The much-praised leadership of Willem Maris, ASML CEO from 1990 to 1999, didn’t develop under the influence of the headstrong crowd in Veldhoven. It was more or less innate to him, according to the stories of colleagues who knew him from early on in his career at Philips.
Willem Maris was known for his loose management style. He liked to be among people and had little to do with hierarchy. You don’t hear much about his mischief, but some former employees, particularly former members of ASML’s works council, say that he could also be arrogant and elitist at times. Bottom line is, he was a team player, someone who recognized the power in people and motivated them to use that energy for ASML.
In 1993, Maris prevented current top executive and ASML’s technological brains, Martin van den Brink, from moving to American machine builder Varian. When the ASML CEO got wind of Van den Brink’s imminent departure through a phone call from a contact in the US, he told his wife, “If Martin leaves, it’s over and done with.” On his return from that infamous US trip, Van den Brink found his boss waiting for him – “Brink, you’re not going to do anything weird” – and, thus, Maris stopped his most important technician from leaving. It’s probably his most important contribution to ASML.
There are still plenty of stories about Maris – there’s a royal aura about him. I was fortunate to also get a glimpse into his early career at Philips. Several interviewees with a link to lithography turned out to have crossed his path at the light bulb company – in the 1980s, during the Megachip project at Philips Elcoma, and in the 1970s, during the Glasmini project at the Philips Natuurkundig Laboratorium (Natlab). In the latter stronghold, he worked as a man of the product division, collaborating with the researchers on a miniature sensor for moving images. Both Mega and Glasmini didn’t go down well for Maris, but the stories about his approach at the Natlab speak volumes about the way he got things done.
Within the Glasmini project, Frits Klostermann’s group at the Natlab developed a small image sensor, a two-finger long glass tube filled with electronics. This was a portable version of Philips’ renowned Plumbicon image sensor for TV cameras. For that miniaturization effort, Philips Elcoma leaned heavily on the Natlab. Glasmini was divided into some twenty subprojects.
At the time, Philips people from the research and product divisions lived on different planets. To avoid political games and keep relations on an even keel, ‘product man’ Maris devised the concept of the “circle lord.” This was intended to convey that everyone was on the same level. Maris did give himself and three other protagonists a central place in the organization, but it was all about the flat structure. It was his way of avoiding hassle.
Plumbicon group leader Klostermann, who worked as a researcher at the Natlab on pre-stepper lithography, still keeps a memento that he received from Maris in 1978: a framed picture with all the circle lords and some prototype Glasmini tubes. Klostermann’s recollections about Maris’ philosophy at the time: “He wanted to prevent leaders of subprojects from claiming special privileges. So they weren’t given formal project function titles. Instead, Maris coined the term ‘circle lord.’ Nobody knew what that was and that was the beauty of it.”
If you study the plaque, you’ll notice that Maris himself appears a few times on the border of the big circle and also in the center. Klostermann: “I don’t know if I was a circle lord myself. I don’t think so. Like Maris, I stand as one of the four people in the center. You could say it’s a queen structure, like in a beehive. Maris in the center, together with the heads of research, development and commerce.”
According to Klostermann, Maris organized it in such a way that no one knew exactly who was responsible for what. “But we were going to make it. He was original and a fun leader of the project. I was happy.”
So what was so great about Maris? Klostermann: “His ability to put things into perspective. He didn’t pretend to be important. Willem was certainly a special guy, but he didn’t need to say, ‘Here I am.’ That was nice.”
Maris even took his own room at the lab in Waalre and spoke to everyone regularly, from assistants to group leaders. He always knew how to find the right person, says Piet Kramer, the deputy director at the Natlab. A born communicator, he knocked on Kramer’s door every two or three months. Often unannounced, always cheerful. At such times, he would report to the deputy director off the cuff. How Glasmini was progressing and what he was up against. Always with a good portion of charm. Kramer enjoyed seeing his researchers working for Maris.
Marino Carasso, not a circle lord himself but someone who witnessed the Glasmini developments closely as a member of Klostermann’s group, adds: “Maris was with us two to three days a week, working on the project.” With his presence, he influenced the team, says Carasso. “He talked to everyone. In that way, he did influence the research, but he wasn’t being hierarchical. After all, our people knew what was going on; he didn’t. But he did know clearly where he wanted to go. People were quite surprised about the construction with those circle lords, but that informal structure was recognizable. That worked well.”
With Glasmini, it didn’t work out. It’s a telling example of first-mover disadvantage. The glass recording tubes were supposed to emulate the success of Philips’ Plumbicon recording tubes for studio cameras. However, the Glasmini sensors were no match for the much more compact CCD chips that the Japanese put in their camcorders. It was a lesson Maris took with him to ASML.