Science background gave ASU alum skills to become global tech executive
Arizona State University alumnus George “Sonny” Cave is no stranger to building things from the ground up. Whether he was pursuing little-studied areas of scientific research or establishing a team of lawyers for a large tech company from scratch, Cave spent his professional life discovering his niche by carving his own trail.
After completing his bachelor’s degree in botany from Duke University in 1980, Cave headed west for his master’s degree program in botany and plant ecology at ASU. During his time at ASU, he conducted research on desert fire ecology, a topic that had been virtually unexplored at the time. Upon the completion of his master’s degree in 1982, Cave became interested in environmental law and attended the University of Colorado Law School, where he earned his Juris Doctor in 1985.
Over the next several years he practiced law in a variety of roles including as a judicial law clerk for the Arizona Court of Appeals, as an environmental lawyer in Colorado and as an environmental, health and safety lawyer in Phoenix. Through this work he became well-connected in the Phoenix law community and was asked to apply for a position in Motorola’s new in-house law department on environmental health and safety. Cave was eager to expand his reach internationally and saw the position at Motorola, a multinational telecommunication company, as the perfect opportunity.
From 1992 on, Cave built his career at Motorola, transitioning with the company as a portion of its semiconductor business spun-off into ON Semiconductor in 1999 and leading trailblazing work by assembling a worldwide law department focusing on environmental health and safety.
Cave continues to oversee ON Semiconductor’s growing law department, in addition to serving in a number of other roles within the company.
“When we first formed this company, we were ranked about the 48th or 49th semiconductor company in the world and I started out with just two people on the team,” Cave said. “Over the years ON Semiconductor has grown to become a top 20 semiconductor company and a Fortune 500 company. I've grown this law department now to over 60 people and have taken on other roles besides general counsel.”
As executive vice president, chief compliance officer, chief risk officer and board secretary for ON Semiconductor, Cave manages worldwide legal affairs, corporate compliance and ethics, enterprise risk management, securities and insider trading and intellectual property as well as governmental and external affairs. With ON Semiconductor bringing in $5 billion in revenue in 2019, factories located in 10 different countries, and more than 34,000 employees around the world, Cave said there’s never a dull moment in his work.
“My favorite part is I never stop learning. I'm actually the last person remaining from the original executive staff when we started the company in 1999. Just when I think I've got it all figured out and you can't throw anything at me that I haven't already seen, sure enough stuff comes into the door that I would've never even thought of,” he said. “That's one thing that I really like about this work. Especially right now with all the challenges we have — I had a lot of plans for this year and now everything is turned upside down.”
This fall, Cave will be recognized as one of The College Leaders, a distinguished group of alumni from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who have achieved personal successes in business, research and community service.
Cave shared his Sun Devil story, career trajectory and how a science background set him up for success.
Question: Why did you decide to attend ASU?
Answer: I grew up on the East Coast. Growing up my father was a university professor at the University of Tampa, Florida and during the summers he was a seasonal ranger with the National Park Service. Because of that he had a lot of summers up in Colorado and during those times I spent time visiting out West. When I applied to graduate schools, I only looked at schools out West. I put ASU at the top of my list actually, because it's always about connections. The person who was then the chair of the botany and microbiology department, Duncan Patton, had gotten his PhD in botany from Duke University, where I had just recently graduated from. A lot of professors that I had at Duke kept telling me I should go study under him because we think alike and have very similar interests in plant ecology. I had a couple of phone calls with him and we hit it off. I got an assistantship with full tuition paid and stipend money. I just had this gut feeling that the desert was an interesting place to be. And as it turns out, throughout the course of my life, I've actually moved to Arizona four times now.
Q: How did your program help prepare you for your career?
A: Prior to the work I did on desert fire ecology hardly anybody had researched it. So kind of being in that pioneering spirit and doing something new — having to find resources that people didn't have readily available at the time. For example, I had to work with the U.S. Forest Service to find a study site and get permission to do a controlled burn. Also just learning from other graduate students and getting involved in the diversity of work they were doing. Harvesting the whole scientific discipline and doing something new and different really set me up for my career.
Q: What advice would you give to students in The College?
A: My biggest advice is to really follow your passion. I could have benefited from spending more time really exploring my inner self versus just kind of moving along in the direction people were pushing me. At the end of the day you have to really be happy with yourself and you need to find out who you are. There's only so much other people can do. You can have good coaching but it really takes a lot of self-reflection and having a meditative aspect to your life. I think nowadays with so many threats that are out there, it's a good thing for people to try to really figure out what’s important to them, and then focus their time and energy on that and not be distracted by the noise we are surrounded by.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish in 10 years?
A: Because I've ended up doing a lot of work with China I am really focused on what we can do to improve the situation there, both from a business and political point of view. There's so many limited things I can do, but I just want to try to get to a situation where we have better cooperation. The other thing I’d like to accomplish has to do with global climate change and getting the catalyst of action going on that. When I do decide to hang up my corporate spurs and retire, I intend to focus a lot of my personal energy on that.