Chairman Roger W. Johnson praises Braun’s talents as a manager and market prognosticator. Johnson recently promoted Braun from vice president to senior vice president, a $200,000-a-year job.

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“She has an excellent understanding of the markets and has called market trends correctly just about all the time,” Johnson said.

‘Knows When to Be Aggressive’

“She has a very unique combination of aggressiveness and sensitivity. She knows when to be aggressive when it has to do with markets, products and people.”

Those who know her describe Braun as driven, highly organized, emotional and quick-witted. Intensity is her style. When she reads to relax, she reads two or three books a week.

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And when she cooks, said her husband, Michael Lewis, “she turns everything on high to get it done quickly.”

Braun, who described herself as a “real tough and demanding” boss, acknowledged that her hard-driving nature would make her a long shot in a personality contest at work:

“I expect people (in management) to work more than an eight-hour day. I expect them to do whatever it takes to get the job done. And, in this business, it generally takes more than eight hours a day.

“I am emotional. I’m passionate about my job and the business. I can get very angry. On the other hand, when you do something right, I’m very rewarding.”

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Does she think her co-workers like her?

“Like me? I wouldn’t like me if I were them,” she said with a nervous laugh.

Then she added more seriously. “I think there are a number of them that do . . . and there are probably a lot of them that don’t. That’s the nature of the game.”

Braun said she has strived to temper the “overly tenacious” part of her personality. Several years ago--after Braun had some angry run-ins with co-workers--other company managers “came to talk to me and said: ‘Kathy, you don’t have to be that strong.’ ”

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“You can’t work in an organization where people are angry at you,” she said. “You can’t constantly be a bull in a china shop.”

Braun’s typical day begins about 5:30 a.m when she and her husband, an executive for a rival computer firm, Emulex, work out in the exercise room of their Newport Beach home. The couple usually end their workout with a 2-mile jog. By 8 a.m., Braun is usually in the office to begin a workday that often doesn’t end until 12 hours later.

“It’s very hectic, very chaotic,” she said of her workday. “But in general, I love it. I mean, we’re the best in the business now. We are the largest supplier; we’re the most profitable. I am more than twice the size of my largest competitor.”

Braun said her business philosophy is simple: “People who go out to be successful for the company end up being successful personally.”

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